The concept of solutions journalism is new to me but opens up a whole new world of the way we can report on stories. So often we are tempted to be advocates instead of objective, but solutions journalism gives us the special opportunity to highlight the subject’s humanity, and also the humanity of those who are making a change to help these people. Solutions journalism in general is very powerful, but visuals make it much more compelling. Whether it’s done in a video or photo form, it can make a big impact on the audience or reader.
Kriston Jaee Bethel explains the process of reporting on a sensitive topic in his article “What This Photojournalist Thinks of Solutions Journalism.” He was asked to report on female prisoners who can pump breastmilk for their babies. It’s a sensitive story in every aspect, so he had to be careful in how he went about reporting on it, especially as a man. He asked for advice from an expert, who gave him some valuable advice that really stood out and will always stick with me. Vox visual editor Kainaz Amaria said,
“If you’re trying to cover a solution, don’t become part of the problem.”
There would be so many opportunities for photos that portray them as sad and traumatized, but that would add to the problem and portraying the women in that light would be dehumanizing, especially when the actual story is about giving them the freedom to care for their babies in some way while incarcerated.
In “Thinking Inclusion + Equity in Solutions Photojournalism,” Tara Pixley gives an interesting definition of solutions journalism.
“Exemplary journalism highlights the commonalities between human struggles. Solutions journalism unpacks attempts to mitigate those struggles.”
She reminds us that we all have some biases, privileges, or even life experiences and how that could affect the way that we tell stories. It’s not a matter of getting rid of them, but finding a way to not tell your stories through those frameworks. In visual solutions journalism these can show themselves through symbolism in the photos and videos we take. She also encourages visual solution journalists to see their subjects as more than victims, and also to portray them as holistic beings.
“We’re telling their stories; in order to do so accurately and truthfully, we need to move beyond their victimization.”
The solutions journalism article I chose is called “Paralyzed Patients Walk Again With Help From Pain Stimulator.” The University of Louisville developed a pain stimulator and therapy program which so far is helping 5 paralyzed people walk again. The pain stimulator is implanted on their spinal cords and sends signals to a bundle of nerves in the epidural layer. With the help of specialized therapy, the spinal cord can relearn how to walk.
This article demonstrates solutions journalism by focusing more on the device and the therapy techniques. The writer did talk about the 5 people who were paralyzed and now able to walk, but they weren’t the main focus of the story. What really made the story interesting to me was the visual aspects. It is published with 4 photos and a video. Most of the photos show what the patients can do and the therapists helping them, as opposed to what they couldn’t do. One of the photos was a close up of a therapist’s hands holding the device, and it really made me think about whether or not it was considered solutions journalism. The whole story collectively is, but this particular photo isn’t since it doesn’t clearly show the problem and solution in a way that the audience can understand.
The video, however, doesn’t rely on raw emotions and dehumanizing moments to tell the story, but on the solution itself and that it’s a medical miracle. It humanizes the patients by showing how they can walk and why, not how sad it is that they were paralyzed.
Another Solutions Journalism story example comes from Vox, written by David Roberts, and is part of a series of stories about Barcelona building 500 superblocks. Nine blocks, which blocked off traffic from these spaces. It was originally done to help air pollution, but they found that it gave people more space to walk through the streets and it gave bicyclists more room. The solutions journalism visuals in this story are vital, as it’s a confusing concept to just read about. The photos show ordinary people going about their ordinary life, but with large open spaces in the streets that are utilized in useful ways. The video was very helpful in understanding the layout of these superblocks, but I felt like it also crossed a line in solutions journalism. My understanding is that solution journalists can show solutions and the problem, but not outright suggest that the audience do something. The journalist in this video suggests that the United States try this model. It is a good suggestion, but may not be the solutions journalism standard.
Kyser Lough sums up studies done on this topic in his article, “The Research Behind Visuals and Solutions Journalism.” He gives two categories of solutions journalism visuals: the images, and the image effects. The takeaways from the studies on images is that it’s important to have internal photographers work on a story instead of using stock photos, and that images should show both the problem and the response. It makes sense to me that photographers who already know the story would have better photos because they have a framework to use when taking the photos.
The takeaways from the image effect studies were that solutions journalism images tend to have a positive effect on the audience, though it often varies by topic. This is understandable because not every solution story can be positive enough to invoke a positive effect on an audience.
Lisa Waanen Jones teaches a visual communications class at Washington State University and experimented with implementing solutions journalism into her curriculum, and shared some of her findings in her article titled “Lessons from one semester of solutions journalism photo essays.” One of her findings that really stood out to me is that solutions journalism is emphasizes the “howdunnit” narrative. It should not only show that there needs to be a change-making reaction, it should also show how to do it. Another point she brought up is that it’s difficult to show the evidence of impact. Jones said,
“Photography is about the symbolic moment rather than the full perspective, which is both a strength and a weakness.”
She also noted that learning solutions journalism was useful for many different majors, such as nonprofits, public health campaigns, crisis communications, and corporate storytelling. After reading her experience, I think teaching solutions journalism earlier on in undergrad classes would be helpful.
My overall takeaway from these articles is that, although it’s a new concept to me for journalism, it’s also just a basic mentality in how we should treat other people. We should always seek to empathize with people and to find solutions to the political, social, and environmental issues.