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Engaging communities through solutions journalism

“In local news the only thing they report on are bad things, only negative things …they are not showing us how to change the community.”

“What I have to do is just block myself away from that. Shut the news up because it ain’t nothing but an ignorant box anyway.”

-South Los Angeles focus group discussion participants

How can a solutions-oriented approach to journalism affect communities where reporting tends to focus on crime, poverty, and other problems?

As Tow Fellows, we have been working in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Metamorphosis Project, led by Dr. Sandra Ball-Rokeach, to understand how residents process news about where they live. We investigated local, community-engaged, solutions-oriented journalism in the context of South Los Angeles, an area with a long history of negative coverage.

Solutions-oriented journalism builds upon the concepts of peace journalism and civic journalism in highlighting responses to social problems and engaging residents in coverage. The strongest stories use the rigor of investigative reporting to explore systemic problems and critically examine efforts to address them that have the potential to be scaled. While they highlight positive outcomes, these are not simply ‘good news’ puff pieces.

In October and November, we conducted six focus group discussions with 48 African American and Latino South L.A. residents. Participants were invited to read either a solutions or non-solutions version of a story produced as part of our Watts Revisited collaboration, which worked with local media to report solutions-oriented stories about social issues in South LA. Moderators, who shared participants’ ethnic background, led discussions about attitudes and behaviors regarding local news and these particular stories.

The focus group participants offered insights into how residents of a stigmatized community navigate and interpret local coverage, and the opportunities and limitations of solutions journalism to engage these audiences. We will be releasing a full report in January, but our preliminary findings include:

  • Participants largely responded favorably to the problem-solving orientation of solutions journalism. “News needs to be an actual participant in what’s happening rather than just reporting on it…” one said. “It needs to be a part of the change.” But enthusiasm was tempered by concerns with the larger context of systemic inequality.
  • Participants described how given their distrust, particularly of local television, they valued online news and social media as a way to cross-check stories and and seek alternative community information.
  • Participants reported they would be more likely seek out news and share stories with friends and family if solutions-oriented stories were more common.

Other research has found similar results on a larger scale. The Solutions Journalism Network and the Engaging News Project have shown readers of solutions-oriented versions of stories indicated they are more likely than readers of traditional versions to want to seek out similar stories, share them on social media, and get involved in responses to problems. That research primarily used stories on a national and international level. Our project built on their work, asking how solutions journalism would be received at the local level—where community members have the greatest chance of effecting change.

Our project also, critically, builds upon research the Metamorphosis Project has been doing on the communication needs of residents in South L.A. and other diverse communities since 1998.  Researchers found that more cohesive communities tend to have stronger ‘storytelling networks’—that is, residents, local and ethnic media, and community organizations are connected to each other and share an understanding about what is happening in their community. Often in communities like South L.A., these networks become problematic when the link between organizations and media is weak, or the content of the stories circulating are overwhelmingly negative. Residents who connect to such storytelling networks tend to be less engaged and lack a sense of belonging. It was for this reason that the Metamorphosis project sought to connect local media with community organizations to produce a series of solutions-oriented stories.

We can offer the following recommendations for follow-up and additional research:

  • Expanding opportunities for resident and community organization involvement in various stages of the story development and dissemination process.
  • Inviting local television to participate would address concerns identified by focus group participants and expand project reach.
  • Creating more resources for local news. Local solutions journalism will only have limited success unless larger structural and resources issues within journalism are addressed. Local solutions journalism requires an investment of resources and time.
  • Cultivating reporters who come from the communities they report on—or at a minimum, enable reporters to embed themselves such that they are responsive to local sensitivities, foster trust and understand concerns regarding representation.

Additional research on local solutions journalism may further our understanding of the format’s potential:

  • Comparing the cumulative consumption of media diets that have either a greater number of solutions-oriented stories or more traditional stories.
  • Duplicating the current study in other areas of the same city to see how residents from different ethnic and class backgrounds may respond to stories which are in close proximity but concern an “other”.

Solutions-oriented journalism does not offer a magic bullet to engaging audiences either as media consumers or civic actors. However, we believe, particularly in communities with a long history of negative coverage, stories featuring community perspectives that take a critical look at responses to social problems offer an opportunity to strengthen connections between residents, media, and community organizations. At the end of all of our discussion sessions, participants asked us how they could learn more about the issues raised in these stories. Many wanted to get involved. We hope our study may offer some insights for other researchers, media, and community organizations as they explore how local news may become a more constructive actor in engaged and informed communities.