The question as to what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘quality’ journalism continues to be the focus of much debate today. Central to this discourse is the need to preserve journalism’s normative role of informing the citizenry and that of holding public officials accountable, commonly referred to as the watchdog role. This role is said to be weakening owing to tensions precipitated by radical technological and economic factors, low levels of public trust and the rise of fake news. This current state of flux has recently been accelerated by the ongoing global health pandemic, thereby reinforcing what practitioners and scholars have long argued: that the current practice of journalism needs to be reframed, if it is to preserve its legitimacy.
One idea that is gaining traction is solutions journalism. Envisioned as a more ‘constructive’ and ‘productive’ reporting style, solutions journalism is said to offer more rigor, comprehensive and compelling reporting on responses to social problems, according to the Solutions Journalism Network; an organization that promotes the practice. In essence, solutions journalism seeks to highlight the efforts being made to address various societal problems, as opposed to an over-emphasis on conflict and negativity, reminiscent of mainstream news media. The latter, scholars argue, has resulted in weary and apathetic news audiences that have disengaged from the news and civic life. And in response to critics, solutions journalism proponents and researchers have argued that it should not be confused with ‘good’, ‘fluff’ or ‘positive’ news, nor advocacy journalism. If anything, solutions journalism seeks to cover solutions critically and accurately, but without endorsing them.
In practical terms, one needs to look no further than the media coverage of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to justify the need for solutions-oriented reporting. For instance, a spot check of the headlines by Kenya’s press, gives a sense that the coverage has generally been characterized by negative political and polarizing undertones considering headlines such as The Daily Nation’s ‘Corona Virus: Why Kenya is dancing with death’ (2/28/20), The Star’s ‘Fight against COVID-19 Losing Steam’ (Editorial 9/6/20) or The Standard’s ‘COVID-19: Why you are more likely to be infected in Mombasa than in Nairobi’ (6/24/20). Besides, the coverage has been rife with speculations and on-the-surface stories that narrowly focus on statistical cumulations of the infected and the dead, without providing adequate context. This may perhaps be because the coverage has mainly regurgitated verbatim daily live briefings by Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe, whose speeches were recently characterized as lacking persuasiveness, in an analysis by the Sunday Nation. Indeed, this kind of media coverage has not been unique to Kenya’s media.
Cardiff University professor Karin Wahl Jörgensen found the use of frightening language in 100 high circulation newspapers from around the world in a study analyzing initial Covid-19 news coverage. Jörgensen found fear-related words such as ‘afraid’ in more than 1,000 published articles with at least 50 of those referencing the phrase ‘killer virus’. Jörgensen’s conclusion was that the prominence of fear in the news coverage reflected the public fear more than being informative about the spread of the virus. Jörgensen’s findings have been supported by other studies that have found accentuated fear and politicized and polarized news coverage, which in turn may have shaped Covid-19 attitudes.
Of course, the media’s propensity towards fear-mongering and negativity is not news. This negativity bias has been referred to in some scholarly circles as the disease model of the world that emphasizes negative emotions such as fear, anger, conflict and dissent, resulting in a distorted reality. Moreover, the prevalence of negativity in the news media is often justified as necessary owing to increased commercial pressures that compel media institutions to push for more sensational content that is likely to attract more clicks or views. In turn this is used to leverage advertising.
Solutions journalism can therefore provide a basis for journalism to introspect on its unique agenda setting position to package and produce content that can positively impact public opinion.
The negative bias notwithstanding, there has been evidences of productive and in many ways, solutions-oriented reporting in the global media coverage of the pandemic. For instance, Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation, has been featuring an Explainer column, where more in-depth perspectives about the ongoing pandemic are provided. This in addition to other daily news stories that feature stories of hope and resilience, albeit in varying degrees. The Solutions Journalism Story Tracker has also been regularly updating its database of solutions-oriented Covid-19 global news reports.
In view of the preceding overview, I argue therefore that solutions journalism can provide a complementary framework for strengthening the practice of journalism in Kenya, and by extension Africa’s journalism practice. I use the phrase complimentary, granted that there have been journalistic frameworks that share the same news philosophy as solutions journalism that have featured in the Kenyan journalism discourse at varied points of its history. For instance, peace journalism has been recommended as a suitable approach, especially when it comes to election news coverage granted the nation’s history with election related violence.
There is also development journalism, which calls on the media to act as ‘change agents’ as they ‘partner’ with the government in nation building. By highlighting successful development projects, Kenyan journalists can use solutions journalism to counter Western negative stereotypical narratives that reinforce Afro-pessimism.
Moreover, journalism training institutions can broaden their curricula to include solutions-oriented reporting, which could help promote professionalism. The rationale here is that better trained journalists inevitably produce quality, well-researched stories; an underlying aim of solutions journalism. Besides, solutions journalism can help counter the aforementioned ‘disease model’ of the world by focusing on stories about what’s working in society.
Furthermore, journalists have a moral obligation and social responsibility beyond their watchdog role, to present holistic coverage that enhances societal wellbeing. In addition, motivated by the desire to promote quality journalism, traditional news media outlets can apply solutions journalism to attract and bring back audiences who have turned to alternative news sites in search of quality content. Indeed, this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report indicates that even though there has been a high uptake of online news content, most people still identify television as their main news source.
For instance, in Kenya, 74% of news consumers turn to television as their news source, almost as high as online news sources which average at 90%, according to the report.
Already, solutions journalism training has taken place in parts of Africa, albeit in varying degrees. There is also scholarly evidence that solutions journalism can play a significant role in the promotion of Peace Keeping Activities in Somalia, or in the promotion of restorative narratives in the reconstruction of post-genocide Rwanda and in Kenya, demonstrating how vernacular radio stations could apply the social responsibility theory of the press (whose chief purpose is concern for the public good) as a way of promoting positive ethnicity.
Consequently, while solutions journalism as a news philosophy presents many opportunities for the strengthening of journalism practice in Kenya and by extension Africa; it is certainly not a quick fix. Long-standing political economic challenges, ownership constraints and other social-cultural constraints, must be addressed if the successful implementation of solutions journalism is to be realized.
Already there are positive indications that these challenges are being addressed, albeit slowly. For instance, in Kenya, there are ongoing efforts to professionalize journalism through the development of the media code of conduct, formation of professional bodies, as well as the establishment of several journalism training institutions. And all these efforts only work in concert with the individual journalist’s will to practically effect positive changes.
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