Why it’s time for visual journalism to include a solutions focus


Director of Communications at World Press, David Campbell, shares his thoughts on photojournalism and the need for a ‘constructive’ or ‘solutions’ approach to journalism.  This article was originally published on Witness.

I have long been concerned with what photographs do—and what we want them to do—in visualizing human rights issues. I think by reframing the conversation about photography to focus on the image’s purpose and impact, away from a preoccupation with what pictures are, we can have a much more productive discussion.

On February 3, 2018, the World Press Photo Foundation did just that. I moderated a session at the Human Rights Weekend in Amsterdam with Marcus Bleasdale, Anastasia Taylor-Lind, and Tara Todras-Whitehill—three photographers who have dedicated much of their time and talent to documenting human rights issues around the world. Each of them talked about stories they produced to prompt action, from conflict in the Central African Republic, to abortion rights in Nepal, and the recent Rohingya refugee crisis in Burma. You can see a recording of the discussion here.

Images and action

One of the things that must be done in any discussion about the relationship between images and action is to understand that pictures, by themselves, do not change the world. The Open Society statement on documentary photography puts this position best:

Images have the power to highlight stories that aren’t gaining sufficient traction and to amplify a diversity of perspectives…Tackling systemic issues — such as corruption and discrimination — is complex work that involves multiple actors and years of organizing, advocacy, or litigation. We believe that photographers can be more effective when connecting to those who are already working towards change in an ongoing way.

This understanding of the complexity of change is something Marcus Bleasdale appreciates well, and it is one of the reasons I’ve written previously about his work (here and here).

Another thing that needs to be done in any discussion of the purpose and impact of photographs is to think about the journalistic frame in which they appear. Often that frame is negative and focused only on problems. In this article, I want to argue that it is time for visual journalism to more thoroughly incorporate a “constructive journalism” or “solutions journalism” approach into its way of working. I will be arguing that this approach can provide better reports and significantly help the level of audience engagement with difficult stories.

If we want to understand how visual storytellers can get their audience to engage with the important situations they report upon, we need to better understand audience behavior. When we consider studies of how audiences react and respond to the news, we find contradictory impulses.

Negativity bias

People are drawn to bad news. According to psychological research, there is a “negativity bias” which means people spend more time on negative information, believing and remembering it more. Some studies in political science even show that readers are more likely to click on negative headlines than positive ones and that negative stories have more impact on a voter’s view of a candidate and more influence over their voting behavior. (This research is summarized and referenced here.) This negativity bias is evident in the fact that 19 of the 20 most clicked stories on the BBC News website in 2015 were dramatic, negative stories.

While it may be true that audiences are drawn to bad news, it’s also possible that they feel bad about the news they’re drawn to. Political studies have shown negative messages cause audiences to stop seeking information. Research on humanitarian campaigns has found a “boomerang effect” where audiences resent being made to feel guilty and then become skeptical about the crisis or problem being highlighted (Sources). According to David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg:

We know from psychological research that a steady diet of news about violence, corruption and incompetence leads to increased fear, learned helplessness, hopelessness, cynicism, depression, isolation, hostility, contempt and anxiety.

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(Left) Mumtaz Begum, 30—Tu Lar To Li massacre survivor. Mumtaz saw her 3 children killed in front of her. She and one surviving daughter managed to escape a burning house. Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Middle) Mohammed Ayub, 10 — Sho Pran massacre survivor. Mohammed was shot. Thaing Khali refugee camp, Cox’s bazar, Bangladesh. (Right) Saidur Rahman, 20 — Sho Pran massacre survivor. Saidur’s sister was killed and his 12-year-old brother is missing. Thaing Khali refugee camp, Cox’s bazar, Bangladesh. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind for Human Rights Watch, 2017.


What next?

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that audiences are also looking for something different to the negative news that attracts them in the first place. BBC Audience Research has found that approximately half of the 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK “agree or strongly agree” that they want their news to provide possible solutions in addition to the problems they are reporting on. This study also found this desire was even stronger outside of Europe: “75% of Indians, 78% of Nigerians and 82% of Kenyans of all ages want their news to provide solutions and not just problems.”

The BBC Audience Research team asked about solutions after finding that young audiences especially indicated a feeling that there was too much bad news. As Emily Kasriel said:

The researchers found that audiences don’t want news organisations themselves to solve the problems of the world, but rather to move beyond looking at ‘what happened’ and ‘why’ to also include ‘what next’ and ‘how have these problems been tackled in other parts of the world?’

Challenging journalism, changing the frame

This demand for reports that deal with “what next” confronts two of journalism’s traditional tenets. The first is that news deals not only with current and noteworthy events; it is essentially defined as what is going wrong. The second is that journalism has an often unstated theory of social change whereby news is meant to make the world better by showing what is going wrong. The problem with this, Kasriel argues, is that:

The way that many journalists select, frame and tell stories, by focusing on dramatic events and problems and rarely on what is working, gives audiences a distorted picture of the world — a picture in which problems are rarely solvable.

This incomplete coverage is why in recent years there has been a movement to develop the idea of constructive journalismsolutions journalism or solutions-focused journalism. The most extensive presentation of these ideas is in Cathrine Gyldensted’s book From Mirrors to Movers. While antecedents to this approach can be found in the civic, public and peace journalism proposals of prior decades, what characterizes the constructive/solutions approach is the desire to break out of either/or options and maintain journalistic rigor while challenging the frame and adding elements to journalism’s conventional self-understanding.

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A woman sleeps next to her newborn child, as she recuperates after giving birth at the Paropakar Maternity and Women’s Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, July 10, 2017. Nepal legalized abortion 15 years ago, and public and private facilities have been set up to provide the procedure. However, because of issues like stigma, lack of education, and distrust of government facilities, most women don’t ask important questions of the health care providers, to see if a clinic/pharmacy has proper authorization from the government, or what they should do in the event of medical complications. © Tara Todras-Whitehill / European Journalism Centre / Vignette Interactive


Being constructive is not about being positive

Constructive and solutions journalism escapes the straightjacket of the either/or options that too often frame the options of reporting. It rejects the idea that the negativity bias can be simply addressed through a balanced media diet that includes good helpings of happy and positive accounts of the world. Nor is it promoting advocacy or impact journalism. In the words of Emily Kasriel, solutions-focused journalism “demands rigorous coverage of responses to problems, focussing on how, is or can this problem be solved, and how does a proposed solution work?” Or, as Tina Rosenberg has said, solutions journalism:

is the idea that it is our job as journalists not only to report on what is wrong with the world, but also to report, with an equal degree of rigor, on newsworthy efforts to fix what is wrong with the world. Very often journalists think that we’re only supposed to report on problems and they dismiss stories about how people are solving problems as fluff or good news or PR or advocacy. Our job is to tell them it doesn’t have to be like that. You can do bad journalism about responses, but you can also do great journalism about responses.

What being constructive involves

“The biggest potential corruption of solutions journalism,” says David Bornstein, “is if it devolves into a kind of ‘good news’ or ‘feel good’ product rather than a source of problem-solving knowledge, grounded in rigorous, critical reporting.” Drawing on all the sources cited here, we can say that avoiding the corruption of “the good” involves highlighting some of the things that constructive journalism is not:

  • It is not a whole new approach to journalism; it is an important addition to what good, critical reporters do
  • It is not about avoiding or ignoring problems and dealing only with response
  • It is not about finding heroes who single-handedly undertake inspirational acts (those people may exist and could be the subject of a good profile, but that’s not solutions-focused journalism) and it should not focus on victims

Avoiding the corruption of “the good” also involves highlighting what it is:

  • It is an approach to telling stories that puts problem-solving at the center of the narrative
  • It presents evidence of the problem and the solution being implemented
  • It draws on the voices of people on the ground at least as much as the views of those looking on from a distance
  • It recognizes that there is no single solution to social problems, that every response has limitations, that responses can fail as well as succeed, and that as much can be learned from failure as success

A solutions angle can be integrated into individual stories, or it can define a whole series. However, it can be a more demanding approach for the journalist because of the need to source and verify the story, and because of the need to be able to identify and understand the distinction between correlation and causation in the relationship between problems and solutions.

The benefits of being constructive

In the end, says David Bornstein, “solutions journalism is one lens through which to view an issue and, when used alongside other lenses, it makes for a fuller and more accurate picture.” There is a range of other benefits associated with solutions-focused stories, of which there are now many examples in journalism generally (see the Solutions Story Tracker as well as the examples discussed in Cathrine Gyldensted’s From Mirrors to Movers).

There are, however, to my knowledge at least, no major examples of photojournalism or documentary photography that self-consciously employ a solutions focus. In her book (chapter 12), Gyldensted discusses how Jan Grarup deliberately builds positive moments into his photo reportage, as evident in his World Press Photo prize-winning story on women basketballers in Somalia. Nonetheless, that is still short of a comprehensive solutions perspective, at least as set out here.

One significant benefit is the portrayal of people and communities as active agents rather than passive victims. While access to resources matters greatly for what groups can achieve, a solutions perspective investigates how individuals respond to problems “as positive agents of change. Though they may have limited resources, there are many ways in which local people innovate to help their community.” As a consequence, marginalized communities are more engaged by such reporting.

There are also benefits for engaging audiences more generally. Studies of news consumption have shown that solutions headlines get a modest increase in clicks over non-solutions headlines, time on page is higher for readers of solutions-focused articles, and solutions series can drive and expand public discussion in less polarized and more productive ways.

What we don’t know in the end is whether solutions-focused journalism can help bolster the public’s level of trust in journalism. It is certainly reasonable to assume it won’t damage that level any further. There’s nothing to be lost—and much to be gained—in providing the more comprehensive account that comes from adding a constructive and solutions journalism frame to the visual storytelling toolbox.

Featured image: A child soldier in the Seleka forces in Bossangoa. ©Marcus Bleasdale (See the full story on the Human Rights Watch website.)