Solutions journalism is what audiences want—and what the planet needs

People want news—but they’re turned off by the relentlessly downbeat, sensationalistic framing offered by much of the media.

By Matthew Kauffman

At Covering Climate Now, we like to say journalists are paid by our employers but work for the public. Well, new audience research suggests that if much of the public had its way, they’d give journalists the blackboard punishment depicted in the above (altered) Simpsons cartoon. People want news—but they’re turned off by the relentlessly downbeat, sensationalistic framing offered by much of the media, especially in the United States, according to research cited in the article “Can The News Be Fixed?” in The Atlantic. “If it bleeds, it leads,” a mantra that local TV stations and other newsrooms have long believed yields bigger audiences, is actually driving people away. Negative framing is also increasing the public’s distrust of journalism in general. What people want, they say, is news that, among other things, tells the whole story—not just what the problems are, but also how those problems might be fixed.

Yesterday, Covering Climate Now held our latest Talking Shop webinar, co-hosted by the Solutions Journalism Network, to discuss how to address these challenges on the climate beat. Since some of our fellow journalists will be suspicious of the notion of “solutions journalism,” let’s be clear: solutions journalism is not about cheerleading, or wishful thinking, or advocacy. It is “rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems,” SJN’s Fara Warner explained. It eschews hero worship and silver bullets. It does tell individual characters’ stories, but as part of a larger narrative about concrete actions being taken against a systemic problem that examines how well those actions deliver.

As it happens, a solutions journalism framework is a good fit for the biggest climate news of the past week. In a new, landmark report, the International Energy Agency said governments around the world must, as the New York Times reported, “immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and new oil and gas fields and quickly phase out gasoline-powered vehicles if they want to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”

It was a remarkable declaration from a reliable bulwark of the global economic and political order; the IEA was unequivocal that what’s required is “nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system.” The IEA also suggested that half of the emissions reductions needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C call for technologies that don’t yet exist. When John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, also made the latter claim, clean energy experts pushed back. Although Penn State University scientist Michael Mann praised the Biden administration’s overall approach to climate change, he told the BBC that Kerry’s statement was “very misleading.” Numerous scientific studies, Mann said, show that, “We have the technology now, in the form of existing renewable energy and storage and efficiency measures … to decarbonize our climate. We don’t need a miracle. … We need the political will to scale up renewable technology, now.”

Solutions journalism can help resolve such high-stakes disagreements, rather than reduce them, as some coverage did, to a personality clash between two climate heavyweights. Warner, at SJN, advises journalists to “look at the technologies Mann is talking about and ask: Do those technologies work as well as Mann and others claim? Can they deliver the emissions reductions needed? And are we holding governments and companies accountable for bringing those technologies to bear on the climate problem?”

Meanwhile, journalists on every beat should take heed of the fundamental climate solution the IEA just endorsed: Ending new oil fields, gas pipelines, and coal plants, because they are incompatible with a livable future on this planet.