Is Africa ready to embark on the solutions journalism path?

October 10, 2017

Anderson Diédri, Chief Editor at the Ivorian media outlet eburnietoday.com and a participant in the Naila project, focuses on the issue of solutions journalism and the impact that it could have on the development process of countries in Africa.

In publicising success stories and innovations, and putting the spotlight on initiatives having a great social and environmental impact, solutions journalism (also known as impact journalism) has aroused a great deal of interest over the past few years. In Africa (such as in the Ivory Coast, for example), this form of reporting could play a decisive role in tackling the challenges of development.

Jean-Claude was once homeless, destitute, alone. Abandoned by his family and friends and by society in general, he faced a very uncertain future. But then one day in 2016, a group of French journalists found out about his plight and reported it in an article. This helped to highlight the precarious situation that he had found himself in. The local community immediately rallied together to come to his aid. A total sum of €5,000 (equivalent to over 3,000,000 West African CFA francs) was raised in just two days, to provide him with temporary accommodation at least for the time being, until winter had passed.

"We proved that by coming together, we can change things for the better. I believe that the role of the media is also, not to save people as such, but to push people into action." Benoit Raphaël, expert in media innovation.

An alternative to traditional journalism

This form of reporting, which presents news in a positive light and arouses hope, is known as solutions journalism or impact journalism. It involves taking a journalistic approach that provides solutions to the problems being faced by society. To put it simply, it is a form of explanatory journalism that is capable of fulfilling a monitoring role, by highlighting effective responses in order to stimulate reform or change. Any type of superficiality is absolutely prohibited; instead, it requires a critical reporting approach based heavily on investigations.

It is an alternative to traditional journalism, which too often focuses on controversies. In actual fact, it goes further than simply denouncing or stigmatising certain subjects (homelessness, prostitution, refugees, etc.); instead, its primary goal is to arouse the public's interest. Every month, a different subject was tackled by those journalists. The aim, as Benoit Raphaël explains, was to get readers and viewers actively involved in changing a situation: "If there's just one (homeless person) out of a thousand who can be saved and we sit there and do nothing, this ultimately benefits nobody. It was really this mindset that we sought to instil in people".

"We're not looking for hype"

This relatively recent journalistic approach, which has been used by editorial departments for several years, still requires a particular methodology.

"First of all, this means that we're not looking for hype (…) We also actively seek to avoid creating any type of controversy, at any cost. Instead, we want to cast a more benevolent eye on things, on people. We also want to find more original subjects," explains Sabine Torres, Managing Director of the Médias du sud group, which is based in southern France. >

This group, which comprises four local television channels, a regional web-TV channel, a newspaper and a platform for hosting and monetising videos, has based its editorial policy on solutions journalism. Even though it first and foremost provides news coverage to six million residents on a regional level, Médias du sud has chosen to 'shift' all its news processing procedures in order to place more emphasis on all the initiatives that are 'furthering' society and creating links between people.

The editor is no longer an observer but rather an actor who assumes an active role in the development of a region, by putting forward actual solutions to the problems facing it. However, by favouring solutions journalism (the objectivity of which could be called into question), might there be a risk of news being biased or not being reported in full? Sabine Torres doesn't think so.

She believes that current events and problems need to be brought up. However, the approach that is adopted is still crucial when it comes to solutions journalism: "Let's say, for example, that there's been a flood – instead of focusing on the resulting tragedy, the number of dead, and the like (even though we have to mention them), we concentrate more on reporting the solidarity being shown by the citizens. If there's been a terrorist attack, we focus more on the actions of the security services, and also the ways in which communities come together, rather than on terrorism and the anti-Islamic movement," she explains. "At all times, we try our very best to conduct our work by being honest."

Bernard Chenuaud, the Africa Deputy Director at CFI, the French media cooperation agency, believes that this new approach can breathe new life into journalistic practices: "It's essentially being taught in journalism schools that a train arriving on time is not news – it's only news when a train arrives late."
He then adds a caveat: "That doesn't mean, however, that we must only report on positive things, because often that's what the powers that be want us to do."

Restoring trust amongst citizens

The Ivory Coast has gone through its fair share of cyclical crises (1999, 2002 and 2011), and remains deeply divided by political rifts. The press, which has long contributed to this two-way adversity, saw its sales figures plummet dramatically between the first quarter of 2005 and the third quarter of 2015. In those ten years, the circulation of the country's daily press fell by almost 63%, with the biggest drops being recorded by those press bodies that adhered more closely to a political persuasion of one type or another.

Is this an inevitability? A study conducted in 2014 by researchers at the University of Texas in the United States demonstrated, in any event, that a news story focusing more on a solution is deemed more credible by readers, who feel better informed. Their relationship with the media is strengthened as a direct result. This makes it possible to restore trust amongst previously disaffected citizens.

This editorial 'rebirth' is capable of meeting the needs of both the readership and the press bodies. Solutions journalism therefore appears to be a relevant editorial and business model for the traditional press in crisis, but also for online media outlets searching for a viable business model.

In France, one of the examples of the success of solutions journalism is Nice Matin, a local newspaper first published in 2015. Benoit Raphaël, who had a hand in this project, tells us more: "In the space of two years, our subscribers have first doubled and then tripled in number. The clicks generated by our articles have doubled, and the number of times our videos were viewed has gone up ten-fold." "These articles help the website to become better known amongst the public, and when a website is well known, it's easy to negotiate advertising deals," adds Hélène Doubidji, Director of Publication of the Togolese news website Togotopnews.

Given the current situation in Africa, solutions journalism is entirely relevant, especially when civil wars, famine, poverty (in short, catastrophes) are the events that receive the most coverage from media outlets across the globe. "Whenever you see the reports of the transnational media, you get the impression that everything is going wrong in Africa," says Dr Sokhan Fatou Seck Sarr, a lecturer and researcher in information and communication sciences at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal. In her opinion, the continent is generally represented "in a very negative light, with stereotypes and clichés" , whereas there are actually "good things that are taking place there". This new journalistic approach could be used to promote good governance and establish democracy.

"If it is adopted by African journalists, solutions journalism could convey a different tune and perhaps show Africa in a different light, or paint it in a different picture." Dr Seck Sarr, lecturer and researcher in information and communication sciences.

An opportunity for Africa

While the concept of solutions journalism is new on the continent, it has still been looked into extensively. Hélène Doubidji once compiled a large dossier on the detention conditions of women in Lomé Civil Prison, the largest detention facility in Togo. The Togolese journalist questioned "experts, human rights activists who were able to put forward proposals for improving the detention conditions".
As a result, immediately after her article had been published, the Togolese Minister for Social Action visited the prison; "she made promises, but these have yet to materialise."

The concept is arousing great interest today. Impact Journalism Day has been held in June every year since 2012, bringing together 55 media outlets from across the globe to discuss and share solutions content. Its aim is to publicise success stories and innovations, and put the spotlight on initiatives having a great social and environmental impact. This form of reporting could one day become firmly established in Africa, in order to make the world aware of the actors who have succeeded in providing concrete solutions in a number of fields, such as health, water and education, to name just three.