“If it succeeds, it leads”: solutions journalism training in Ethiopia

Zooming in on stuff that works: Ellilta, a social enterprise in Ethiopia

I discovered solutions journalism (or constructive journalism) about two years ago – though as it turned out, I was already doing it to some extent. Writing for Devex, my editor had often reminded me to dig for more detail: how exactly were NGOs doing something, and what could others learn from it?

These are two of the basic principles behind the concept of solutions journalism: focus on the how (it’s more a ‘howdunnit’ story than a whodunnit, as some explain), and sharing insights that others could use. The point, as the name suggests, is to highlight not just the world’s problems but also the potential solutions, in a rigorous, critical way (so hero worship or ‘miracle cure’ stories are out).

There are others more expert than me in this field, such as the US-based Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), or the Constructive Journalism Project in the UK. But, given a recent opportunity at Pioneers Post to work with a group of Ethiopian journalists on social enterprise reporting, it felt natural to include the topic. My editorial colleagues and I don’t often refer to ourselves as solutions journalists, but highlighting the work of social entrepreneurs inevitably brings a solutions lens to a problem. Much of what we produce meets the SJN criteria, and we’re starting to submit our stories to their database.

Anyway, our brief was to help prepare a group of journalists ahead of a major event on social enterprise taking place in the capital Addis Ababa this October: what social enterprise is and what it’s not; the typical issues facing entrepreneurs; how we cover the topic and what the role of a journalist might be in this field.

The group, who came from a mix of privately-owned and government media, were keen to know more about solutions journalism, even if most hadn’t heard the term before. Some wondered how it compared to ‘development journalism’: a term (new to me) that among others emphasises the role of the journalist in promoting and supporting the country’s development, but whose ambiguity has given governments the opportunity “to justify a politicised media policy”, as one 2011 research paper* explains.

It’s an interesting place to talk about the role of the media. Not long ago, Ethiopia was “one of the most-censored countries in the world and one of the worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa”, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit. The reformist prime minister who took office last year has changed that quite dramatically: the country jumped up 40 places this year in global rankings of press freedom.

Clearly, now that reporters are freer to talk about what’s not working, that’s going to be a really important part of their job. The solutions approach doesn’t take away from that, though. As that 2011 research paper put it, in Ethiopia development journalism in theory “encourages both promotional and investigative stories”, but in reality means journalists “perceive sympathetic reporting to be the only style accepted”. But solutions journalism is about telling the whole story: what’s not working, but also (when appropriate – and often it may not be!) how people are trying to do something about it, whether that’s businesses, government, NGOs, individuals, or people on the other side of the world. It’s a move away from the old-school “if it bleeds, it leads” approach – putting the most dramatic, often bloody or violent headlines on the front page – and towards the less attention-grabbing, but ultimately healthier and maybe even more profitable approach: “if it succeeds, it leads”.

I hope we got that message across to the group we worked with last month. They are obviously working within an entirely different culture and context than ours; it’ll be interesting to see if the solutions lens works for them.

*Terje S. Skjerdal (2011): Development journalism revived: The case of Ethiopia, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 32:2, 58-74