How African journalists are embracing solutions journalism
The Solutions Journalism Network [SJN], a US-based media organisation whose mission is to spread the practice of solutions journalism around the world, is helping newsrooms and journalists in Africa with the skills and resources they need to report solutions journalism stories by highlighting what works and what doesn’t in local communities.
In 2020, the SJN launched the Solutions Journalism Africa Initiative, a three-year program which will promote the practice of solutions journalism and select journalists from different newsrooms on the continent, train and equip them with skills to report stories that highlight solutions-focused approaches to solving problems faced by communities.
One of those journalists was Seun Durojaiye. Following the increase in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to adopt a new storytelling approach that would empower women and raise awareness on gender-based violence while highlighting initiatives and therapies for survivors of rape.
Last year, Durojaiye did a story for the International Centre for Investigative Reporting on how radio is used to provide therapy and support to victims of gender-based violence.
“I got tired of just saying women are victims or telling stories that portrayed women as victims,” she said. “It just made sense to use solutions journalism to show how people were solving gender-based violence. Solutions journalism is also not about how people are working to fix things. It gives you another dimension in your reporting that a lot of people don’t usually recognise.”
The goal of these partnerships is to work with journalists across Nigeria and Kenya in creating solutions journalism reports in and about Africa across diverse topics and issues that affect the public, explained Ruona Meyer, the Africa Manager at SJN. “Solutions journalism is rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems,” she said.
A solutions fellowship
Meyer has been training several African journalists on solutions journalism, brainstorming on story ideas and guiding them on best approaches to adopt in their storytelling. While the program started in two countries, they have been flexible and now work with four newsrooms in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria in training journalists on how to report solutions journalism. “The motivation is to ensure diversity by looking at other ways to approach solutions journalism,” she said.
After a call for applications last year, 10 journalists were selected for a three-month fellowship. At the end of this period, each fellow receives a $2,000 grant to produce or facilitate the production of solutions stories, document their projects on a blog post, case study or video, engage with fellow solution-focused journalists, and create communities of solutions journalism practitioners.
“We form newsrooms, create curriculum and teach and collaborate with newsrooms to spread the practice of solutions journalism,” Meyer said. “Most of them were selected for their entrepreneurial ideas and projects focused on solutions journalism. It's more about bringing out that entrepreneurial spirit outside of the newsroom to spread solutions journalism to non-newsroom audiences.”
The solutions journalism initiative was launched in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch and Science Africa, two health-focused media organisations based in Nigeria and Kenya. These outlets will help the SJN in identifying and training local journalists in both countries.
Meyer said the SJN will work with 60 newsrooms and 20 individual journalists over a three-year period. “The partnership enables us to expand the practice of solutions journalism by training local media organisations and supporting them over time to produce their own solutions stories,” said Chibuike Alagboso, who leads the initiative at Nigeria Health Watch. “So far, we have exceeded expectations: people who haven’t even heard about solutions journalism being able to produce stories.”
As part of the partnership, Alagboso and his team train journalists across newsrooms in Nigeria on solutions journalism. After the training, the journalists are supported with funding to do stories that show what is working in the communities they work in. More than 10 newsrooms across print and broadcast have been trained so far.
“We want to keep telling these stories and keep empowering others to tell them too because we can’t tell it all alone,” he said. “We continue to train, mentor and support individuals, newsrooms and even academic institutions to be able to produce these stories that show that we are not just sitting and waiting but working hard to address some of the social problems we are facing.”
More than 30 solution-based stories have been produced. In September 2019, a story by Bayo Wahab highlighted how a health initiative is helping to solve Nigeria’s maternal health challenges and improve the health of women and young mothers in rural communities. In January 2022, another story by Wahab showed how a nonprofit is supporting diabetes patients with free drugs and routine medical checkup.
Vivian Ihekweazu’s piece focused on how teenage girls in the Northern part of Nigeria are promoting menstrual hygiene in local communities and making a living by selling reusable menstrual products.
By telling solutions-based stories, Alagboso said, they empower communities, private and public sector actors to take action by learning from what others are doing to address various social problems.
The SJN has what they call a Story Tracker, a database of over 1,000 solutions journalism African-focused stories produced by the fellows after their fellowship. Beyond the Story Tracker, Meyer helps the journalists publish their work with foreign media outlets such as DW. “This is to ensure that knowledge, skills-transfer, visibility of their work and even access to paid opportunities.”
Why local languages matter
After the fellowship ended, Dorojaiye, who was one of the selected journalists, started developing training manuals for journalists in Nigeria on how to do solutions journalism in local languages as a way of reaching new audiences.
“I felt it was an opportunity to do something different on solutions journalism,” she said. “They wanted a project that could help spread journalism to a new audience or help break language barriers.”
Durojaiye was motivated to adopt this approach because a lot of journalists who do stories primarily in English do not consider their audiences. They miss them because of language barriers. Apart from being an English-speaking country, Nigeria has three major local languages: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. A fourth language, Pidgin English, which is a fusion of foreign and indigenous languages, has become one of Nigeria’s dominant languages, with some broadcast stations using it to present programmes.
“Nobody is doing something in this area. So I decided to step in with a solutions perspective,” she said. “I felt I could do something around this especially for audiences who can't access news and other media contents due to the language barriers.”
Before the fellowship, Durojaiye had already been trained by SJN on solutions journalism and was certified as a professional trainer. With the additional knowledge she gained during the fellowship, she is currently training journalists on how to integrate solutions journalism in their work through the use of local languages.
Durojaiye said doing solutions journalism in languages audiences understand is helpful. “They can use solutions journalism to help their communities,” she said. “Your knowledge about solutions journalism will inform the kinds of debates and conversations you will be having going forward.”
With the training manuals developed, Durojaiye said anybody could use the template to instruct journalists on solutions journalism in local languages. “The idea was to target early career journalists, journalism students and educators because they need the foundational knowledge on solutions journalism.”
Since the end of her fellowship last year in November, she has trained about 100 journalists on doing solutions journalism using local languages. Last week, during a virtual session, she introduced the solutions journalism storytelling approach to an additional 100 students at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism.
“I have learned the importance of data gathering when reporting issues of solutions journalism,” said Omotoyosi Adeolu Adetayo, one of the participants. “She made this simple for us trainees.” Nelly Agwu, who also attended the session, said: “One thing I learnt is that we should not make our headlines or lead to be gloomy and alarmist.”
Durojaiye said she fell in love with solutions journalism after a training session organised by the African Women Journalism Project in 2020. The fellowship has provided her a launchpad to expand her interests in solutions journalism. In December 2020, she founded Social Voices, a digital platform that is rooted in public service journalism but strictly a platform that uses a solutions journalism approach to tell stories. “I want to show how marginalised people are solving health, development and social welfare issues affecting them,” she said.
Creating a solutions hub
As the director of the Media Career Development Network, Lekan Otufodunrin is mentoring a new generation of solutions journalism reporters in West Africa with the skills gained from the SJN fellowship. Before the fellowship, he proposed to set up a West Africa Solutions Journalism hub and network which will provide journalists in the region with resources and training about doing solutions journalism.
The hub was launched after the fellowship and gives journalists and journalism educators access to published stories, story ideas and career resources to help them navigate the new field of solutions journalism.
“I found out that many journalists were struggling with solutions journalism,” he said. “So, we needed to come in with training and resources and those we trained have produced some stories around solutions journalism.”
Otufodunrin has organised virtual training sessions for more than 20 journalists from different newsrooms in Nigeria, Liberia and Ghana. In January, he organised a webinar on Introduction to Solutions Journalism for members of the Sierra Leone Association of Women in Journalism.
Otufodunrin said that solutions journalism has evolved and that the fellowship provided a better understanding of what solutions journalism is all about. “The media has been criticised for always highlighting problems and not featuring solutions,” he said. “What people call development journalism encompasses a lot of things similar to solutions journalism. Journalists have been doing stories on how to solve problems without necessarily calling it ‘solutions journalism.’”
To continue the engagement with the journalists, Otufodunrin created a WhatsApp group where they could share opportunities and follow up on their learning experiences.
“We gave grants to some of them to do some stories which they pitched to me and I am working with them during the editing process and providing feedback until they are published,” he said. One of such published stories was on a skills program to help displaced persons in Nigeria.
Otufodunrin, who is an associate lecturer at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism and has extended solutions journalism training to students at the Institute, wants solutions journalism integrated into the curriculum across Nigeria universities. “I think it is something they need to take very seriously and see it as an area where they should develop expertise in.”
Here to stay
Meyer is confident that solutions journalism will be a mainstay of the media landscape in Africa through the support of the Network. “The future is already here because a lot of these initiatives just sharpened what was already there,” she said. “This focus on evidence increases story quality and this equals more leverage for newsrooms and hopefully more revenue. Solutions journalism is here to stay because it shows what you are meant to do and how you are meant to do it, and you can use it for all beats.”
Meyer said solutions journalism is seeing growing institutional demands for presentation, mentoring and partnerships, including one by the African Women in Media and the United Nations Environmental Programme on how to use solutions journalism to report on the environment.
Alagboso said there’s great potential for solutions journalism because audiences are changing and demanding more. “It’s important that media executives look at what the data is telling them,” he said. “People are getting tired of constantly consuming negative news. Nobody wants to be in a position where they constantly feel hopeless and powerless. People want to be inspired and encouraged by what others are doing. The earlier they realise this, the sooner media organisations can start shifting their editorial strategies to meet these needs. This way, they can build more loyalty and trust and this can translate to more revenue and more sustainable newsrooms.”
Meyer stressed these are really exciting times for “journalism that is empirical rather than lyrical, constructive rather than destructive, collaborative rather than combative. As solutions journalism gains wider acceptance and understanding, we are not going to end up with the products we started with and that can be an exciting thing for a continent like Africa.”
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance investigative journalist based in Toronto, Canada where he is currently a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Formerly based in Johannesburg as an Open Society Foundation Fellow, his reporting is at the intersection of human rights, social justice, global health, migration, conflict and development in sub-Saharan Africa, and has been published by Foreign Policy, NPR, Daily Maverick, African Arguments, Rest of World, World Politics Review, Global Investigative Journalism Network and elsewhere. You can find his work here.