What kind of journalism do we need when a crisis hits?

by Jonathan Widder
Jun 24, 2021 in Specialized Topics
Man reading news from a tablet

When the pandemic swept the world more than a year ago, I thought: Okay, that’s it. Now is not the time for the positive, constructive topics as we typically collect them with Squirrel News. What was unfolding was just so much more important, and dire — exponentially growing infection figures, sudden curfews even in democracies, images from overloaded intensive care units, coffins stacked on top of each other.

What a mistake. It took me — and many others — some time to realize that the pandemic would last for quite a while, and that we shouldn’t just sit back and watch everything go up in flames. Instead, we should try to help find a way out of it.

As the crisis worsened, and the more haphazardly many politicians acted, the clearer it became that there was something we didn’t have enough of: solutions, alongside high quality, in-depth reporting on them.

[Read more: Data informs better solutions reporting]

More solutions-focused reporting might have saved lives

I read reports in German media about successful contact tracing efforts in countries in Asia that we could learn from. This included one about South Korea in the beginning of 2020 and another about backward contact tracing in Japan at the end of the year. Not many more.

Why were there so few? Perhaps relatedly, contact tracing efforts in Germany struggled during the pandemic.

The consequences have literally been fatal, as identifying infections and at-risk contacts is vital for curtailing the virus’ spread. This was especially so during the first year of the pandemic. The better it works, the more infections can be avoided and the more lives can be saved. More solutions-focused reporting could have helped improve the public’s knowledge of these approaches, and placed more pressure on politicians to act accordingly. 

As a citizen, I’d also love to see a shift to a more active style of politics. But where could this come from? Could the media and the public accelerate, or encourage it? And if they could, what would be the driving force, if not solutions-focused journalism?

The nature of the COVID-19 crisis has facilitated this type of journalism. The issues around the pandemic were relatively easy to grasp: there is a clearly defined problem — the virus — and with vaccines, one ideal solution. There has been significant learning among the public about virology and infectious diseases, a surge in expert-led podcasts, and extensive debates surrounding the necessity of short and medium-term solutions, like wearing masks and social distancing.

The Guardian, for one, reportedly “upped (their) constructive coverage from two or three solutions stories per week to two or three per day.” 

“Finally another perspective”

We launched Squirrel News in June 2020, just a few weeks after the first wave of high infection rates, lockdowns and overwhelmed emergency rooms around the world. It was eye-opening to see how our curated solutions-focused collection of reporting helped readers manage during these trying times.

However, the need for this type of journalism existed long before the pandemic. This also becomes obvious in many reviews of Squirrel News in app stores. One of the words we come across again and again is “finally.” Readers have explained to us how our constructive approach has helped them navigate the crisis. 

Some German TV journalists who visited us for a shoot a few months ago expressed that they were happy to cover something positive for a change. They noted how they were tired of having to report only topics with high levels of drama and conflict, to attract high numbers of viewers. Had they visited a little later, I would have sent them a link to this recent study on solutions journalism that shows how it outperforms purely problem-based reporting in many ways.

[Read more: Reporting constructively on complex issues to avoid polarization: Here's how.]

Feedback from readers

One of the most poignant reactions — which has even led to collaboration on a forthcoming podcast — came from L.A.-based writer and comedian, Ed Crasnick, who has infused his comedy with a focus on mental health. Having stumbled upon Squirrel News, Crasnick reached out, explaining what our little news operation has provided him.

“The reason I love Squirrel News is because it’s changing your mental health without talking about mental health,” he said. “They should make everyone read this kind of news. And I’m not even talking about the stories; it’s the headlines alone already. They’re called headlines for a reason, they go directly into your head.” Although the historic origin of the word “headline” might be different, I think I prefer Crasnick’s definition. It describes with utmost clarity one key impact of solutions-focused journalism. 

A reader who contacted us in January expressed a similar opinion, writing: “I think everyone should know about you. What you have started could contribute to a positive change in society, in the long term.”

Others wrote, for instance, that “the concept is great because finally something is being done to counter the flood of bad news that provokes feelings of powerlessness, resignation and fear.” Or they just described Squirrel News as “a pleasant change from the negative reporting that generally prevails.” Even others pointed out that they “enjoy reading the news again” after years of avoiding it.

Jonathan Widder is the founder of Squirrel News, a curated platform and app for solutions-focused news. Prior to that, he has worked as a freelance journalist for major German newspapers and helped launch several media startups.

Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels.