1. I. Introduction (30m)
  2. II. Basic Reporting (60m)
  3. III. Basic Storytelling (30m)

Basic Toolkit / Finding a Solutions-Oriented Story

Reporting Instructively on Failure

In a way, the phrase “solutions journalism” is a bit of a misnomer. To many people who hear it for the first time, the word “solutions” implies that the journalist is claiming something to be the solution. (We hope that by this point, we have disabused you of that notion.)

 In truth, we’re interested in getting journalists to cover responses to problems, regardless of how well they are working. Journalists should be clear-eyed about what is working in these responses, and what is not working. The main goal of solutions stories is to yield practical insights for society about how a problem, or similar problems, could be more successfully addressed.

In this definition, it would be possible to bring a solutions lens to a seemingly failed response — as long as it makes society smarter in some way. Here are a few ways to consider doing just that:

Contrast the failure with a similar, more successful, alternative.

Ebola unfortunately spread quickly through much of West Africa in the summer of 2014. There were many important stories written about the plight of countries like Sierra Leone. But in August, the BBC’s Catherine Byaruhanga reported on the East African nation of Uganda, which controlled Ebola through a health monitoring system. Her story played a unique role in informing the international community of potential for improvement.

Make sure the failure is instructive.

When interviewing people about a failed response, considering asking, “What can others learn from this? What could have been done differently?” These questions can take your reporting beyond a typical story about a failed response.

Allow yourself to be open to shades of gray.

We would argue that only rarely could something be classified as a complete failure – or, conversely, a complete success. If you look at an issue with enough granularity, there will be shades of gray. As an example, Jeffery J. Silingo’s piece in The New York Times examining what he called the “hype cycle” around MOOCs (massive open online courses), concluded that while they have failed to live up to inflated expectations of democratizing education, they ”have become an important supplement to classroom learning and a tool for professional development.”

Discuss why people are drawn to a failed idea.

This is particularly relevant if you plan to take down a straw man of an idea that has attracted many eyeballs and/or investor money. Take, for instance, TOMS shoes, one of the first and most popular “buy-one-give-one” businesses. Many consumers thought this model was a brilliant way to shop while making the world a better place. However, careful reporting shows that building up local shoe manufacturing would have more impact than donating foreign-made shoes. A full story about TOMS’ flaws should include a discussion of why it was greeted with such enthusiasm. (In this case, well-intentioned consumers got smarter and TOMS actually changed their business model.)


  • Sophie Fung

    Very instructive anecdote regarding TOMS. And another case for a glocal economy.

  • Amijah Jackson

    This is an interesting take that I have not thought about in writing. Before reading this, I always thought to keep the main focus on one topic. If the story covers a negative topic then to keep it focused on that topic. However, while learning what Solutions Journalism is, it is interesting to include positive aspects in a story that maybe focuses on something not so positive.

  • Nourredine Bessadi

    I have a question: how about reporting on a failed solution attempt? Is this Solution Journalism?

  • Rasheed Adebiyi


  • Mary Agoyi

    Quite enlightening..

  • Saadoon Alyusufi

    thanks for the information

  • Jeremías Aspen

    Los fracasos son los escalones que conducen hacia el éxito.

  • Kepher Otieno

    Interesting arguments