Four Questions with Andrea Wenzel


  Spotlight on Research  

Examining the Future of Local Solutions Journalism

Four Questions with Andrea Wenzel

Andrea Wenzel, Senior Research Fellow, Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Can journalism move residents to become engaged in solving problems in their communities? Do readers have an appetite for “good news” and solutions-oriented stories? Andrea Wenzel’s research on “solutions journalism” dives into this issue to understand how news outlets can promote civic involvement and problem solving in disenfranchised areas.

Her research builds on the work of the Metamorphosis Project at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Since the 1990s, researchers in the center have explored how globalization and the spread of new communication technologies are transforming multiethnic urban communities.  Wenzel’s project focuses on South Los Angeles, a community she says they picked because it was rarely covered in a positive light. According to her study, the cynicism of South LA residents is especially high because media coverage of the high-poverty region has traditionally focused on violence, crime and civil unrest. Wenzel and her colleagues explore how six focus groups of African American and Latino residents react to differences in local media coverage.

Wenzel previously spent nearly 15 years as a public radio producer, editor, and media development consultant. She has managed media projects and trained media makers in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and India for media development organizations such as BBC Media Action and Internews. She is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a doctoral candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

To read the full report, Engaging Communities through Solutions Journalismclick here.

How did you become interested in this topic and research?

Before I had ever heard the term “solutions journalism,” I was stumbling around trying to do it. I worked for 15 years in public radio and international media development, mostly focusing on global affairs. Covering war, genocide and human rights abuses can get really depressing – both for journalists and audiences. To cope with this, I tried producing programs focused on people and initiatives that were attempting to respond to challenges. Whether I was working in Chicago or Sri Lanka, these were often the stories listeners reacted to the most strongly. And it woke me up to the idea that if journalists seek to help citizens make informed decisions, they need to let people know about social problems and what is being done to address these problems. So, when I had the opportunity to research media as a PhD student at USC’s Annenberg School, I wanted to put these experiences as a practitioner into context.

I also wanted to understand what solutions journalism meant for residents of communities that were almost never covered in a positive light. I was working with the Metamorphosis Project which had been researching communities including South LA since 1998. They had found that this area had a history of being stigmatized by negative media coverage and that organizations and local media didn’t always connect in a way that would contribute to more nuanced storytelling. To address this, we organized workshops for community organizations and local and ethnic media. This led to collaboration on a series of solutions journalism stories about South LA. We then got support from the Tow Center on Digital Journalism to conduct focus groups to find out what South LA residents thought about these stories and the concept of solutions journalism.

What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your report?

The Solutions Journalism Network has spearheaded a growth of awareness in the concept of solutions journalism. They have advocated for rigor in solutions journalism and tried to dispel the idea that it is simply ‘good news’ puff pieces. They have also collaborated with groups such as the Engaging News Project, which is housed at the University of Texas at Austin and tests strategies and technologies newsrooms use to engage audiences. Initial studies were promising and suggested readers of solutions stories were likely to spend more time on a webpage and report a greater sense of self-efficacy and optimism. But subsequent studies on how people engage with and share stories have been mixed, in part due to the complexity of quantifying things like sentiment. We thought our qualitative study could complement some of these existing quantitative studies.

In addition, when we did our study of local solutions journalism in South LA, the few existing studies focused on coverage at the national and international level. We wanted to look at the local level because previous research using communication infrastructure theory, a theory developed by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her Metamorphosis team found that local stories can have a big effect on things like civic engagement. For example, if residents only see bad news circulating about their community they may be less likely to feel connected to their community or to feel like they can do something to improve it.

What did you learn?

Overall the South LA residents in our focus groups responded positively to the problem-solving orientation of solutions journalism. Many said solutions-oriented stories gave them ideas for how they could get involved in local issues. They said they would be more likely to seek out news and share stories with friends and family if solutions-oriented stories were more common. But they also had concerns about solutions journalism and larger structures within the media. They were afraid that if solutions journalism crossed over into just good news it could give people the impression ongoing problems had already been solved.

Other concerns had more to do with a lack of trust in the media and a feeling that their community and people of color had repeatedly been portrayed in an unjustifiably negative light – often by reporters who only parachuted in to cover moments of crime and violence. Nevertheless, they were intrigued by solutions journalism and suggested it could be even stronger if it included more community input and follow-up coverage.

What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

I think our study demonstrated that solutions journalism that is community-based has potential when it comes to rebuilding constructive relationships and trust with publics. I think this offers particular promise in stigmatized communities where trust in media has long been in short supply. But, as I think the elections have shown, trust in media is a wide-ranging problem. I would love to see additional research examining whether solutions journalism used in combination with engagement strategies might help to repair trust in polarized communities.

Focus-group participants asked to have more opportunities to stay involved throughout the story production process – from idea generation to follow up after stories are shared. This led me to follow an initiative based in Chicago over the past year. The Curious City project uses the Hearken digital engagement platform to invite the public to ask questions that reporters may then follow up on. They are experimenting with ways to appeal to residents from areas that have not traditionally been public radio strongholds. I conducted observations and interviews examining their efforts with the support of the Tow Center and a new report on my findings will be published shortly.

I am also working with the Tow Center to more deeply examine current bipartisan issues and urban-rural divisions. I am hoping to track emerging efforts trying to rebuild, at least in small ways, a public sphere that can be shared across ideological, geographic and demographic lines. I am also hoping to conduct research exploring what polarization looks like at the local level – examining residents’ communication ecologies both online and offline. I want to explore whether there are any spaces left that are shared across lines of difference. For example, perhaps this exists in local newspapers or in community groups. I am hoping that understanding this better will be useful for media practitioners seeking to engage residents from different political and demographic backgrounds in dialogue.