Solutions journalism, rigorous and fact-driven news stories of credible solutions to societal problems, is gaining a great deal of momentum. To date, research on this journalistic practice is scant and what little research there is has generally focused on text. Given the growing practice of solutions journalism and the dominant role of photographs in the news media, I’ve been working on a series of research studies to learn more about visually reporting solutions journalism stories.
Earlier this month Dr. Jennifer Midberry and I presented research in this area at the annual AEJMC conference in Chicago, IL. To investigate the broad patterns in solutions journalism visuals across a number of publications and to evaluate which approaches were most successful, a two-part study design was implemented. First, we did a quantitative content analysis of photographs accompanying solutions journalism stories to provide an overview of the quantity and types of images used most often in such reporting. Second, we used semiotic analysis to assess how differences in the images’ content, composition, quantity, and sources affected the strength of the storytelling.
Key findings follow. Of the 129 articles coded for this study, 118 (91%) included visuals. Regarding types of visuals used, 112 articles included one or more photographs, with 43 articles including one or two photos, 19 articles including three or four photos, and 50 articles including five or more photos. Of the 118 articles with visuals included, 34 included a video, while 41 articles included a graphic and 4 articles included an illustration. Photographs emphasizing a solution far exceeded photographs emphasizing the problem in solutions-identified stories by a ratio of about 4 to 1. Almost all of the analyzed photos (98%) included visual content that was specific to the story–such as people, places, and objects discussed in the story–as opposed to generic content.
Turning to the in-depth semiotic analysis, a key conclusion of this research–with both professional and academic implications–is the identification of themes that can serve as the start of best practices for visual solutions journalism. The semiotic analysis revealed four themes of the analyzed visual reporting that both embodied the goals of solutions journalism and adhered to professional photojournalism norms: Solutions visuals are comprehensive, explanatory, clarifying, and ethical. A conclusion and implication of this research is that–based on visual communication theory and literature–these emerging solutions visual themes suggest that this type of reporting can be effective in delivering comprehensive and compelling coverage that would likely spur audience engagement.