“The media must recognise it shapes the world we live in, as well as reflecting it… When we report progress, more progress ensues. What better way to change the world?”
Mark Rice-Oxley, Editor of the Upside, The Guardian
The Upside is the Guardian’s constructive journalism “stream”. It is solutions focused reporting “that seeks out answers, solutions, movements and initiatives to address the biggest problems besetting the world”.
How They Did It
The driving force behind series is editor Mark Rice-Oxley. Mark embarked on the project in 2018 because it was “urgently needed in a world where a surfeit of dismal news is demoralising audiences as never before.”
The constructive focus of the Upside was championed by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner in her 2017 speech sketching out the future of the newspaper. Katharine promised that “we will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it. Despair is just another form of denial. People long to feel hopeful again – and young people, especially, yearn to feel the hope that previous generations once had.” You can listen to Katharine’s thoughts on “A mission for journalism in a time of crisis”.
Mark started with an experiment to discover whether Guardian readers had an appetite for solutions focused journalism. After 18 months and 150+ articles he and his fellow journalists found that there was significant audience engagement in journalism that “sought out the good things happening in the world”. Readers spent longer on the articles, often reading until the end, and around 1 in 10 shared the stories on social media. There was also a significant volume of responses and enthusiastic messages from readers asking for more constructive reporting. The Upside was launched with funding from the Skoll Foundation in order to commit more deeply to a solutions focused stream of content. This funding has now dried up but the Upside continues.
Solutions from the Democratic Republic of Congo
In 2019 a piece commissioned and produced for the Upside stream won the Journalism of Tomorrow award presented by the Constructive Institute and the Solutions Journalism Network. The piece was written by Guardian Health Editor Sarah Bosely in collaboration with photographer David Levene and video producer Millie Harvey and was an investigation into how the Democratic Republic of the Congo has all but defeated sleeping sickness. Accepting the award, Sarah Boseley noted that ““Most of the media think that stories have to be about something terrible that is happening and it’s only very occasionally that you can turn the tables and say, yes, there are terrible things happening, but within that there are some fantastic things too and maybe we should look to the positive.”
“Most of the media think that stories have to be about something terrible that is happening and it’s only very occasionally that you can turn the tables and say, yes, there are terrible things happening, but within that there are some fantastic things too and maybe we should look to the positive.”
Sarah Boseley, Health Editor, The Guardian
The team created a beautiful and inspirational digital feature encompassing video and striking images of the community in Bandundu province, DRC
A series of Ground Rules guide the content for the Upside:
- Upside stories are not PR. Mark looks for solutions that appear replicable, robust and confront the big challenges of our times eg the environment, atomised communities, flagging democracy etc
- Efforts are made to find and speak with the communities working to address the significant problems
- The aim is to report on places their reporters rarely visit, broadening reach and understanding both for the journalists and their reader.
Connecting with audiences
The Upside has sought to deepen the connection between readers and subjects through a weekly newsletter of over 30,000 subscribers. Mark stresses the importance of proactively engaging with recipients of the newsletter by asking teasing questions and offering a straightforward method of replying. These efforts have been rewarded with several good solutions story tips.
Output for the series has been primarily focused on text articles but earlier in June 2020 Mark launched his inaugural Upside: In Conversation live stream (record and now available online -see below). Introducing the discussion Mark explained that just as with the Upside’s articles the aim for the conversations are “Hope, potential, ideas and solutions, anything really that can give us a dose of optimism in challenging times.” Depending on the reaction from the audience they may be planning more.
Corona – turbo charging a solutions focus
Mark says that it’s “Deeply parodoxical that it’s taken corona to turbo charge solutions journalism – we have to have the good with the bad.” On an average week The Upside would produce 2–3 solutions per week but with the current COVID-19 climate 2–3 solutions stories are published per day. Mark believes this is because both journalists and audiences are searching for a dose of optimism to balance the barrage of updates on infection rates and fatalities.
On a recent webinar with the Solutions Journalism Network Mark outlined some tips on covering COVID-19 with a solutions lens, here are 3 of them.
- 1. Start with the problem.
Mark stressed that defining the significance of a problem is key before covering the solutions. He explained that “I get a lot of pitches from stringers and freelancers on a narrow aspect of the solution — an NGO that’s doing good work here, or a community group that’s reinvented the cafe — and it always makes me think, ‘Well, what’s the problem they’re trying to fix? Why should I believe that this one initiative is the magic bullet?”
- 2. Be on the lookout for the positive deviants.
Some of the best solutions stories are framed through data — Mark referenced two examples. “Why is it that women in Botswana only have two children per household, while women in Kenya or Niger have six or seven? What is it that’s different?” he asks, referencing one of The Upside’s first solutions stories. For COVID-19 coverage, Rice-Oxley adds that this story on Taiwan’s containment successes started with looking at numbers by country.
- 3. Hold power to account by showing who’s doing it better.
Highlighting the positive deviant, Rice-Oxley says, puts pressure on those in power. If we find out why one country or city did it better, “we can pressure our own governments who, let’s face it, are having a tough time dealing with this,” Rice-Oxley says. “We can say, ‘Well, you say it’s difficult to roll out enough tests, but Taiwan did it. You say it’s hard getting a hold of the ventilators, but Germany managed.’”
Whilst the Upside continue to produce critical and analytical journalism Mark argues that “We surely won’t fix the world if we keep on telling people that everything is rotten, hopeless, unfixable.”