By Sharon Atieno

The key advocates of Solutions Journalism (SoJo) in Africa, Science Africa and Nigeria Health Watch, co-hosted a panel discussion at the 2023 International Journalism Festival (IJF) in Italy to discuss how sojo approach is changing the African storytelling narrative.

IJF, dubbed as the biggest media event in Europe, now in its 17th edition, is held in Perugia, Italy, annually since 2008. This year’s edition was successfully held from 19th-23rd April, 2023.

The panelists included Daniel Otunge, Science Africa’s Deputy Executive Director, Sharon Atieno Science Africa News Editor,  Vivianne Ihekweazu, Nigeria Health Watch’s Managing Director and Chibuike Alagboso, Nigeria Lead, Solutions Journalism Africa Initiative.

Among those who attended the panel discussion were David Bornstein, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) and Ruona Meyer, Africa Manager at SJN.

From left to right : Chibuike Alagboso, Nigeria Lead, Solutions Journalism Africa Initiative, Vivianne Ihekweazu, Nigeria Health Watch’s Managing Director, Sharon Atieno, Science Africa Editor, Daniel Otunge, Science Africa Deputy Director and David Bornstein, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Solutions Journalism Network (SJN)

With support from SJN, Science Africa and Nigeria Health Watch have been working to entrench SoJo in newsrooms and train trainers since 2020. Science Africa has been working across three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) while Nigeria Health Watch is focusing on newsrooms in Nigeria.

The Science Africa presentation, made by Miss Atieno, showed that SoJo is changing the perspective of journalists from reporting on social problems to focusing on the solutions being implemented to address the challenges. Thus, contributing to changing the narrative where Africans are often seen as dependent on aid and not being able to help themselves.

It also highlighted that SoJo is enhancing trust between journalists and news sources, including policymakers and researchers. These sources are no longer seeing journalists, especially those using the SoJo approach, as adversaries who just want to point fingers and issue blame but as people who want to tell credible stories in a wholesome way.

According to the presentation, there is more demand for SoJo in newsrooms across East Africa compared to previously when solutions journalism was being dismissed as public relations by editors.

This was evidenced by a Science Africa assessment report on the newsrooms trained which showed that a number of them were setting up SoJo desks for example Metro FM in Uganda. The desk is being headed by one of their editors, Jael Namiganda who has been trained by Science Africa to become a trainer of trainers in SoJo.

A similar trend was observed during the Nigeria Health Watch presentation where their training led to one of the leading broadcasters in Nigeria, News Agency Nigeria, establishing a news desk.

Other newsrooms in East Africa have shifted their editorial policies in support of the SoJo approach. An example is the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation radio which requires that at least two SoJo-based feature stories are produced and published monthly.

Additionally, there is a lot of peer-to-peer learning going on in the newsrooms whereby journalists trained in SoJo are spreading the approach to their colleagues who have no formal training in it. Thus, helping solutions journalism to become widespread.

In terms of metrics, Science Africa has trained over 30 newsrooms across the three countries on solutions journalism. This has benefited more than 400 journalists, not to mention hundreds of other journalists who have benefited from Science Africa’s mentorship and internship programs since 2017 when it first partnered with SJN to introduce SoJo on the region.

To make solutions journalism more sustainable, Science Africa has partnered with five public universities in Kenya (Maseno University, Kibabii University and Rongo University); Uganda (Makerere) and Rwanda (The University of Rwanda) to introduce SoJo into their journalism curricula.

Consequently, 29 journalism lecturers drawn from five public universities have been trained by Science Africa as SoJo educators in collaboration with SJN SoJo Educator program.

Science Africa and Nigeria Health Watch teams during the IJF panel in Perugia, Italy

Mr. Chibuike’s presentation observed that the growth of SoJo in Nigeria is organic, resulting in a network effect. Many newsrooms are showing interest and the ones they have worked with are taking ownership to help spread the practice of SoJo.

Like Science Africa, Nigeria Health Watch is also training the next generation of journalists/ storytellers. They are going into schools to train educators and journalism students on SoJo. As a result, others are reaching out to them for the training.

Across Nigeria, they have trained over 1000 people on the practice of SoJo and produced over 250 stories.

To summarize the discussions, Mr. Otunge outlined eight key points about SoJo. He said that SoJo is changing journalism model  and stories focus to who did or is doing what, where, how and with what effect instead of who said what where and with what effect.

He noted that  SoJo stories are positively changing behavior of audiences and leads to action instead of merely informing them about problems. Also, that SoJo stories creates hope and confidence (the I-can-do-it-effect) rather than fear and helplessness among audiences which leads to paralysis and dependency syndrome.

Mr. Otunge said SoJo leads to policy change, implementation or revision and behavior change among policy makers and technocrats.

He added in his summary that SoJo completes the story thereby making journalism a true reflection of a society/community because it goes beyond finger pointing and shouting fire to include effective responses to societal challenges and the limitations of those solutions.

Mr Otunge during the panel discussions

Mr. Otunge noted that leading media outlets like BBC, CNN and Aljazeera have all adopted the SoJo approach in their report about issues in Africa, such as what the people are doing to mitigate climate change, energy crisis, food insecurity and health challenges.

The 2023 IJF attracted hundreds of participants from all the four corners of the world. It covered a wide array of topics ranging from climate change reporting, data journalism, artificial intelligence, legal protection for journalists and gender, diversity, equity and inclusion to  media funding, investigative journalism, whistle blowing, journalist safety and wellbeing, disinformation, collaborative journalism among others.

The Africa SoJo Newsrooms capacity building project implemented by Science Africa (East Africa) and Nigeria Health Watch (Nigeria) with support from SJN has so far trained over 60 newsrooms in SoJo leading to production and publishing of hundreds of SoJo-based stories on development issues, including climate change, health, Covid-19, the environment, food & nutrition, and biodiversity since 2020. Some of the stories can be accessed through the SJN SoJo tracker.