1 A Solution to the Problem?
The impact of solutions journalism on self-efficacy, behavioral intentions and policy attitudes, and the mediating role of affect
Gabriela Cadahia Frankel 13304917
MSc Thesis Political Communication Thesis supervisor: Dr. Eric Tsetsi
Word count: 8408 (extended word count approved by Dr. Tsetsi) June 29, 2022
2 Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Theoretical background 2.1 Solutions journalism
2.2 Theoretical foundations of solutions journalism 2.2a Positive psychology
2.3a The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions 2.4 Self-efficacy
2.5 Behavioral intentions 2.6 Policy attitudes
Chapter 3: Methodology 3.1 Design and procedure 3.2 Participants
3.3 Independent variables 3.4 Outcome variables 3.5 Covariates
Chapter 4: Results 4.1 Policy attitudes
4.2 The mediating role of affect
4.3 Commercial and democratic implications 4.4 Limitations
Chapter 5: Discussion
Chapter 6: Conclusion
Negativity in the news is one of the leading drivers of news avoidance. Solutions journalism seeks to correct the news media’s negativity bias through rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. Using a survey experiment, this study (N = 216) investigated how social media exposure to solutions journalism influences audiences’ sense of self-efficacy, behavioral intentions and policy attitudes, and the mediating role of positive and negative emotions. Results showed that solution-oriented news stories, compared to problem-oriented news stories, led to higher levels of positive affect, self-efficacy and social media intentions, and higher support for story-specific solutions involving defunding the police. In line with the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, the effects on self-efficacy and social media intentions were mediated by positive affect.
A weaker mediating role was found for negative affect, but only for social media intentions.
Finally, affect did not serve as a mediator for policy attitudes. The implications of these findings for newsrooms and deliberative democratic ideals are discussed.
4 A solution to the problem? The impact of solutions journalism on self-efficacy, behavioral
intentions and policy attitudes, and the mediating role of affect
Solutions journalism, a genre of constructive journalism involving rigorous reporting about responses to social problems, is a growing academic topic and professional practice with the potential to address various challenges in our current media environment (Solutions Journalism Network, 2022). For one, newsrooms have experienced a steady decline in readership and viewership for nearly two decades (Babington, 2018). The Reuters Institute Digital News Report (2021) found an increase in the share of people around the world who actively avoid the news (32%). The main reasons for this reported news avoidance were negative effects on mood (58%) and feelings of powerlessness to change events (16%). As early as the 1980’s, research has shown that a primary reason why viewers do not tune into TV news is because it is perceived as depressing and overly focused on crime and violence (Galician, 1986 and Potter & Gantz, 2000). In a high- choice media environment, it is relatively easy to opt out of news in favor of consuming non- political content. This trend is especially pronounced among younger audiences, who are increasingly tuning out traditional news media after repeated experiences that left them feeling anxious or stressed (Strasser et al., 2022).
Not only does an overrepresentation of bad news present a challenge for newsrooms in terms of retaining audiences, but excessive negativity may carry ethical and normative implications for individuals and society. Kinnick et al. (1996) found evidence of compassion fatigue, or public apathy toward human suffering, for several social problems, including homelessness, violent crime and child abuse. When pervasive negative media coverage about a social issue gives the impression that nothing can be done, audiences can become desensitized and selectively avoid news about the issue (Kinnick et al., 1996). This lowered interest and information-seeking regarding social
problems presents a challenge to certain democratic ideals. Strömbäck’s (2005) deliberative model of democracy holds that citizens should, to begin with, be politically interested and engaged.
Political participation presupposes that citizens have sufficient knowledge about issues and about
5 how political processes work. The role of journalism in this model is to provide sufficient
information not only about problems, but about how they are solved and who has the power to solve them. Solutions journalism attempts to address the gap between deliberative democratic ideals and the current state of negativity bias in the news.
While many studies have focused on the production of solutions journalism, there is less empirical research on its effects on audiences. Further, while previous studies have shown that solutions journalism can increase positive affect, there is less agreement on whether this type of reporting can influence attitudes and behavioral intentions. The current study will explore the effects of solutions journalism on affect and self-efficacy, as well as on attitudes and behavioral intentions relating to diverting funds from police departments to social programs through an online experiment. Following the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, this study will also assess the mediating role of emotions in these effects. The following research questions will be addressed:
RQ: To what extent does reading a solution-oriented news story on social media influence affect, self-efficacy, behavioral intentions and policy attitudes?
Sub-RQ: Are these effects mediated by positive and negative affect?
Theoretical background Solutions Journalism
Solutions journalism has been defined as “a form of explanatory journalism that may serve as a form of watchdog reporting, highlighting effective responses to problems in order to spur reform in areas where people or organizations are failing to respond adequately, particularly when better options are available” (Curry & Hammonds, 2014). Scholars generally regard this journalistic practice as falling under the umbrella of constructive journalism, which involves “applying positive psychology techniques to news processes and production in an effort to create productive and engaging coverage, while holding true to journalism’s core functions” (McIntyre and Gyldensted, 2017). The use of these terms is also geographical, as American researchers and journalists are
6 more likely to use the term solutions journalism, while the term constructive journalism is more common abroad (Lough & McIntyre, 2021). Since the current research was conducted in a US context, the term solutions journalism will be used throughout this study to refer to solution- oriented reporting. Though the study of solutions journalism and its effects is in its early years, solutions journalism as a practice is well-documented. A pioneer of this practice in the U.S. is the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a non-profit organization that has compiled more than 2,000 solutions journalism stories and trained journalists in more than 80 newsrooms since 2013
(Solutions Journalism Network, 2022). Real-world examples of this practice include The
Huffington Posts’ “What’s Working” initiative and the NYT’s blog series “Fixes,” both of which aimed to provide meaningful alternatives to relentlessly negative coverage – often in collaboration with audiences. According to the SJN, solution-oriented stories should meet the following criteria in addition to conventional news reporting standards:
-Reference to a social problem in a way that highlights a response to that problem -The response is tangible, not hypothetical
-The story includes hard evidence of the impact of the response
-The story topic is socially significant (has meaningful social implications)
While solutions journalism implicitly seeks to improve society, its proponents draw a sharp line between solutions journalism and advocacy. Metadiscourse about solutions journalism reveals a strict adherence to “rigorous reporting,” which follows traditional journalistic norms and practices while focusing on actionable solutions (Aitamurto & Varma, 2018). This commitment sets solutions journalism apart from some of its predecessors, such as peace journalism and activist journalism, as well as apart from “positive news,” which often focuses on individual deeds rather than on implementation and results. However, tension over the normative role of journalism is still a source of criticism of this approach. Proponents claim that highlighting solutions to ongoing social problems can strengthen democracy by fostering more productive public discourse, an aim in line with Strömbäck’s (2005) deliberative model of democracy. Prior studies on solutions
7 journalism have also stressed the social responsibility theory of the press, which holds that
journalists should consider society’s best interest in their newsmaking decisions (McIntyre &
Gyldensted, 2018). However, some critics do not consider it a journalists’ task to present alternatives or solutions to pressing problems and question the credibility of these approaches.
Further, proponents rarely acknowledge the biases and values inherent in the selection of which solutions to highlight, and the agenda-setting effects of this selection (Aitamurto & Varna, 2018). A recent survey found substantial support among U.S. journalists for the professional roles inherent in solutions journalism, with journalists valuing the role of ‘covering stories of progress as often as those about conflict’ more strongly than any other role (McIntyre et al., 2016). In light of increased interest in this type of reporting, comprehensive research about solutions journalism and its effects on audiences is warranted.
Academic research on solutions journalism began in 2011, though publications only began to ramp up beginning in 2017. Even at its infancy, solutions journalism research was a global effort, with most articles focusing on processes and production rather than effects (Lough &
McIntyre, 2021). The Center for Media Engagement’s quasi-experiment was the first to test the effects of solution-oriented stories on audiences. They found that reading solution-oriented stories heightened reader’s optimism, interest, perceived knowledge, perceived self-efficacy, and intentions to engage on an issue (Curry & Hammonds, 2014). Since then, researchers have set out to study these effects in experimental and real-world settings and to uncover their theoretical underpinnings.
Theoretical foundations of solutions journalism Positive psychology
The field of positive psychology seeks to understand the conditions that allow people, as well as communities and societies, to thrive (Seligman, 2011). Much as this field was born as a response to psychology’s preoccupation with the dysfunctions of the human mind, solutions journalism aims to correct the news media’s hyperfocus on what psychologists call the disease model of the world. Solutions journalism proponents believe the watchdog function of the media is
8 imperative and inevitably involves focusing on dysfunctions and conflict, but excessive attention to these at the expense of discussing what is working distorts audience perceptions about reality and violates core journalistic functions of portraying the world accurately (Gyldensted, 2011). The goal of constructive journalism is to apply positive psychology techniques to journalism to
counterbalance the negativity bias and, as a possible result, improve well-being on an individual and societal level. One of the primary mechanisms through which this goal can be achieved is positive emotions, as these are indicators of flourishing (Seligman, 2011).
Research shows that solution-oriented news stories produce positive emotions, even when they are about inherently negative events (Baden et al., 2018; Meier, 2018; McIntyre, 2019).
Specifically, individuals may experience emotions such as hope and elevation while reading a solution-oriented story (McIntyre, 2019). This effect was shown for various news formats, such as radio broadcasts (Veitch et al., 1977), and for various audiences, including children (van Venrooij et al., 2021). The current study will advance this area of research by investigating affective
responses to solution-oriented news stories in the form of Twitter threads, or series of linked tweets, which has not yet been studied. Since there is substantial evidence that solution-oriented news stories increase positive affect, the following hypothesis is proposed:
H1: Exposure to a solution-oriented news story will lead to higher positive affect, and lower negative affect, than a problem-oriented news story.
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions
When individuals are exposed to solutions to social problems, they can experience more positive emotions and less negative emotions. However, there is less agreement on whether solutions journalism can go beyond affecting emotions to influencing self-efficacy, behavioral intentions and attitudes, and whether these effects are driven by changes in affect. Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions holds that positive emotions such as hope, pride and interest encourage individuals to approach problems rather than avoid them, and build
9 intellectual, social and psychological resources to be used later. Isen (1990) has suggested that positive affect produces a “broad, flexible cognitive organization and ability to integrate diverse materials” (p.89). Baden et al. (2018) found support for the theory by showing that being exposed to constructive news triggers positive feelings, which translates into higher intentions of taking action for a good cause. Overgaard (2021) found that the effects of solution-oriented headlines on self-efficacy are mediated by positive affect, but also by negative affect, providing only partial evidence for the theory in online settings. The current study will seek to elaborate on the mediating roles of both positive and negative affect in self-efficacy, policy attitudes and behavioral intentions.
Self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors to meet challenges and influence outcomes, is an understudied potential consequence of solutions
journalism (Bandura, 1997). Li (2020) found that solution-oriented stories were more likely to elicit higher levels of interest in and self-efficacy on the opioid crisis, and Overgaard (2021) found that reading solution-oriented posts on social media led to higher self-efficacy. Qualitative studies also give useful insight into how consuming constructive news can give readers a greater sense of confidence in their own ability, as well as in society’s ability, to address entrenched problems.
Drawing on the theory of psychological empowerment, Zhao et al. (2022) found that in interviews, participants reported the potential of solutions journalism to afford greater control, self-efficacy, and critical awareness. In focus groups with residents of South Los Angeles about local solutions- oriented media coverage, Wenzel et al. (2017) found that many participants expressed a greater sense of efficacy, often asking how they could learn more about the issues in the stories and get involved. Given the need for more quantitative research on this variable, the current study will examine self-efficacy specifically in response to reading about non-policing solutions to crime- related problems. Preliminary findings on the effects of solutions journalism on self-efficacy and interest point in a positive direction, thus the following hypotheses are proposed:
10 H2a: Exposure to a solution-oriented news story will lead to higher interest in the topic than a problem-oriented news story.
H2b: Exposure to a solution-oriented news story will lead to higher perceived self-efficacy than a problem-oriented news story.
Though only one study has examined the affective causal pathway of solutions journalism on self-efficacy, research within positive psychology also provides clues for the mechanisms by which these news stories could influence self-efficacy. Schutte (2013), for instance, found that a positive psychological intervention increased people’s positive affect, which then increased their self-efficacy. In line with the broaden-and-build theory, and given that prior research provides evidence for the effects of solutions journalism on self-efficacy being mediated by changes in affect, the following hypothesis is proposed:
H2c: The effect of the news story condition on self-efficacy will be indirect through positive and negative affect; positive affect will increase self-efficacy and negative affect will decrease it.
The broaden-and-build-theory has also been used to predict that positive emotions resulting from consuming solution-oriented news would motivate readers to engage, which could mean seeking more information, sharing the news story, or donating money to the cause. Here, the role of hope as an emotion and coping mechanism stands out. As stated by Lazarus (1999): “hope can galvanize efforts to seek improvement of an unsatisfactory situation.” Self-efficacy may also play a role in this relationship, as the confidence that one can control outcomes is thought to propel hope forward into action (Lazarus, 1999). In the social realm, high self-efficacy was found to translate to confidence in performing prosocial acts and an interest in the welfare of others (Caprara et al., 2012).
The evidence regarding solutions journalism is mixed: some studies show an impact of constructive stories on intentions to take positive action to address issues (Baden et al., 2018), some find no impact (McIntyre, 2019), and some find only more willingness to talk about the topic or
11 read similar stories (Meier, 2018 and McIntyre, 2019). Given that one of the objectives of solutions journalism is to create greater audience loyalty to media companies, social media behaviors have also been studied. Research shows that readers are more willing to “like” an article with restorative narratives (Schäfer et al., 2022) or share a solution-oriented article on social media (Li, 2020 and Meier, 2018). Hermans & Prins (2020) even found evidence for actual behavioral differences online, as Millennials who read constructive news “liked” this news more often.
The impact of this type of reporting on higher-stakes or offline behaviors is less certain.
Gong et al. (2021) found a link between media attention to prosocial messages and prosocial behaviors, while van Venrooij et al. (2021) found that children actually donated more money after reading conflict-oriented news, and this effect was mediated by negative emotions. The only other study to test the role of affect as a mediator is Baden et al.’s (2018), which showed that being exposed to constructive news triggers positive feelings, which translates into higher intentions of taking action for a good cause. The current study will seek to clarify whether the effect of solutions journalism on behavioral intentions is indirect through affect. It will also expand the typical scope of behavioral intentions to include the likelihood of signing a petition and joining a protest in support of community-oriented solutions to the problem in the story. As previous studies present mixed findings, the following questions are posed:
RQ1a: Compared to a problem-oriented news story, how does exposure to a solutions-oriented news story affect intentions to a) like or share the news thread b) read similar stories c) research more about the topic d) talk to others about the issue e) sign a petition to increase funding for community-oriented solutions to the problem, and f) join a protest to advocate for community- oriented solutions to the problem?
RQ1b: Is the effect of the news story condition on behavioral intentions indirect through positive and negative affect?
12 Though several studies show that solution-oriented stories can increase self-efficacy and behavioral intentions, few studies have investigated their impact on attitudes. Framing, or
highlighting certain aspects of a story and ignoring others to create meaning, is an inevitable aspect of the newsmaking process (Entman, 1993). Solutions journalism can be analyzed in terms of utilizing a problem-solution frame (McIntyre, 2019). Media frames can play a vital role in stimulating opposition to or support for an event or issue; thus, problem-solution frames could reasonably influence attitudes towards the problem or solution presented (Saleem, 2007).
According to the broaden-and-build theory, negative emotions tend to narrow people’s thought-action repertoires, while positive emotions tend to make people more flexible and open to information (Frederickson 2001). Thus, positive emotions brought about by reading solution-
oriented news story could make individuals more open-minded and supportive of the solution in the story. McIntyre (2019) found that participants who read a story about an effective solution to a problem reported significantly more favorable attitudes towards the solution presented. Thier et al.
(2019) similarly found that reading a solutions story and being transported into the story led to greater agreement with story-specific beliefs. Even though the aforementioned studies did not test the role of affect as a mediator, it may have driven some of the observed effects.
Framing effects studies show that negatively-framed news can not only lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, but can also reduce tolerance and helping behavior (Galician & Pasternack, 1987). News stories about crime are especially vulnerable to these effects since they may provoke fear, which can lead individuals to focus more on their own security and have less concern for others (Sheldon & Kasser, 2008). Biases in crime reporting have significantly contributed to public misperceptions of crime (Esberg & Mummolo, 2018). These misperceptions bear potentially detrimental consequences for democratic accountability, or the ability of citizens to accurately perceive changes in social conditions and attribute these to elected officials’ actions (Bartels, 2010).
Proponents of solutions journalism hold that citizens should also know about initiatives that are improving conditions to be able to assess and demand solutions from elected officials. Gilens
13 (2001) found that providing information about crime rates significantly affects support for prison spending. However, Esberg and Mummolo (2018) found little evidence that corrective information about crime rates leads citizens to update their policy preferences. The current study will go beyond studying the effects of information about crime rates to examining whether exposure to information about non-policing solutions to crime-related problems affects attitudes towards these solutions.
Given that no studies have examined whether affect mediates the impact of solutions journalism on readers’ policy attitudes, the current study breaks new ground in this area. Therefore, I ask:
RQ2a: Compared to a problem-oriented news story, how does a community solutions-oriented news story affect attitudes towards a) solutions to the story involving redirecting funds away from police departments towards community-oriented initiatives and b) defunding the police?
RQ2b: Is the effect of the news story condition on policy attitudes indirect through positive and negative affect?
Method Design and Procedure
For this research, an online survey experiment was conducted following the University of Amsterdam’s guidelines. Participants were randomly assigned to read a Twitter news thread about a solution-oriented story or a problem-oriented story, either of which included a solution-oriented photo or a problem-oriented photo. There were two news story conditions: solution-oriented, and problem- oriented. Two stories about different topics were used for the conditions to increase external validity.
The survey was described as an academic research study about news production and public opinion in which participants would be asked to read a news story and respond to a questionnaire. A convenience sample was recruited via snowball sampling on social media and survey sharing platforms. Recruitment took place over two weeks starting May 23rd, 2022. After consenting to participate, participants were asked demographic questions and a few questions about their political ideology, perceptions of crime rates and confidence in police. Participants were then instructed to read the news story carefully, as they would be asked questions about it afterwards. The next section
14 of the survey included two manipulation check questions and the dependent variable measures. At the end of the survey, participants were thanked and debriefed about the true nature of the study and the fabrication of the news stories.
In total, 292 participants completed the survey. After excluding participants who were not living in the US, were under the age of 18, or took less than 2.5 minutes to complete the task, the final sample was 216. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 84 years (M = 33.70, SD = 16.73). They were located primarily in the Northeast, with 31% residing in Pennsylvania and 13% in New Jersey.
The majority of the sample identified as White (79%), and women were also overrepresented (69%).
Participants were highly educated, with 84% having earned an advanced degree (AA, BA, or graduate degree). Most participants (83%) reported being at least somewhat interested in politics, and on a left to right-leaning scale of -3 to 3, participants were left-leaning (M = -1.41, SD = 1.41). In terms of partisanship, 56% identified as Democrats, 8% as Republicans, 17% as Independents, and 13% as
News story. In all conditions, respondents were invited to read “a Twitter news thread from an online
news outlet, The Newbury Times.” The news outlet name and Twitter logo were fabricated and intended to resemble a standard news outlet. The story was in the form of a Twitter thread, or a series of linked tweets by one account. This form of online journalism is gaining in popularity, and journalists often use Twitter threads for investigative journalism or to summarize and link back to their articles (Littau & Jhang, 2020). The Twitter threads were created using Tweetgen, a website for creating fake tweets. A total of eight threads were created for the conditions, each consisting of a series of eight tweets. The total word count of the threads was similar across conditions (between 241 and 307 words). The number of replies, retweets and favorites for each tweet was randomized and consistent across conditions, as well as the date of the tweets. Each thread had the same format: the first tweet included the headline of the story and a photo, followed by three tweets about the conflict,
15 followed by either four tweets about a solution or four additional tweets about the conflict. In order to decrease the risk of participants having fixed opinions towards a certain issue, two stories were employed for the conditions: one about a national rise in homelessness and another about a national police shortage and spike in homicides. The stories were created using several published news stories from mainstream news outlets and manipulated to create a solution-oriented and problem-oriented condition for each story. For both conditions of each story, the text of the first four tweets was identical except for a slightly different headline in the first tweet to maintain ecological validity. The solution discussed in both stories for the solution-oriented conditions consisted of one city’s community-oriented initiative aimed at solving the problem. The initiative’s effectiveness was also discussed in both stories, and funding for the initiative was reported to be diverted from the city’s police budget. Examples of the Twitter threads can be found in Appendix A.
Each version of the news thread included a photo in the first Tweet that portrayed either the solution or the problem to maintain ecological validity, given that Lough and McIntyre’s (2018) content analysis of solutions-oriented stories showed that accompanying photos depicted the solution around half of the time (Lough & McIntyre, 2018). The problem-oriented photo for the Homelessness story showed a white woman sitting in a homeless encampment looking down at a child on her lap. The corresponding solution photo showed a white woman smiling looking out the window of a house. The problem photo for the Police story showed a male police officer alone at a crime scene at night. The corresponding solution photo showed a team of two men and one woman posing and smiling in front of a white van. One man appears to be an EMT and the other people are dressed in plain clothes.
A small pilot study was conducted to assess responses to the stimulus. Eight people were randomly assigned to a stimulus and were asked to describe what the story was about and how it made them feel. The problem-oriented stories were described with words like “negative” and “bleak,”
and the solution-oriented stories were described as “hopeful” and “interesting.” To ensure the manipulation of the stories was successful in the experiment, participants were asked to rate on 7-
16 point scales the extent to which they agreed the story they read was about a problem (recoded), and a solution. An independent-samples t test indicated that indeed those who read a solution-oriented story thought the story was significantly more solution-oriented (M = 3.65, SD = 0.10) than those who read a problem-oriented story (M = 2.10, SD = 0.74), t(189) = 12.24, p < .001.
Affect. Participants were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the extent to which they experienced 10
emotions (5 positive, 5 negative) while reading the news story. The measure is a shortened version of Watson, Clark and Tellegen’s (1988) positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS). Positive feelings included alert, excited and proud, while negative feelings included distressed, scared and nervous. Since PANAS is a bidirectional scale, the 5 items measuring negative feelings were combined to create a negative affect variable (a = .81, M = 4.17, SD = 1.25), and the five items measuring positive feelings were combined to create a positive affect variable (a = .75, M = 3.63, SD
Interest. Participants were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the extent to which they agreed with the
following statements: “I like the topic of this news story,” “This news story increased my interest in this topic,” “I have little or no interest in this topic” (reverse coded), “I forced myself to be interested in this story topic” (reverse coded), and “The topic of this news story is rather fascinating.” The items were adapted from McIntyre, Lough and Manzanares (2018). A composite variable (a = .79, M = 4.68, SD = 1.12) for interest was created by combining the five items.
Perceived self-efficacy. Participants were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the extent to which they
agreed with the following statements adapted, in part, from Curry and Hammonds (2014): “Now that I’ve read this news story…’I feel like I understand the issue,’ ‘I think there are ways to effectively address this problem,’ ‘I think I can contribute to a solution to this problem,’ and ‘I feel like I could explain the issue to someone else.’” A composite variable (a = .68, M = 4.52, SD = 1.02) for perceived self-efficacy was created by combining the four items.
17 Defunding attitudes. To measure attitudes towards the solution discussed in the solution-oriented
story condition, participants were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the extent to which they agreed that the best way to address the problem in the news story is to: “Increase funding for police departments”
(reverse coded) and “Redirect some funds from police departments to community-oriented initiatives (mental health, housing, social services etc.).” A composite variable (a = .76, M = 5.47, SD = 1.48) for agreement with story-specific solutions was created by combining the two items. Higher values on the scale indicate higher agreement. To measure general attitudes towards defunding the police, or redirecting funds away from police departments, participants were asked on a 7-point “Strongly oppose” to “Strongly favor” scale the extent to which they favored “reducing funding for police departments, and moving those funds to mental health, housing, and other social services (M = 5.41, SD = 1.79).”
Behavioral intentions. Participants were asked to rate on a 7-point “Extremely unlikely” to
“Extremely likely” scale how likely they would be to: like or share the news story on social media, read similar stories, research more about the topic, talk to others about the issue, sign a petition to increase funding for community-oriented solutions to the problem, and join a protest to advocate for community-oriented solutions to the problem. The items are meant to assess participants’ engagement with the story, in line with Oliver, Hartmann and Woolley (2012). A composite variable (a = .86, M
= 4.58, SD = 1.39) for behavioral intentions was created by combining the six items.
Prior to the stimuli, participants were asked a series of demographic questions about their gender, age, ethnicity/race, education level and political ideology. Gender was recoded into a dichotomous variable (0 = man, 1 = woman), ethnicity/race was recoded into a dichotomous variable given the unbalanced nature of the sample (0 = White, 1 = all others), and partisanship was recoded into a dichotomous variable by including participants who identified as Independents but considered themselves as closer to the Democratic party or Republican party as Democrats (0) and Republicans (1). Participants were also asked about their income level, whether they thought there was less or
18 more crime in the U.S. now than a year ago (on a 7-point scale), and how much confidence they had in police to protect them from violent crime (on a 7-point scale) since past research shows that these variables can influence policing attitudes (Esberg & Mummolo, 2018). These three variables were included as covariates in the analyses for effects on defunding attitudes. Statistical analyses revealed no significant differences between participants on gender and age across the story conditions.
Therefore, these variables were not controlled for in the main analyses. Race/ethnicity and partisanship were controlled for despite successful randomization given small expected counts for Republican and non-White participants, and education level was controlled for since participants were not successfully randomized on this variable across story conditions.
A series of hierarchical multiple regression analyses were run to test the effects of reading a solution-oriented news story on the outcome variables (affect, self-efficacy, interest, behavioral intentions and policy attitudes). Each regression consisted of two blocks, the first of which included only the main IV — story orientation (0 = problem-oriented, 1 = solution-oriented), and the second which also included the covariates mentioned in the previous section.
H1 predicted that reading a solution-oriented news story would lead to higher positive affect, and lower negative affect, than a problem-oriented news story. All predictor variables were entered in the same block of a regression model with positive affect as the outcome variable. The model explained a significant amount of variance in positive affect, F(4, 176) = 18.53, p < .001 (See Table 1, Model A). Story orientation significantly predicted positive affect within the model;
participants who read a solution-oriented news story reported more positive affect than those who read a problem-oriented story. A separate regression model with all predictor variables and negative affect as the outcome variable explained a significant amount of variance in negative affect, F(4, 176) = 7.33, p < .001 (See Table 1, Model B). Story orientation significantly predicted negative affect within the model; participants who read a solution-oriented news story reported less negative affect than those who read a problem-oriented story. Therefore, H1 was supported.
19 H2 predicted that reading a solution-oriented news story would lead to a) higher interest and b) increased self-efficacy than a problem-oriented news story. Results of a regression analysis showed that story orientation did not significantly predict interest in the topic. Therefore, H2a was not supported.
A separate regression model with all predictor variables and self-efficacy as the outcome variable explained a significant amount of variance in self-efficacy, F(4, 176) = 3.05, p = .019 (see Table 1, Model C). Story orientation significantly predicted self-efficacy within the model;
participants who read a solution-oriented news story reported more self-efficacy than those who read a problem-oriented story. Therefore, H2b was supported.
H2c predicted that the effect of the news story orientation on self-efficacy would be mediated by affect, such that solution-oriented stories will increase positive affect and decrease negative affect, and positive affect will increase self-efficacy while negative affect will decrease it.
A parallel mediation analysis using Hayes’ (2022) PROCESS model 4 showed there was a
significant indirect effect of story orientation on self-efficacy through positive affect, and this effect was positive (see Figure 1). Further, story orientation no longer had a direct effect on self-efficacy when positive affect was taken into account as a mediator, meaning positive affect fully mediates the relationship (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Therefore, H2c was partially supported, as positive affect mediates the effect of news story orientation on self-efficacy, but negative affect does not.
RQ1a asked whether reading a solution-oriented news story would lead to higher behavioral intentions than a problem-oriented news story. A regression model with all predictor variables and behavioral intentions as the outcome variable explained a significant amount of variance in behavioral intentions, F(4, 175) = 5.86, p < .001 (see Table 1, Model D). However, story orientation was not a significant predictor of behavioral intentions within the model.
To explore these findings more deeply, a regression was run with each of the six behavioral intentions individually. The only significant regression model included all predictor variables and social media intentions as the outcome variable, F(4, 175) = 4.31, p = .002 (see Table
20 1, Model E). Story orientation significantly predicted the likelihood of liking or sharing the news story on social media; participants who read a solution-oriented news story were more likely to like or share the story on social media than those who read a problem-oriented story. The data suggest that reading a solution-oriented news story leads to higher social media intentions, but not higher overall behavioral intentions.
RQ1b asked whether the effect of news story orientation on behavioral intentions would be mediated by positive and negative affect. A parallel mediation analysis using Hayes’ (2022) PROCESS model 4 showed there was a significant indirect effect of story orientation on behavioral intentions through positive affect and, to a lesser degree, negative affect (see Figure 2). The analysis showed a positive indirect effect through positive affect and a weaker, negative indirect effect through negative affect. Given that there are significant indirect effects, yet the direct effect of story orientation on behavioural intentions is also significant, this indicates a partial mediation through positive and negative affect.
Since preliminary findings showed an effect of reading a solution-oriented news story on intentions to like or share the news story on social media, a parallel mediation analysis using Hayes’ (2022) PROCESS model 4 was run with social media intentions as the dependent variable to test the mediating role of affect in this relationship. The analysis showed there was a significant indirect effect of story orientation on social media intentions through positive affect and, to a lesser degree, negative affect (See Figure 3). There was a positive indirect effect through positive affect and a weaker, negative indirect effect through negative affect. Further, story orientation no longer had a direct effect on social media intentions when positive and negative affect were taken into account as mediators, meaning affect fully mediates the relationship (Baron & Kenny, 1986).
RQ2a asked how reading a community solutions-oriented news story affects attitudes about redirecting funds away from police departments towards community-oriented initiatives.
First, a regression was run with story-specific beliefs (agreement that the best way to solve the problem is diverting funds from the police to community-oriented solutions) as the outcome
21 variable. Then, a regression was run with general support for defunding the police as the outcome variable. For these analyses, crime rate perceptions, income level, and confidence in police were also included as predictors.
The first regression model with all predictor variables and story-specific beliefs as the outcome variable explained a significant amount of variance in story-specific beliefs, F(10, 169) = 13.34, p < .001 (see Table 1, Model F). Story orientation significantly predicted story-specific beliefs within the model; participants who read a solution-oriented news story reported higher story-specific beliefs than those who read a problem-oriented story.
The second regression model with all predictor variables and support for defund the police as the outcome variable explained a significant amount of variance in support for defund the police, F(7, 172) = 26.20, p < .001 (see Table 1, Model G). However, story orientation was not a significant predictor of support for defund the police within the model.
The data suggest that reading a solution-oriented news story leads to higher agreement with story-specific solutions that involve defunding the police, but not higher support for defunding the police in general.
RQ2b asked whether the effect of news story orientation on policy attitudes would be mediated by positive and negative affect. Since preliminary findings showed a direct effect of news story orientation on agreement with story-specific solutions, an analysis was run with story-specific beliefs as the dependent variable. A parallel mediation analysis using Hayes’ (2022) PROCESS model 4 showed there were no significant indirect effects of story orientation on story-specific beliefs through positive or negative affect (see Figure 4). However, when positive and negative affect were taken into account as mediators, the strength of the direct effect of story orientation on story-specific beliefs decreased, signaling that affect may be partially mediating the relationship.
However, we cannot conclude this based on the current evidence.
22 This study set out to examine the impact of solutions journalism on self-efficacy, behavioral intentions and attitudes related to diverting funds from police departments to community-oriented initiatives, and the mediating role of affect in these relationships. Through a survey experiment with a U.S. sample, this study offered insights into some of the ways in which exposure to solutions journalism on social media may influence attitudes and engage the public, and revealed the underlying importance of emotions in news media effects.
This study showed that reading a solution-oriented news story can make individuals feel more positive, and less negative, than reading a problem-oriented news story. This finding is in line with previous research showing that framing has emotional effects on audiences. Specifically, this study adds to the growing body of literature on solutions journalism showing a positive impact of this type of reporting on emotions. Importantly, a short Twitter news thread highlighting an
effective solution to a national problem was able to evoke similar degrees of mood elevation as past studies have shown for longer news articles. Future research could directly compare the effects of short-form and long-form solutions journalism.
This study also reinforced previous findings that reading a solution-oriented news story can increase an individual’s perceived self-efficacy, or belief in their capacity and society’s
capacity to address problems. Specifically, participants felt they had a clearer understanding of the issues of homelessness and police shortages and believed there are ways to effectively address these problems after reading about a community-oriented, non-policing solution. Partisanship was also a predictor of self-efficacy, with Republicans reporting less self-efficacy than Democrats.
In fact, partisanship was a significant predictor of several outcome measures in the study, including behavioral intentions and policy attitudes. This suggests that solutions reporting, in this case about national crises such as homelessness and police shortages and solutions involving defunding the police, is at least somewhat processed through a partisan lens. Future research should investigate the moderating role of partisanship to explore this possibility, as solutions journalism proponents often tout this style of reporting for its depolarizing potential.
23 Results of this study showed that reading a solution-oriented news story does not lead to higher intentions to take action overall. However, solutions framing leads to higher intentions to like or share the news story on social media, supporting previous research showing similar effects (Li, 2020 and Meier, 2018). These findings indicate that future research would benefit from
analyzing behavioral intentions separately rather than as one variable. After all, joining a protest in support of a solution and liking a news story on social media require vastly different levels of motivation and engagement. Perhaps readers of solution-oriented stories were interested in or concerned about the issue, but not enough so to engage in higher-effort actions beyond social media. It remains possible, given previous mixed findings, that several exposures to solutions journalism about a specific topic are needed to produce higher-order effects on behavior.
This study was the first to assess the impact of reporting about non-policing solutions to crime-related problems on attitudes towards defunding the police. In a recent poll by USA Today, only 18% of respondents supported the movement known as “defund the police,” while 58% said they opposed it. However, when asked whether they supported the idea of redirecting police funds to social services, 43% supported the idea (Quarshie, 2021). This study set out to examine whether providing information about effective implementation of police defunding measures can also increase support for these policies.
Following research showing that media frames can play a vital role in stimulating support for an issue, I found that reading a solution-oriented news story highlighting a community-oriented solution involving defunding the police leads to higher agreement that this solution is the best way to solve the problem. This finding suggests that, even for a story about a national shortage of police officers, presenting an effective solution and alternative to more police funding makes people more supportive of defunding the police. However, the two story topics were not separated in the
analyses; future research could do so to examine the differential effects of different crime-related story topics. On a wider scale, this finding indicates that, in line with previous studies, solutions
24 journalism can create more favorable attitudes towards solutions to social issues across partisan lines (McIntyre, 2019 and Thier et al., 2019).
Though the solution-oriented news story raised support for solutions to the problem in the news story involving defunding the police, it did not increase support for defunding the police in general. Perhaps readers were not willing to update their wider policy preferences regarding defunding the police – an already politicized topic – after exposure to only one news story.
Nonetheless, this study shows that solutions journalism might be an effective vehicle through which solutions that have been traditionally ignored or politicized by the media can be introduced to audiences. Common practices in crime reporting, such as a reliance on official sources in law enforcement and a focus on episodic crime events, obscure the systemic causes of crime as well as the effectiveness of non-policing solutions. Solutions journalism may be a way to counteract the news media’s pro-police bias, which has been shown to limit the media influence on government policies and reduce its quest for investigative reporting (Saleem, 2007). As the need to solve urgent issues such as homelessness and violent crime intensifies, and given the spurious link between increased police presence and violence prevention (Ford, 2021), covering community-based innovations to these problems is tantamount to solving them.
The Mediating Role of Affect
This study showed that emotions are not mere by-products of solutions journalism, but that they serve an important function in producing other meaningful effects. The positive impact of reading a solution-oriented news story on a person’s sense of self-efficacy and social media
intentions can be explained by emotional changes. The effect of story orientation on self-efficacy was predominantly explained by an increase in positive affect, and the effect of story orientation on intentions to like or share the news story was predominantly explained by changes in both positive and negative affect.
In line with Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions such as excitement and pride led to higher perceived self-efficacy and intentions to engage with a news
25 story. However, negative emotions such as distress and fear also had a positive influence on
behavioral intentions, though this effect was weaker than for positive emotions. Taken together, these findings indicate partial support for the broaden-and-build theory in online settings, much as Overgaard (2021) concluded. Positive emotions resulting from reading solution-oriented stories can improve well-being on an individual level, and on a societal level by empowering audiences and engaging them in the news. However, negative emotions can also play a role in pushing audiences to take action.
The current study did not find evidence of an indirect effect of either positive or negative affect on policy attitudes relating to defunding the police. This could mean either that an effect is not detectable in the current sample – which is a possibility given the relatively small size of the sample – or that other mechanisms are responsible for the relationship between story orientation and policy attitudes.
Commercial and Democratic Implications
The outcomes studied in this research have implications for newsrooms as well as for democratic ideals. For one, negative feelings and a lack of self-efficacy resulting from news consumption leads many people to actively avoid it (Reuters Digital News Report, 2021). The diversification of the news media has made it possible for citizens to either only consume news they prefer, or to avoid the news completely. My finding that more people are willing to like or share a solution-oriented news story, in combination with previous studies showing a preference for these news stories (Baden et al., 2018), may have commercial implications.
Here, the potential of solutions journalism on social media is of note. According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of American adults use social media, with roughly one-quarter using Twitter. Out of those using Twitter, 69% say they get news on the site (Mitchell et al, 2022).
Positive emotions experienced after being exposed to a solution-oriented news story on social media, such as the one in my study, could lead to higher engagement with these posts. Given that editorial decisions are increasingly based around the “click” behavior of users, solutions journalism
26 may be a fruitful avenue for news outlets to expand their reach, especially to young people. In networked environments, there is also the additional value of the user data that organizations are able to gather to target content. When the Huffington Post dedicated a section of its website to good news, traffic to this section increased by 85% in one year, and constructive content received double the amount of social referrals as other content (McIntyre and Gibson 2016).
Declining attention to the news affects the news media’s ability not only to retain
audiences, but also to perform its democratic function of informing the electorate. A well-informed citizenry means people are better able to choose political representatives consistent with their attitudes (van Aelst et al., 2017). This study showed that solutions journalism has the potential to shape citizens’ policy attitudes by engaging them in the news and informing them about effective solutions to social issues. By elevating these solutions, journalists can foster more productive, less polarized, public discourse. Solutions journalism may even serve a watchdog function in
highlighting effective responses and spurring reform, especially in areas in which policing-oriented solutions are not responding adequately. Further, digital flows have disrupted news routines and afforded greater user participation in the news. Journalists could use platforms like Twitter to summarize solution-oriented news stories and provide links to organizations carrying out initiatives, thereby giving citizens a pathway to learn more about solutions and contribute to them.
This study was not without limitations. Firstly, participants were gathered by a convenience sample and thus the sample cannot be said to be representative of the U.S. population. Participants were highly educated, left-leaning and primarily White, and most were located in the Northeast of the U.S. Consequently, the generalizability of the results of this study to the general population should not be overstated.
The stories used for the manipulation also had several limitations. Firstly, though the stories were constructed following the Solution Journalism Network’s guidelines, the criteria of discussing limitations of the highlighted response was not met given the limited length of a typical news thread
27 on Twitter. Further, the problem-oriented condition for both stories briefly discussed an ineffective, policing-based solution to the problem. Future research should compare the effects of a problem- oriented news story with no discussion of solutions with a solution-oriented news story involving defunding the police. It should also be noted that both stories were about national crises and, though this limits the influence of differential knowledge about or biases towards city-specific issues, the practice of solutions journalism more commonly employs a local lens. Future research could compare the effects of solutions journalism in a news story about a local problem with one about a national problem to test for differences.
Though this study adds to the growing body of literature documenting the short-term effects of solution journalism, more research is needed to uncover its long-term effects. The impact of reading one solution-oriented story may be different than the impact of regularly consuming this type of news. McIntyre’s (2020) longitudinal study found that hearing solutions news summaries impacted users’ feelings, but not their perceived engagement with the news. However, the resources built from those positive experiences mitigated the negative effects of more negative, traditional news, and the majority of users expressed a desire to continue using the feature. Future research would do well to study the long-term impact of solutions journalism highlighting non-policing solutions to crime-related problems on attitudes towards defunding the police.
This study broke ground in examining the affective mechanisms behind higher-order effects of solutions journalism. However, I did not isolate discrete positive and negative emotions to identify the roles of specific emotions rather than of general affect. Future research could examine the impact of hope, for instance, given its relevance to self-efficacy and prosocial action (Lazarus, 1999).
This study illuminated some of the ways in which solutions journalism may be mutually beneficial both to newsrooms, which are losing audiences in large part due to perceptions of the news as overly negative, and to readers, who benefit from increased well-being, self-efficacy and
28 engagement after consuming this type of news. Further, solutions journalism can strengthen democracy by elevating effective solutions to social problems, shaping public perceptions of them, and fostering more productive deliberation around polarizing issues. Journalists perform the essential function of informing citizens about the state of the world, which can often seem bleak. However, if citizens are not informed about how people, organizations and governments are responding to these conditions, this can lead to apathy. As journalistic responses to news avoidance and compassion fatigue increase, so must the scholarly attention around these new tools. Finally, as social movements such as Defund the Police struggle to maintain long-term support and reach across partisan lines, and as media coverage about these movements continues to be conflict-oriented, solutions journalism might just be a solution to the problem.
Appendix A – Example of Twitter thread
30 Figure 1. Twitter thread for solution-oriented condition
31 Appendix B – Visualizations of mediation analyses
Figure 2. Mediation analysis for self-efficacy
Figure 3. Mediation analysis for behavioral intentions
32 Figure 4. Mediation analysis for social media intentions
Figure 5. Mediation analysis for story-specific beliefs
33 Appendix C – Demographics and regression results
Sociodemographic Characteristics of Participants
Female 149 69
Male 56 26
White 170 79
Black/African American 7 3 Asian/Asian American 16 7 Hispanic or Latino/a 9 4 Middle Eastern/North African Highest educational
High school 4 2
Some college or
Associates degree 37 17 University or
postgraduate degree 173 80
Republican 19 9
Democrat 120 56
Independent 36 17
Other 28 13
No preference 9 4
Note. N = 215. Participants were on average 33.7 years old (SD = 16.73) 3 1
34 Table 2
Results of Multiple Regression Analyses
Model A: Positive affect
Model B: Negative affect
Model C: Self- efficacy
Model D: Behavioral intentions
Model E: Social media intentions
Model F: Story- specific beliefs
Model G: Support for defund
(Constant) 3.26*** 4.40 *** 4.56*** 3.81*** 2.91*** 6.17*** 6.24***
(.34)x) (.64)x) (.55)x) (.73)x) (1.08)x) (.78)x) (.87)x)
Story orientation 1.14*** −0.89*** 0.39* 0.14 0.69* 0.46* 0.43
(.14)x) (.20)x) (.17)x) (.23)x) (.34)x) (.20)x) (.22)x)
Partisanship -0.22 0.01 0.14 0.42* 0.45 0.46** 0.75***
(.19)x) (.18)x) (.15)x) (.20)x) (.30)x) (.17)x) (.20)x)
Ethnic/racial background -0.10 0.23 −0.15 0.25 0.40 0.34 0.50
(.18)x) (.26)x) (.22)x) (.29)x) (.43)x) (.25)x) (.28)x)
Education level (1-7) -0.02 0.03 -0.10 -0.04 -0.15 -0.10 -0.04
(.07)x) (.10)x) (.09)x) (.12)x) (.17)x) (.10)x) (.11)x)
Police confidence (1-7) -0.51*** -0.70***
Crime beliefs (1-7) 0.03 −0.06
R2 0.30 0.30.12 0.04 0.04 0.05 0.30 0.40
Note: *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001.
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