Should a journalist writing about problems offer solutions too?

It is always encouraging to receive comments from readers of my Cambridge Letters. Sometimes it is not only encouraging but challenging. This was certainly true of comments made by two readers recently, who each made the point that if I write about problems I ought to suggest solutions as well as simply presenting and discussing the problem.

My immediate reaction was to be sympathetic to their comments. I readily agree that just setting out and discussing a problem can easily appear unconstructive. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt that the whole business raised other problems.

Here is one. A writer may, surely, raise legitimate questions about something without necessarily being an expert on it. In these circumstances, the questions may be acceptable, but producing detailed answers might well have little or no value. In that case, should the reaction be not to raise the questions?

Another issue is the matter not just of knowledge but of authority. As a writer I may — often do — express opinions on political matters, for example. If I follow that by coming up with political solutions, I may surely be justly criticised for arrogating to myself a position that should properly belong to someone to whom political decision making has been allocated. I am not, after all, an elected politician.

In circumstances like this, it is all too easy for a writer to become self-important and arrogant. I can think of plenty of examples of commentators in the United Kingdom media who could justly be accused of that — though as a simple matter of courtesy, I am not going to identify them.

The challenge is certainly greater for someone who writes opinion pieces — that is to say, a columnist — than for a journalist who is reporting news.

On the face of it, that role is more straightforward (though not less difficult). It is to let one’s readers know what has been said or done, full stop. Most journalists, I believe, would agree that it is certainly not to embellish a report with one’s own opinions. Even that, however, is not always as straightforward as it seems.

Sometimes — quite often — a report that simply sets out what has been said or done will not provide the reader with meaningful information, unless there is an element of commentary.

I will give an example from my own experience from many years ago. I was reporting on the pre-independence election in Kenya in 1963. The two main parties fighting it had radically different views. The problem for my largely English readers — whose knowledge of the Kenya political scene was limited, to put it kindly — was that these two parties were KANU and KADU. It would have been possible to produce a totally accurate report by simply setting out what the two parties were saying. It would, however, have been far from enlightening. It was, I believe — and other journalists shared that belief — essential when referring to the two parties to give some indication of what their policies were. In short, it was necessary to include some commentary.

That, of course, was not the same as providing answers as well as questions. It was not about providing one’s own solutions to the political problems. It was, however, I would argue, quite a good reminder that the balance between explanation and elaboration, and providing a solution, can be quite difficult.

The readers who felt that I ought to have suggested solutions as well as setting out problems may well argue that in what I have written here I am, once again, dodging the issue. I cannot fail to have some sympathy with that view.

Nevertheless, I return to the point I made near the beginning of this article: I think I can reasonably argue that I am qualified to ask questions. I am probably far less qualified to provide authoritative answers. Should that discourage me from asking the questions?

My answer to that is that it should not, but of course I must readily admit that I am not fully objective in the matter. My critics will doubtless remain unsatisfied and will continue to argue that I should provide solutions as well as posing questions.

My position could perhaps be attributed to modesty — but if forced into a corner I shall have to admit that my friends would describe it as strictly qualified modesty.

Oh well, I have once again analysed the problem but have failed to produce a solution.

E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com.