Story and photo by Emily Wilkins, 2016 JAWS Fellow
Journalists often play the role of watchdog. Liza Gross would like to see them be guide dogs.“We are whistleblowers, we expose the wrongdoing and then we don’t do anything about it — we just leave it there,” said Liza, the director of newsroom practice change with Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that works with newsroom on solutions-driven stories.
The Oct. 29 session was led by Liza and her colleague Samantha McCann, the director of communities.
Solutions journalism is a type of reporting focused on how people are responding to problems and what evidence is available to tell how effective those responses have been. It’s not the same as a story highlighting a person doing important work or a feel-good piece that skips the question of whether the solution is actually working.
Solutions reporting also avoids the notion of a “silver bullet” story, which may suggest a messy and complex issue can be solved with something simple, Samantha said.
A solution story has four core features:
- The central focus of the story is a response to a problem, not a person doing the work.
- The story examines the effectiveness of the solution, not just the intentions of those implementing the solution or assumptions about what might eventually happen.
- The story provides insights to help others respond to the problem.
- The story explores limitations and caveats to the solution.
Both women emphasized that solutions journalism isn’t a movement, but a practice that can lead to new stories and insights. It’s best used to cover well-known issues readers want to see resolved.
Focusing on what is being done to help, and if that help is effective, advances the story while engaging the community on what they can do to help solve the problem.
The organization has collected samples of solutions reporting in a many fields and media platforms.
“It’s a technique, and a way of thinking, and you can execute it any which way you want,” Liza said.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press used solutions reporting in its series “The Poverty Puzzle,” which focused on efforts to address income inequality in the city. Instead of just cataloging the problem, the series focused on the key elements: family, church, education, jobs and community.
Staff at the paper said that after the series ran in March 2016, the conversation among community nonprofits, city leaders and residents shifted to be more productive and less-polarized. Reader engagement also increased.
“This story has received more unsolicited input from readers and members of the community than anything else we’ve done,” said Alison Gerber, the paper’s editor in a Solutions Journalism Network video.