Journalist Guest Contributor
Basic Toolkit / Finding a Solutions-Oriented Story
Journalist Guest Contributor
Doing solutions journalism as a regular beat reporter with weekly deadlines can seem daunting—but a solutions lens can actually help you frame and write shorter pieces quickly. Here are some methods to get Sojo into your regular, 800-word-or-less reporting.
The beauty of studies, especially when they are published and peer-reviewed, is that the vetting has been done for you by professionals. Researchers are usually very happy to get the word out about their findings and relatively easy to reach and interview, and they are bad at getting the word out to the public themselves. Interviewing other researchers in the same space, or who have published different findings, can round out the story. Reporting on reputable studies, like this one, can be a win for all parties—including the reading public who doesn’t regularly crack open issues of JAMA.
It doesn’t have to. A story built around the work of a couple nonprofits can be the basis of a solutions story as long as you tell the pros and cons, and talk not only to the providers of a service but to those purportedly benefitting as well. Do your research to be on the lookout for downsides to any solutions--keep in mind that solutions aren’t flawless. For example, this story reports on two nonprofit organizations working together in Virginia to help eight low-income households convert their homes to electric power. The project entailed replacing fossil-fuel based heating and cooling systems like stoves and water coolers with electric ones, and organizers estimate that over the course of 20 years the changes will result in the households avoiding the emission of over 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide. But the story also includes the problems and potential downsides of this approach—participants are experiencing confusion over the intricacies of the new equipment and the program lacks statewide legislative support. Simply including both sides puts the response in context and avoids overclaiming or reading like a puff piece.
Most really big problems don’t have any big, easy solution; that’s what makes big problems difficult. It’s easy to feel like you have to find a perfect or complete solution—but those rarely come along. Instead, free yourself to write about partial solutions by acknowledging that their reach is limited and that there is still work to be done and progress can be incremental. For example, take this story on “momobile” post-natal care that goes to moms so they don’t have to take time off work to travel to their doctor visits in Camden, New Jersey. Would it work the same everywhere, and does it solve the problem for all moms in the area? No. Is it helping a lot of people with a small but smart innovation? Yes.
It’s not your job to find “the” solution—embrace failures as part of finding best practices and solutions. For example, take this story on the school districts in Yonkers, New York, where the city made a big play to get their high school kids into college. The college access program was a major success—with over 85 percent of college seniors getting accepted to college—mostly at the local community college. The catch? A year later, they discovered that nearly all these same students had dropped out. Including the failure actually makes the story of college access more rigorous and complete. Why did the students drop out? What initiative needs to take place next to not just get kids into college, but help them complete a degree? This solutions reporting is more thorough because it includes the flaws and failures.
You will learn more about best practices and solutions as you develop your beat or area of emphasis. It’s okay to do shorter stories on pieces of a solution to a big problem—you could even think of it as a small series. For example, sex trafficking is a big problem with many approaches. This story explores law enforcement solutions to sex trafficking. The story that followed it explores intervention and housing solutions for sex trafficking. It’s okay to let the solutions evolve and take your readers along as you go—you don’t have to get it all right in one, be-all, end-all story.
I love the fact that #4 is to not discard solution stories that have failed. One saying I've grown up with is that failure can be one of the best teachers. We can learn what happened or went wrong looking back. Not only that, what may seem like its a closed book for a story now could be worth revisiting in a year to see if the data and solution still hold up, or if there has been another turn in story that could be revisited.
Including a link or annotations back to the "10 questions" would make it easier for people to refresh their memory and help people retainthose basic tenets of solutions journalism
What's a "beat" and what are "our “10 questions”"?
Good insight on doing SOJO. Thanks for this.
Thank you so much for this. I've really been holding off on the Not-For-Profit and Social Entrepreneurship coverage, but this ahs given me an holistic approach to it, which I would apply henceforth.