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Contents
  1. I. Introduction (30m)
  2. II. Basic Reporting (60m)
  3. III. Basic Storytelling (30m)
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Basic Toolkit / Vetting a Solutions-Oriented Story

Vetting a Solutions-Oriented Story: Introduction

At this stage, you’ve potentially found the bud of a compelling story. How do you know if it’s any good?

As with any story, you’ll have to vet the idea.

First, follow the rules of good journalism. Try to find many distinct perspectives when reporting a story. Interview people who do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the intervention. Think about where your sources get their funding. 

The judgment needed to identify a good solutions story is similar to the judgment needed to identify a good problem story: what happened and how do we know it happened? The difference is in the perceived consequences of getting it wrong. In journalism, saying something is a problem and getting it wrong is a misdemeanor. Saying something is working and getting it wrong is a felony. “Overly credulous” is one of the worst things you can call a journalist. How do you avoid it? 

Don’t overclaim.

Don’t imply the problem is solved — it probably isn’t. Don’t announce that this is the best solution — you can’t know that. Don’t predict it will last — it might well not. Limit yourself to reporting the news: there’s something going on, and here’s what the evidence says. As with a traditional story, “evidence” isn’t just data. It can also be found in interviews, shoe-leather reporting — all the ways journalists gather information. No solution is perfect. Make sure you report on its limitations and struggles.

Such caution is protective. You don’t have to worry about looking like an advocate if you don’t make claims. If the solution falls apart a few months later, you don’t look gullible, because you simply covered what was happening at the time.

These guidelines are also liberating. You don’t have to try to rank and compare solutions to find the most successful one. You are free to write about solutions that are only partly successful — or even unsuccessful, as long as it’s an interesting or important failure, and you can explain to the reader why you’re covering it (see our section on failure). You’re just looking for a good story.

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Get the opposing view.

It’s very important in a solutions story to include informed skeptics. Listening to and incorporating differing points of view — especially when on a topic that’s relatively unproven — will give your journalism more weight.

Use data to work backwards from the outcome when possible.

As indicated in our Slices section, this gives you a level of comfort. That said: remember that even with numbers, there may be some vested interests that went into collecting and sharing them.

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Be extra careful. Your subjects will likely rush to talk to you about a solutions story. But you shouldn’t rush to believe what they say. Get the evidence to support any claim of success.

4 Comments

  • Damon Fairall

    Mary leaves a comment on every page and it is absolutely electric lol

  • Mary Agoyi

    Getting an evidence is as important as the story... Thank you for this.

  • Mary Agoyi

    Getting an evidence is as important as the story... Thank you for this.

  • Chidindu Mmadu-Okoli

    I just learned there's a word for going to the field to verify stories: shoe-leather reporting. Yes, this is relevant for telling balanced solutions stories.

Resources

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“There has to be an established problem or common agreement that there’s a problem. Look at the responses. There needs to be some way to measure the effectiveness of that. If it’s just anecdotal, if we just have people saying, 'Oh, this is great,'' that’s really not enough. We need some way to measure it. If the response or solution came about because somebody just threw aton of money at it, we’re probably not interested in that because that precludes a lot of other places from being able to replicate it or try it out themselves. Which speaks to another thing we look for. Is the response or solution scalable? Could it be replicated somewhere else?"

Janethh
Janet Horne Henderson
The Seattle Times
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Quiz
Quiz Yourself

You’re the solutions editor

Read this story about an approach to reducing the education performance gap for students of color—and use the annotation tools to highlight text that reflects the five criteria for solutions stories:

  1. Focuses in depth on a response to a social problem
  2. Examines how the response works in meaningful detail
  3. Focuses on effectiveness, not good intentions, presenting available evidence of results
  4. Provides not just inspiration, but insight that others can use
  5. Discusses what's not working about the approach

Then press the button below to reveal our answers.

MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO

Northfield program shrinks Latino achievement gap

When Jhosi Martinez thinks of college, she remembers the words of her father.

"He's always wanted me to graduate and he's always wanted me to continue and go to college and become someone else," the Northfield High School senior said. Jhosi's dad never graduated from high school. Neither did her mom nor her older sister. Her family is like that of tens of thousands of Mexicans who have moved to greater Minnesota in search of better opportunities.

Many of those families represent a persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color that Minnesota education have long grappled with. But in Northfield, that gap has practically vanished in the past decade, because of a program committed to getting the district's growing Latino student population to graduate from high school. So Jhosi Martinez, 18, turned to the program known as TORCH -- Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes.

On a recent day in a computer lab at Northfield High, she scrolled through the fields of an online college application. "Right now, I am applying at Bemidji (State University) and I'm just going through the application process and filling it out," she said as a volunteer helped her navigate the online form. Within minutes, the application was complete. In the past year, volunteers have also helped Jhosi keep her grades up with one-on-one tutoring and mentoring. "Whenever we need help with anything, they help. If you have a question with a math problem and you want someone to review your essay for English class or anything like that, they always help out," she said. Had Jhosi grown up in Northfield a decade ago, her chances of going to college would have been slim. From 2001 to 2005, only 36 percent of Latino students graduated from high school. Teachers and parents became concerned. "We had a sense that many of them were dropping out to go to work because of the promise of the dollar," said Beth Berry, coordinator of the Northfield program. The idea for the program started when a group of teachers applied for a $1,500 grant to start the program and organized a dinner for the Latino community. "We held it at a bowling alley so families had dinner and kids went bowling while we talked to the parents about the promise of larger dollars with more education and that in the U.S. it really is not an option not to graduate from high school," Berry said. "We really had terrific buy-in in part of the parents." The TORCH program born from that dinner is independent of the school district but housed inside the high school. It relies on $100,000 in grants to cover Berry's salary, as well her counterpart at the middle school.

The program tracks students through high school and during their college years, offering after-school tutoring, home visits and in some cases financial aid. It also takes families on college tours each spring.

"The parents actually see where the students may be, and that's been a tremendous payoff, too, because once parents are on a campus and begin to feel that there is a lot of potential and a lot of support for their child, they've generally been very encouraging and very positive," Berry said.

TORCH currently serves about 350 students, including 50 in college. This year, all of Northfield High School's Latino students graduated. In all, 49 TORCH alumni have gone on to receive a two-year certificate program or college degree. Part of the credit for that success goes to the program's location and Northfield's culture of education. The city is home to two liberal arts colleges, St. Olaf College and Carleton College, which offer a steady stream of college student volunteers to mentor and tutor many of these first-generation, low-income students. Adrienne Falcon, director of civic engagement at the Carleton's Center for Community and Civic Engagement thinks the TORCH program can be a model for communities across Minnesota struggling with their own changing demographics. "Each community has to build from their place of strength," Falcon said. "But I think the idea of connecting students to college campuses, connecting students to college students and in meaningful relationships of deep exchange is a model that is very replicable.

"It's about finding, 'Where else can we go? Who else can we collaborate with? Up in Duluth, could St. Scholastica take this one?'" That's already happening 20 minutes south of Northfield, in Faribault. The high school started a similar program last year, focused on the community's growing East African and Latino populations. In its first year, the Faribault program graduated 13 of 22 minority seniors, better than in previous years, said Martha Schultz, program coordinator. "We understand that what we're facing in Faribault is different than what Northfield is facing," Schultz said. "We don't have the same resources. We have a different student population. But we still understand that Northfield's main components of TORCH, like building relationships, building trust in the community and building this spirit of wanting to go to college was successful and so we're taking those components and bringing them to Faribault." Frank Calvario is another Northfield senior who credited TORCH with improving his grades and understand the college process. He's applied to several universities, including National University in California, hoping to work in the digital design industry. "It's awesome," Calvario said. "It gives Hispanic students that sense of having control of what they're going to do with their lives afterwards."

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