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Chapter II

The Essentials of Teaching Solutions Journalism

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Contents
  1. I. Introduction (5m)
  2. II. The Essentials of Teaching Solutions Journalism (60m)
  3. III. Teaching Solutions Journalism as a Module (15m)
  4. IV. Customized Approaches to Teaching Solutions Journalism (25m)
  5. V. Resources (45m)
Resources

J-School Curriculum Builder

What Solutions Journalism Is, and What It Is Not

Solutions journalism is reporting on a response to a problem — successful, partially successful, or failed — and the associated results, usually with a narrative that seeks to reveal how the results were produced and explore what can be learned from the effort. Teaching the Four Qualities is an absolutely essential element to any module or course on solutions journalism.

1

Features a response to a problem, and how it happened

2

Provides available evidence of results, looking at effectiveness — not just intentions

3

Produces insights - not just inspiration - that can help others respond

4

Discusses limitations and avoids reading like a puff piece

Watch out for imposters misidentified as solutions journalism. This is an important section to lead with because students (and even professionals) have misconceptions about what solutions journalism is. Leading with it early in the semester (or module) can help clear up confusion sooner rather than later. These are the most frequent types of imposters, and here is a list of imposter stories for each type.

Solutions stories report on efforts to solve problems — they don’t celebrate those efforts. A solutions story will never claim a program is 100 percent successful. There’s no such thing, and no one will believe such a claim. You have more authority and credibility if you describe limitations. What makes a solutions story worth writing? There are four ways to gauge the “solutions value” of a story. Of the four, the first one is by far the most common:

  • It’s a success. Most solutions journalism stories are chosen because something about the response works — and there’s evidence to show that.
  • It’s coming here. For example, your city is building a downtown sports stadium. A good solutions story would look at another place that’s built a stadium and see what about it has worked and what hasn’t. That’s a story whether it’s a success or not. Better yet, compare a place where a similar project has worked with one where it hasn’t — and zero in on what made the difference and how that might apply to your city.
  • It’s a cool new idea that looks promising...but there’s little or no evidence that it works. This can be a great story, but you’ll have to justify to the reader why you’re covering it.
  • It’s a solution people are talking about, but the discussion could use some rigor. For example: there’s lots of hype about health apps — do they really work? Or because apps are all different, here’s a better idea: Health apps: when do they work and when do they fail?
Inclasslecture
  • Why does reporting on a response’s limitations and flaws give a story more authority and credibility, not less?
  • In the field of journalism, if you report on something that you think is a problem and get it wrong, it’s a misdemeanor. But if you report on something that you think is a solution and get it wrong, it’s a felony. Why?
  • When reporters seek to cover solutions, why do they so often fall for imposters?
Inclassexercise
  • Break into groups by imposter types. Each group analyzes/explains its imposter and how the reporter could have avoided it and shifted the approach (hypothesizing sources or research, if necessary) to turn it into a good example of solutions journalism.
  • Choose a current event and brainstorm potential solutions journalism or imposter stories.
  • Choose a story idea and list as many kinds of limitations as possible.
Homework
  • Read a selection of solution and imposter stories. Explain which is which, and why? For the imposters, annotate the stories, showing how and where each story went wrong. Do the same with the solutions stories — annotate them, keeping in mind the the Four Qualities.
  • Write two versions of the same story: one as solutions journalism and one as an imposter. Bonus: include multiple imposter types in one story.
  • Brainstorm examples of solutions stories about ideas that work even though they aren’t “the best solution.” (This exercise emerged from the Solutions Journalism Network’s very first partnership with the Seattle Times. They wanted to do a story on the “best” way to teach math, but were stumped because they couldn't find it— experts don't even agree on what the best way is. Looking for the "best" often leads to a dead end. Focus your reporting on finding a way that gets results--there may be many to choose from.)

Resources

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“The Four Qualities exist to delineate solutions journalism from advocacy, ensuring that solutions journalism employs the critical lens of traditional journalism.”

Kathrynthier
Kathryn Thier
Professor, University of Oregon SOJC

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What Solutions Journalism Is, and What It Is Not
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