J-School Curriculum Builder
This FAQ is culled from insights provided by the pioneers of j-school education in solutions journalism: Rachel Dissell and Jan Leach of Kent State University; Christia Dobbins and Maureen West of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University; Jim MacMillan of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University; Kathryn Thier of the University of Oregon; and Kim Walsh-Childers of the at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
Q: In teaching solutions journalism, what should be my top priority?
A: Students need a solid grasp of the Four Qualities — it’s the foundation of how to teach solutions journalism. Other elements overlap with all good reporting. For example, teaching “interviewing for ‘how’ ” is still teaching them how to interview. But they’re not familiar with “this is what a story has to contain.” Some instructors have found it helpful to provide their students with a “one-sheet” with the four qualities to refer to while reporting and writing. It reinforces the fundamentals and also serves as a sort of “cheat sheet” as they venture into the world of reporting.
Q: How can I help my students distinguish between problem stories and solutions stories?
A: The number-one thing professors in these courses do is turn down stories that aren’t solutions journalism stories. Keep students focused on the effort, not the problem. Show the students an example of how the same story might be written as a problem story versus a solutions story.
Have them write the same story as a problem story and a solutions story. That “one-sheet” from the previous question comes in handy here. When talking with sources about a possible solutions journalism story, they can show or talk through the list and ask if their effort has evidence and offers lessons for the subject matter covered in the story. If the answer is “no” to either of those questions, it isn’t a solutions journalism story. No matter how much the student likes the idea, the effort must include those elements.
Q: What’s the best way to help students find a great solutions story to cover?
A: Finding a good solutions story can be time-consuming. In a typical solutions journalism course, 50 to 75 percent of first ideas don’t make it. Depending on the level of your students and the length of your course, you may want to choose topics for them and guide them to the solutions stories, focusing on these steps in class and moving through them together so they can jump right in with covering the solutions and focus on learning how to do that well.
In order to ensure that students have time to fully report and write a solutions journalism story, some veteran teachers of solutions journalism strongly advise having the instructor pre-select the topic and a limited range of stories, with a narrow and focused approach from the outset of the class. If some students are able to quickly come up with their own great ideas, all the better, but it’s important to have options available for those who don’t.
A couple of caveats: This approach places a considerable burden of preparation on the instructor in terms of pre-reporting and pre-selecting topics. And students might not feel the same sense of ownership and therefore be less motivated to give it their all if they don’t get to choose the stories themselves. It’s up to you as the instructor to find the right balance for the course and the student population you’re teaching. Please let us know what works for you!
Q: What’s the best way to structure and pace my solutions journalism course or module?
A: The biggest challenge is trying to fit both teaching students about an emerging genre of reporting and how to practice it within the time constraints of a single module or course. It takes longer than you might think to build student understanding of solutions journalism’s components, and you don’t want to give that short shrift, or the work they produce will reflect that.
As you begin the course, you can have students create and continuously update an "Idea Memo” where they practice the concepts learned in each class session by engaging in reporting toward their final project. That way the concepts are reinforced by practice and they’re not waiting to begin reporting on a solutions story. Partner with a solutions journalist or journalists in your community who can visits the class in person and/or via video frequently to provide additional story coaching to students.
In a module-style course, instead of making it just one of many assignments, make the final project a solutions journalism story, one that marshals all of the skills they’ve learned along the way and combines them with a solutions journalism approach. Have the students submit a rough draft several weeks before the final draft is due.
Q: How important is it to help students get their solutions journalism stories published?
A: Very! These stories are likely the most complex and time-consuming pieces of journalism your students have produced to date, and helping them publish is an affirmation that the work is good and that their efforts have paid off outside the classroom. Students will commit more energy to ensuring the rigor of a piece if they know it’s likely to be published. Ideally you’ll partner with one or two news outlets from the start of the class and have regular check-ins with a journalist or journalists from those outlets so the students are receiving advice on how to shape their work and the outlets are excited to publish it when it’s done. It’s also a service to the overall effort to have more solutions journalism out in the world.
Q: Any guidance on how to incorporate the lessons of solutions journalism into the lessons of all good journalism?
A: A class or module on solutions journalism is a natural for exploring big questions about the mission and role of journalism overall. University of Oregon instructor Kathryn Thier notes that “many students value learning about solutions journalism because they are disheartened by the negative focus of most news. They also appreciate wrestling with thorny questions about the line between journalism and advocacy and exploring the impact their journalism might have on the people they cover.” Beyond teaching students new knowledge and skills, push students to explore the role of the journalist and journalism in society, issues they’ll confront as they enter the profession.
Q: What are the key factors for student success in a solutions journalism course or module?
A: Solutions journalism works best with students who already have some good foundational journalism training under their belts. To prepare students for the demands of the course or module, make it clear from the start that the bar for rigor is very high—akin to an investigative reporting class—and that they must set aside ample time in their schedules for research, reporting and writing.
As an instructor you should be prepared for students with a wide variance in journalistic skill when they walk through the door. Be creative in surfacing valuable strengths and expertise each student might bring to their assignments beyond traditional journalism acumen (are they bi-lingual, are they a wiz with data, do they have access to a community others might not have, are they adept in plumbing social media for critical bits of news). Pair students with complementary skills, ask them to identify a skill in the other person that they do not have or would like to be better at and to share/collaborate/support one another in learning that skill. As some of the examples in this toolkit illustrate, some solutions journalism classes have students work in teams, collaborate on stories and submit a shared project.
Q: What else should I know?
A: Here are a few more useful tips: