What’s the difference between solutions journalism and good news?
Good news stories focus on the vision, kindness or courage of someone doing something positive. A common approach is to profile a person who had a personal awakening (often preceded by a personal crisis) which prompted him or her to quit a stable job to launch a charitable effort in a village in, say, Namibia. The person finds new meaning and, though living on a shoestring, usually talks about being happier and more fulfilled. This kind of story can be heartwarming and authentic, but is usually delivered without much critical analysis. Good news stories also rarely get people to think about systemic change. By contrast, solutions stories are driven by the problem solving — and rely on independent evidence to solve it. Like any good story, they have interesting characters, action and tension, but they are constructed more like puzzles or mysteries than profiles or descriptive pieces. The tension is not grounded in an argument, but in the inherent difficulty of changing a system or making an idea come to life. If told well, what get’s revealed is often a little treasure of understanding — an insight about how the world works. Here are some examples of good solutions stories. [Link]
How do you know that readers or viewers find this interesting? How do you know that it sells?
Since solutions journalism is still a relatively small subset of the news, we don’t know this for sure. That’s what we plan to test more rigorously in the next few years. But, if our early responses are right, then solutions journalism could be a powerful tool for journalists who are interested in doing rigorous reporting that will attract new (paying!) readers. For example, when we ask journalists to talk about a story they wrote that had both a big impact and a wide reach, it is frequently a story that explored a potential solution to a problem – and got into the details. What’s interesting is that the stories become popular, not because they reveal something positive, but because they take people on journeys of discovery that ultimately show them how they can be more powerful – how they can have agency or pursue their goals more successfully. Once we recognized that solutions journalism is about powerful ideas and puzzles – not acts of goodness – we were able to see a world of new journalistic possibilities. We were able to see how solutions journalism relates to other forms of journalism more clearly. Much of business and science journalism, for example, also focuses on problem-solving. Nobody would buy a magazine called Slow Company or Failure, for example. They buy Fast Company and Success. People are likely to pay for news that helps them understand how the world works, or how to grapple with challenges of importance to them. Science reporting focuses on experiments that reveal understandings about how things work. Business magazines are filled with stories that are offer people ideas or methods to achieve goals. When it comes to social issues, there is not yet a comparative form. For some reason, we have assumed that circulating examples of creative social problem solving is not the job of a journalist. We believe we are missing a huge potential market for these stories.
How do you make solutions stories more timely?
Solutions whisper; problems scream; they drive the news. That’s why solutions stories often have to be pre-reported (like many obituaries!) When something happens, a big education or health story is broken, or the jobs report is released, or abuse in the foster care system is revealed – it’s useful to be able to pivot off the news, and add value: How are people responding intelligently to this education or health or foster care problem? We’ve heard about the problem. Now, what is being done about it and how is it faring? These stories can round out the picture, provide information that helps society grapple with the problem, and offer a wider frame that provides a more comprehensive, and faithful, view of reality. The truth is that without this kind of follow up, the news narrative ends up being reactive – like a manager who is forever dealing with crises and forgets to consider opportunities or areas for improvement. When something goes wrong, and journalists carry this message far and wide, the question that readers care most about is: What should we do about it? It’s not the job of journalists to have answers to this question, but it is our job to provide people with a sense of the available tools that exist, so they can think more clearly. One thing to ask is: What have others done in similar circumstances – and what happened? What worked? What didn’t? Journalists can help provide this understanding. To do it well, we need reporters who are in the game for the long term – who can quickly find such stories, or who have an inventory of ideas prepared when news breaks.
What do editors need to consider differently when assigning solutions stories?
One thing is how these stories can be used to pivot off the news and provide a fresh angle on a story that everyone else has reported the same way. For example, if there is a big study released about the failures in the foster care system that gets coverage, it’s an opportunity to ask some follow up questions (beyond who is to blame): What is being done about this problem that looks promising? These stories exist. The current approach is to focus on the negative actors: If there are 48 states that are doing poorly in foster care and 2 that are making real progress, the typical news model is to report on the most broken ones. But if we draw attention to the states that doing better – and particularly on showing how they reformed their systems – we have an opportunity to circulate useful information (and also remind readers that creative and competent people work in these systems, contrary to the impression they may have gotten from the news). If a reporter pitches this story, the editor’s job is to support and protect him or her by drilling down on questions like: How do we know it works? How do they measure it? What are they doing differently? Is it something that others could replicate? Is it cost effective? What are the limitations? The reporter may also discover that it’s a viable model that hasn’t spread to other states because it is being blocked by vested interests. The editor may see this as an opportunity to follow up with an investigation. Why is this sensible idea being blocked? These kinds of stories can drive fascinating narratives – and they appeal to the natural problem solving curiosity of people who typically have little interest in foster care.
What’s the best way to get readers interested in solutions journalism?
By making sure that the headlines draw attention to the puzzles, the questions at issue, and the insights the stories contain. Solutions stories are information rich: they highlight emerging and often inventive approaches in health, education, environment – ideas that many readers will want to stay current with. People who work with technology spend thousands of dollars to attend conferences each year to keep their knowledge up to date. Nobody wants to fall behind the curve of innovation. We live in an information age. Ideas matter. So, if you’re an educator and you’re not keyed into some of the emerging insights and models in education, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re a college student and you’re not keyed into the emerging landscape of organizations, how can you make a well informed career decision? There are so many business and technology magazines where the headline essentially is, “10 things you need to know…or else” Solutions journalism can, and should, tap the natural desire of people to be informed about forward looking opportunities or pathways to solve social problems.
In a solutions story, how do you interweave the problem and solution? How do you construct the story?
There are of course many different ways to do it. But there are also tried and true formulas that can serve as guidelines. One approach is to emulate the structure of TV procedural shows (House, Law & Order, etc.) They all begin the same way. You start with a problem (a patient in distress, a crime) and very quickly engage the reader in the question: How is the doctor or detective going to solve this puzzle? Early on, you plant some teasers that make readers want to stick around for the payoff – which is the solution, the how-to. (With TV, you know that the protagonists are going to figure it out, the question is how. In real life, it’s not that simple. But the model still holds.) Either way, what is captivating is the unfolding of the mystery, the pursuit of a goal, and the creativity in overcoming barriers. Whether we are talking about reducing homelessness, malaria or maternal mortality, the structure can be made to work. And the job of the journalist is to engage the reader in this problem solving narrative – and especially to indicate if something unexpected is coming. But don’t give away the solution right away (it’s the puzzle and the process that keeps them tuned in). The payoff should be contained in the quality of the problem solving, the challenges of implementation, the moments of insight that explain why this idea may be getting more traction than other things that have been tried.
What do you do to make sure you’re not presenting solutions that are just smoke and mirrors?
That is the biggest risk with solutions reporting. Since it tends to be more forward-looking than traditional journalism, you want to make sure you’re on a solid foundation when you decide to highlight an idea, model or policy. Here are some ways to guard against it: (1) Develop experts whom you can turn to who understand the details of implementation, not just the 30,000 foot critiques. If you’re not an expert in education or environmentalism, cultivate relationships with people who are thoughtful and have spent years working on these issues – people who have a broad focus, and also people who have gone quite deep into the specifics of one particular idea. (2) Talk to skeptics and critics, but rather than focusing on what may be ideological or political disagreements, ask them about the more pragmatic limitations – questions about how solid the evidence is, how far an idea could go, examples of similar things and how they fared. The key is to get as much granular feedback about the example as possible. (3) Learn how to read studies and make sense of datasets and have data experts who can help you make sense of data and the quality of evidence that is being presented. It is very easy to make studies or statistics sound convincing, so if you are using data or evidence in your story to attest to the efficacy of an intervention, it’s good to have a few social scientist, or mathematician friends, who can help you sort through the signal and the noise.
How would you coach a journalist to come to this next level of reporting, to start asking the “how” in addition to the five Ws?
There are some people who are more interested in problem solving than others. The journalists who take to solutions journalism often have a bit of that nerdy engineering thing in their brains that makes them curious about how things actually work. There’s a self-selection process. One way to test yourself is to see if, after doing a two-hour interview, you find yourself still curious about aspects of implementation – or if, hours later, these how-to questions break into your thoughts when you’re riding the subway or taking a shower. If you find that you’re bored when someone gets into the nitty gritty details of how they actually got the parents to show up to the workshop, this might not be for you. Basically, if you are intrigued by and fascinated by questions that begin with the word “how,” it’s telling. For many stories about people working on solutions, the most interesting elements are revealed through questions like: How do you plan to finance this idea going forward? How did you respond when they opposed you? How did you convince the other doctors to let you test out this idea in the hospital? How do you select your staff? It’s important for journalists to push these questions to the limit. You should come away with a clear sense of how an idea really works – and why it is different from something that may look very similar, but didn’t work. You want to feel you can make not just an emotional case for writing about something, but an intellectual case for it, as well.
How do you present potential solutions without advocating for one thing or another?
Writing about people working towards solutions is not advocacy; it is good journalism. But the best way to avoid this charge is to report on the response, explain what the results are, as best as we can tell, note the limitations or critiques, and mention how this fares with regard to other approaches. Solutions journalism is about reporting on human problem solving activity – making it visible so that society is aware of the full set of tools that are available for addressing social ills. But it’s disingenuous to say that there is no judgment involved in what gets highlighted. When journalists write about anything, we’re ultimately saying, “We think this is worth your attention.” In journalism, we tell people all the time that we believe it’s worth their attention to know about things that fail – when our leaders are corrupt, when the child protection services or police fail at their missions, when the city messes up after a natural disaster, when the schools under-perform. With solutions journalism, the editorial choice is similar: Here, you’re saying something is worth your attention because it’s a noteworthy response to a social problem, based on the facts at hand. It’s essential not to claim more than the evidence allows, but we shouldn’t claim less either. Most of all, we should stop systematically overlooking stories merely because they have a positive dimension.