Blog: The Educated Reporter

Solutions Journalism: A Different Lens on Stories

We asked some of the education reporters attending EWA’s 66th National Seminar to contribute blog posts from the sessions at Stanford University. Today’s guest blogger is Nichole Dobo of the (Del.) News Journal. Stream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. 

Explaining success can be just as much a public service as documenting failure. This kind of work is not easy. It requires critical thinking, a strong foundation in ethical decision-making and a desire to do detailed reporting.

That was the message to EWA members from a proponent for “solutions journalism” and its power to reimagine our field’s longstanding pursuit of public service.

Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit founded by journalists, isn’t about promoting puff stories or “good news.” This is about finding legitimate, research-based solutions to society’s problems and sharing them.

David Bornstein, a co-founder of the network, changed my way of thinking about journalism during his presentation at EWA’s 66th National Seminar. Bornstein, a co-author of the “Fixes” blog on The New York Times website, shared a clear and compelling reason why journalists should try this new way of delivering news. He did so without using buzzwords or platitudes.

You might still be stuck on this notion of talking about success. As a reporter that gravitates to hard news, I was pretty skeptical about this idea, too. Our predisposition for so-called bad news is rooted the idea that we are highlighting problems so they can be fixed. We want to give a voice to the voiceless, and we seek to shine a bright light on problems because that’s key to our mission.

Solutions journalism does all those things when it is done correctly, Bornstein explained[CH2] . One example is a San Francisco Chronicle story about homelessness. The story begins like this:

There is a way to get chronically homeless people off San Francisco’s streets. It will require a sweeping plan – intensive, sustained and expensive.

It will mean enforcing existing laws against living on the street – but not just rousting people and throwing them in jail. Or giving them a room to get started on normal lives. Or offering walk-in drug and alcohol clinics. Or merely sending counselors out to do on-the-spot triage on the street.

It will mean making sure there is a bed for everyone in need, and comprehensive services right there in the building to treat the drug, alcohol and mental problems that afflict them – a concept called “supportive housing. ”

The trouble is there is no such plan. Models exist in other cities, including New York, and San Francisco already has some programs that work.

That story is investigative and bold. Policymakers and the community need this kind of information. A story about a problem that lacks an evidence-based solution can lead to well-meaning, but wrong, reactions to the problem.

Doing this kind of journalism is difficult, Bornstein said. It requires making sure the solutions you highlight have been vetted, and journalists must disclose limitations to the solutions. This requires deep reporting. And the network wants to help. It plans to help journalists accomplish this kind of reporting by providing resources and technical support. The network is soliciting proposals for a story about global warming.

The network is transparent about its funders. You can find more about that on the website. Bornstein said that the funders do not have a say in the journalism produced by reporters who make use of the network’s resources.

A solid education in journalism ethics is necessary to make this kind of thing work. Reporters must be open to discussing the flaws in potential solutions, and they must be diligent about ensuring possible solutions are really working.

This might be easier to accomplish at a national news outlet than a local publication. As someone who’s worked at small- and mid-size newspapers, I can see pulling off that kind of rigorous reporting might be problematic. If the best solution (or a better solution) isn’t in your community, there might not be support or resources available to focus something that’s not considered “local.”Done right, though, a story at a small paper could highlight a problem in the community and then communicate the best solution (even if it comes from state thousands of miles away).

Another potential pitfall of the solutions journalism approach is promotion of what turns out to be, in hindsight, elevation of a bad solution. For instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation of public schools revealed widespread cheating was the driver for higher student test scores. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that keeps many of us up at night: What if we are holding something up that later turns out to be a sham? Then again, looking at it from another angle, maybe the deep reporting required for solutions journalism would prevent hero stories that aren’t based on fact.

Now that news is online, the outlines of what is local have shifted. And we have some studies saying that people are more apt to share positive news on social networks. Instead of abandoning stories about important, but unhappy, topics (think dropouts, crime, homelessness) maybe journalists can reframe the way we present investigative stories? Bornstein said such subject matter is sort of like broccoli. We know it’s good for us, but some people don’t like it.

Why not try a new way of presenting and reporting these stories? It sure beats getting clicks by posting photos of adorable puppies. Sometimes I joke that the pets beat will soon become the newsroom’s most high-profile because it gets the most clicks. That is depressing. I’m all in for finding a better solution for our industry.