Avoiding Advocacy

This is probably the most common worry journalists have when they try solutions journalism for the first time: How do I keep this in the realm of good journalism and avoid advocacy?

Be cautious with language

Don’t overclaim. Stick to what the data says. 

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.

Don’t predict the future.  Stick to describing the present.  Avoid claiming that success now is success forever.

Don’t use words like “brilliant,” “wonderful” or even (in most cases) “solution.”  You are reporting on a response to a problem, not declaring something the solution.  

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. You’re just looking for a good story.

“It’s not your job to find ‘the’ solution—embrace failures as part of finding best practices and solutions.”

Lane Anderson, New York-based freelance writer

Include the limitations

There is no such thing as a silver bullet.  Get comfortable with nuance — the important question isn’t “did the response succeed or fail?” but “in what ways did it succeed and what ways fail?” 

Be clear about an effort’s limitations. Ask everyone what challenges the response still faces, or what changes they’d like to see. Interview informed sceptics and include their valid points.

Put the response in context

Even if you are careful with language and limitations, you can seem like an advocate simply because you chose to write about one particular response and not a different one.  It helps to remember that your story is really about the work; the particular organisation or business you’re reporting on is just the narrative focus.  Make it clear that it’s not the only response.  Take a few sentences to mention other approaches.  Every response is part of a wider landscape — paint that landscape in your story.

Mark your calendar to return to the story

While the initial evidence you are able to find could be enough for a story now, follow up later, too, when there is more. You might also have a strong solutions follow-up story in six months or a year. You might learn something new and newsworthy. Either way, let your audience know how things turn out.

For more, see  Five Smarter Questions to Ask About Promising Solutions and  What Makes a Solution ‘Credible’? (The Whole Story)