How To Engage With Your Audience When Reporting On Solutions

COVID-19 has taught us new ways of engaging with our communities.  All those new people who’ve turned to us about what was going wrong and why? We need to keep them onboard for our financial survival, and we already know many will fade away if we continue to swamp them with a diet of problem-heavy news.

And it’s our mission: We got into this business to help people in our communities thrive as individuals and as a group. That means making sure we understand what information they need and help them get it.

How do you begin to identify what should be covered, and where to put your precious reporting resources? The answer comes down to our most basic reporting instincts: Ask people what they need to know.  Do not assume you know.  

Engagement is not a product, it is a process. You reach out over and over again to inform your reporting. And you are never finished, because the news is never finished.

Newsrooms need to be ready to:

  • Uncover the most pressing informational needs of their communities
  • Reach out to the groups that they haven’t been using as regular sources
  • Design impactful coverage in response to communities’ informational needs

Making this happen in your newsroom

Here’s a 16-step checklist, created by Hearken and the Solutions Journalism Network,  outlining the steps many newsrooms are taking toward their engagement and solutions reporting. Anyone, at any level of authority in the newsroom, can use this checklist to create relevant coverage that drives impact.

We’ve made it an easy-to-use, two-page downloadable file to help you build your coverage strategy.

Download the checklist here

For more, see Stop drowning alone, start sailing together by Linda Shaw (Solutions Journalism Network) and Bridget Thoreson (Hearken), Combatting COVID-19 news fatigue: how journalists can keep readers engaged by Meenal Thakur (The European Journalism Centre) and Six tips for engaging your audience remotely, from Hearken.

Involving the community in solutions-based journalism

Ensure coverage is relevant to communities concerned

Newsrooms around the world are reckoning with racial justice and examining their own role in distorted or flat-out false narratives about marginalised communities.  

The first task for many newsrooms is to diversify their staff — making the newsroom more closely reflect the community.  

This is crucial. But a diverse staff can be a distant goal in newsrooms that are shedding, not adding, staff.   What majority-white newsrooms can do right now is change how they cover BAME communities.  

Bad coverage of BAME communities is a vicious circle. Burned by stories that focus on the negative, these communities have learned to mistrust white-led news organisations.  That, in turn, means that reporters lack the sources to go beyond police reports to find stories in these communities.  

Solutions journalism can break that vicious circle. Looking for, and publishing, stories about how the community is solving problems opens doors. Even one story can become a calling card, allowing a reporter (or a newsroom) to meet new people, forge relationships and gain new insights and story ideas.  

SJN’s newsroom partners have provided compelling evidence that solutions journalism can build bridges with segments of the community that were previously distanced by cultural, social, or language differences. These connections are fundamental to providing relevant, high-quality coverage that accurately represents the interests and needs of these groups, particularly those who feel that the media has not always acted in their best interests.

Partners have found that inviting people into the newsroom to attend events or talk with reporters builds goodwill, whether it’s a structured discussion with a group of invitees or an open after-hours event with music and food. In particular, structuring engagement around a mutual search for solutions offers the potential to engage underrepresented and stigmatised communities who may feel that news coverage misrepresents them, reinforces damaging stereotypes, and/or leaves them out of the conversation.

Ask questions such as: What do you wish we knew about your community? What do you wish we covered? What problems is the community facing? What are the efforts to solve them?

The city of Minneapolis, in Minnesota, is home to the largest Somali community outside Mogadishu. But the Minneapolis StarTribune struggled to report on this community because it didn’t trust the paper. So the StarTribune invited Somali community leaders into the paper for a conversation about improving the paper’s coverage. That started a process that led to more trust and better relations with the Somali community.  Some stories that followed included one that featured  a Somali youth science club that helped recently arrived refugees adjust to American life.  Another showed how community members were working to keep Somali youth away from violent extremism.

The Detroit Free Press in Detroit, Mich., held a long series of focus groups and conversations to ask Detroiters about their biggest problems, especially those facing children. These became the subject of a solutions series on children and violence

The Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama, used solutions journalism to lead a long-overdue transformation of its coverage.  It had covered the majority of the city – its Black community – for a minority white audience. Now it reports for Black Montgomery instead of just on it. In the process the paper has won trust and new subscribers.  

“Just a few blocks from the paper is the poorest tract in town. We never wrote about these people except for shootings and crime. There was a whole audience we were missing out on, for being ignorant.” 

Krista Johnson, reporter, Montgomery Advertiser

Some studies have uncovered a kind of “halo effect” in which solutions journalism strengthens the perception of a newsroom’s trustworthiness. In audience surveys, readers of The Seattle Times’ “Education Lab,” a dedicated solution-oriented series about public education, expressed more trust in the paper than did readers generally.

For more, see:

How Seattle Times Education Lab Engaged Community in Coverage of School Discipline (The Whole Story) 

‘The audience wanted this’ : How a local TV newsroom boosted their connection with viewers by moving past problem reporting and focusing on solutions (the Whole Story) 

The Full Montgomery (The Whole Story) 

Amplify community voices

Solutions journalism seeks to create new conversations that connect policymakers, advocates, community members, and other stakeholders about persistent social problems. These conversations are critical at all stages of coverage: from the initial stages of brainstorming story ideas, to post-publication feedback, to ongoing discussions about the issues at hand that both inform reporting and provide an important outlet for ideas to be shared.

For example, Mediacités, a French digital and investigative publication that operates in four major cities across France, produces community-driven collaborative reporting projects. As the pandemic reshaped social life in April 2020, the newsroom turned to its audience to glean story ideas for a solutions journalism series titled “Transforming our cities after the coronavirus.” With a focus on how to preserve social cohesion, the publication solicited ideas on topics such as local businesses, transport, housing, nature and solidarity. Readers submitted 175 suggestions using the website’s engagement platform called #DansMaVille (#InMyTown), which led Mediacités’ newsroom to identify 28 potential stories;  to date, it has published 14 articles. The digital publication received the 2020 Innovation Award from Médias en Seine for this work. 

In the U.S., residents in the small town of Choteau, Montana, have grown increasingly concerned with the drain of younger people from their community. The weekly Choteau Acantha reported on the issue as part of “The Montana Gap,” a collaborative project on economic development – and then hosted a public forum where residents  reflected on the  solutions stories. One resident observed: “That was one of the first times I remember people from all different groups coming together and having conversation about ‘What do we need to do in our community to make it a better place to live?’ ”

The most effective solutions reporting seeks to bring in new voices that haven’t previously been heard. Your newsroom could choose to design opportunities that allow members of the community to take the spotlight and publicly share their experiences and point of view, such as open-mic nights, public forums, or invitations to write columns. Some of Solutions Journalism Network’s partners have designed more intimate activities to specifically draw out the perspectives of a group that might otherwise hesitate to speak up more openly.

For more, see: 

Solutions, not just stories: how Mediacités worked with its readers to explore what life could look like after COVID-19 from the European Journalism Centre

How French regional media group Nice-Matin built a new digital offer from scratch from the World Association of News Publishers

How To Engage With Your Audience When Reporting On Solutions – Webinar by Newsquest, UK