Newsgathering for Solutions Journalism

Finding solutions ideas

Many people who want to do solutions journalism aren’t sure where to begin. 

The biggest reason is that we’re not used to looking for solutions stories. It’s also much easier to spot problems than solutions.

But solutions stories exist — in infinite numbers.  And it doesn’t take long to become skillful in spotting them.  We just need to remember to look. 

Here are some suggestions:

Go for a small slice

Photo Credit: Betty Crocker

Every big problem is composed of many, many small ones.  Choose a small one that’s key — and look for who’s doing better on that.  

If pedestrian deaths is your big issue, and your community is especially concerned about speeding near schools, then look for responses to that slice.   Here’s one: a story about a primary school in south London where children confront motorists who are speeding.

Sometimes a big slice story works: New Zealand has ‘effectively eliminated’ coronavirus. Here’s what they did right. Or a story can be about a place that was doing badly, but improved — even if it isn’t at the top of the heap. 

But more often, you’ll need a small slice. Is unequal access to services a problem? Look for a place that has equalised access. Is cost a problem? Look for a place that has found a scheme to help people afford services. Does the problem particularly affect youth? Is there a response that cuts long wait times?  No one has solved school truancy, but many schools or districts are finding solutions to a piece of it, like installing washing machines and clothes dryers to help students who stay away from school because they don’t have clean clothes.

Consider the two ways to find solutions

There are two ways to find a solutions story: start with a response to a problem, or start with the problem.  

Starting with a response — an interesting program — is how journalists find most solutions stories. 

Some possible approaches to finding interesting responses:

  • Ask all sources on your beat: Who’s doing a better job on this?
  • Search peer-reviewed academic papers – Google Scholar is one place to start.
  • Approach academic experts. Every topic, however arcane, is the subject of someone’s dissertation.  Academics might have a broad view of what’s happening across a field.
  • Seek out other experts with a broad view. National organisations, for instance, foundation and trust officers – but ask them about projects they don’t fund! Networks of innovators such as Ashoka.  
  • Identify experts with a particularly narrow view.  People who work in on-the-ground implementation will often know what works and what doesn’t. 
  • See if there are any data sets that might show who’s making progress.
  • Talk with community leaders. 

Especially in marginalised communities, search for solutions that come from inside the community. Telling people that you’re looking to highlight innovation and success (and then doing so) can open previously shut doors and help you form important relationships. 

Journalists have covered only the negative side of many communities for far too long — often the only reporter who goes into marginalised communities is the crime reporter. And too often, the people who live there are portrayed only as victims or perpetrators. Journalism rarely shows people of color working to solve problems. It’s well past time to give a more accurate picture. 

Starting with a response, however, has its challenges.   

There might be little or no evidence about results. And if there is, it might be provided by the very agency, NGO, or business you’re writing about.  Every good journalist knows to be wary of that. 

You have to justify WHY you are choosing to write about an effort led by one organization when there are a dozen others who are all attacking the problem — and do that without advocacy. (Hint: Your story is about the methodology. The particular organisation is simply the narrative focus. Here’s an example from Lane Anderson about caravan housing as a solution for homelessness.) So put the response in context. Take two sentences to mention others doing similar things. Or, make your story about more than one program.  

“A story built around the work of a couple nonprofits can be the basis of a solutions story as long as you tell the pros and cons, and talk not only to the providers of a service but to those purportedly benefitting as well.”

Lane Anderson, New York-based Freelancer

Another danger with focusing on one response is — as one editor put it — the story can come off as promoting “that nice little NGO in Stoke-on-Trent.” You absolutely can do these stories without falling into fluff or “good news.”  But it takes care.  

Perhaps most importantly, you can end up covering very small solutions that don’t put much of a dent into a very big problem.

Starting with the solution:   Think about the problem.  Choose a small but important slice, and look at who is getting good results on that slice.  

Data is your friend.  When journalists get a database, we often use it to find the worst performer.  To take a solutions approach, look for the best performer, or one that’s among the best.  Or the one that’s improved the most. 

And take care to not just write about top performers who are succeeding because they have a lot of money or resources. Instead, look for places that are doing well with resources that are similar to others.

We call this the Positive Deviant.

Photo credit:  Bob Coglianese

Once you find a Positive Deviant, your job is to investigate how those good results came about.  

The Positive Deviant story requires that you have good data , which isn’t always available.  But when it is, this form of finding solutions stories has many advantages.  

You can immediately show why you’ve chosen to report on this particular response.  That means you save time, and you avoid the charge of advocacy. 

The solution works — by definition, as someone is using it successfully.  

Also, you’ll get solutions of the proper weight. If the problem is city-wide, you’re finding the city that’s doing best.  If it’s a hospital-wide problem, you’re finding the hospital that’s doing best. 

Here are some examples of Positive Deviant stories:

How Penzance became the UK’s first ever plastic-free town

Leeds became the first UK city to lower the child obesity rate.

How Sweden dealt with 35,000 unaccompanied child refugees

You see the pattern here…….”How X PLACE did X ACHIEVEMENT.” 

“If the response or solution came about because somebody just threw a ton of money at it, we’re probably not interested in that because that precludes a lot of other places from being able to replicate it or try it out themselves. Which speaks to another thing we look for. Is the response or solution scalable? Could it be replicated somewhere else?”

Janet Horne Henderson, The Seattle Times

For more see: Journalism’s Power Couple is Engaged (The Whole Story)

Key questions for solutions reporting

When pursuing a solutions-focused story, your approach to finding information out will change. Try these questions to guide your interviews and research:

Vetting solutions stories

So what makes a good subject for a solutions story?  Here are some FAQs.

Does a solutions story have to be about a successful program?  

Nope. A solutions story is about a response to a problem. It doesn’t have to be a successful response, but it has to be a good story about what was tried, and how, and contain lessons that can help others who also want to address the problem.

If your town is planning to build a new kind of affordable housing, or an important local employer is starting a new quality control system, it’s a good idea to find existing examples of those things elsewhere and look at how well they’re working.  

That’s a good solutions story, whether the idea is a total success elsewhere, or a total failure, or (most likely) something in between. The same is true for stories set in your own community.  Because these pieces have local angles, they are interesting and relevant to the community no matter what the outcome.

Much of the time, we choose to cover responses because there is evidence that they’ve made progress — without a local angle, their success is what makes them relevant and interesting.  

“Successful,” however, doesn’t mean “perfect.”  Perfect programs don’t exist, and no one will believe you if you make them sound flawless. So make sure to cover what doesn’t work — including limitations gives you more credibility and authority, not less. 

How much evidence do I need? 

Any amount.  

You can write a solutions story about a venerable, well-tested program with lots of evidence. 

Or you can write about some place trying an innovative new idea — so innovative that we have no idea whether it works or not.  This has been true with the vast majority of stories about COVID, which is a moving target.

Often, solutions stories fall somewhere in between. They are about an initiative that has some evidence, but not a ton.   

While the strongest solutions stories are about efforts with plenty of evidence that they’re working, a no-evidence story can still be a good solutions story. You just have to say in the story what we know and what we don’t know. And your story better be interesting enough so that audiences understand why you chose to cover that response despite the lack of evidence. 

An example: a story about care homes that offer dementia patients films of 1940s or 1950s life on virtual reality goggles. Do we know if it helps?  Not yet. But it’s a good story.

SJN often illustrates this point with a story from the Anchorage Daily News in Anchorage, Alaska, about a courtroom in the north part of that state that has been designed to help people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. This courtroom has never been formally evaluated —  but it’s a great solutions story nevertheless. In its guide to health reporting, SJN explains how reporter Kyle Hopkins made this piece rigorous and compelling without this evidence.

What qualifies as evidence? 

Evidence isn’t just numbers. It can also be qualitative — the expert opinion of people who know a project intimately or have a broad view of a wide context; interviews and shoe-leather. The kind of evidence you use to show that something is a problem in a traditional story.  Use the same forms of evidence to show how well the response works in a solutions story.

How do I assess the evidence? 

The same way you always do with a traditional story. You have to be careful with people’s claims about what they have accomplished — but when is this not true? That’s why you’ll interrogate the data and talk to a variety of people, including people who are trying contrasting responses.  

COVID-19 offers particular challenges. Communities are trying hundreds of different ideas to keep people healthy and housed, educate children, and help those who lost jobs.  Most of these efforts can show little or no evidence yet. It’s just too soon. 

But you might be able to get some initial numbers — like how many people are receiving those services. It’s evidence of outputs, not outcomes, and not ideal.  But it’s something.  

Or you may be able to report what happened with a similar effort in the past, as in this story from Canada about mental health experts texting people to help them keep depression at bay.  The therapists chose this strategy because it did prove useful during a past crisis, a wildfire.  

Look for qualitative evidence, too, by talking to experts who can provide an independent view, like in this Los Angeles Times story about young people fighting loneliness by forming an impromptu COVID “family.” The reporter added heft to what could have been just a feel-good story by calling several experts to weigh in on whether and how that idea could work.

Don’t forget to interview the people who are affected — do people receiving the mental-health text messages find them useful, for example?

For more on vetting story ideas, see Vetting the goods: Four tips on how to assess evidence for COVID-19 solutions stories (The Whole Story)

Newsgathering for Solutions Journalism

(With a reflection on How to frame solutions reporting on COVID-19)