To train students for a future profession continually beset by disruption, journalism educators often try to either keep up with technology or focus on traditional writing and reporting skills. But last year, some journalism schools took a different tack: teaching solutions journalism, an emerging practice that shares many of journalism’s traditional tenets while reframing others to engage audiences in new ways.
What is Solutions Journalism?
Solutions journalism is “rigorous reporting about how people are responding to problems,” according to The Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and legitimizing the practice. Its online “toolkits” list “Four Qualities” needed of solutions journalism:
- Presents a response to a problem
- Offers evidence of results linked to the response
- Conveys an insight or teachable lesson
- Explains the limitations of a response
These Four Qualities exist to delineate solutions journalism from advocacy, ensuring that solutions journalism employs the critical lens of traditional journalism. Simultaneously, the SJN points out “Seven Impostors” — story types to avoid but often confused with solutions journalism. Some examples are “Hero Worship,” which highlight the good deeds of an individual without exploring a structural response to a problem, and the “Instant Activist,” which offer readers ways to support causes, such as a list of charities accepting donations following a hurricane.
While solutions journalism pieces adhere to traditional journalism’s standard of objectivity, solutions stories flip the frame at the outset to explore not “what’s going wrong?” but “who’s doing it better?” Like the best traditional journalism, solutions journalism involves rigorous reporting. But the reporting is more about the “how” and often employs a “howdunit” narrative structure to show readers precisely how a response unfolded.
And it seems that readers appreciate this approach. According to research by the Engaging News Project at The University of Texas at Austin, readers of solutions journalism stories felt more likely to share such stories, to look for more stories by news outlets covering solutions-oriented stories, to spend more time on page and to report greater feelings of self-efficacy and optimism.
Why Teach Solutions Journalism
If we want to prepare our students to create journalism that engages often-distrustful readers in a fractured media landscape, then teaching models that seem to keep audiences’ interest better is critical. But perhaps more importantly, we should teach journalism that empowers audiences. As SJN co-founder and New York Times Fixes columnist David Bornstein wrote on the network’s blog, “If we think of the ‘media’ as a feedback mechanism for society then — like any feedback mechanism — it can encourage or inhibit all sorts of things. Depending on what gets highlighted and what gets overlooked — and how stories are framed — the media can accelerate social progress or do just the opposite.” Journalists view themselves of the guardians of democracy, but solutions proponents think we should question whether merely exposing wrongdoing leads to meaningful change.
For me, the most salient aspect of teaching solutions journalism was that it pushed students to confront the role of journalism and the journalist in society – and whether those roles should adapt. As future leaders of the profession, our students will have to answer that question.
Research I conducted this spring shows that exploring this emerging practice seems to energize both instructors and students. For students, solutions journalism is empowering. “For the first couple of years of my college experience, I was honestly discouraged by the journalism classes I took because they focused on ‘traditional,’ problem-oriented stories,” said University of Oregon rising senior Erin Hampton. “But when I learned about solutions journalism and was able to apply my natural optimism to rigorous reporting on solutions in my own community, I found a new facet of journalism that encouraged me to look forward to my future in the field.”
How to Teach Solutions Journalism
Instructors from four universities — University of Oregon, Arizona State, Texas State and Temple — taught solutions journalism last year with support from SJN. We approached the courses differently, including interweaving solutions journalism into existing intermediate reporting and as a digital short course. Links to our syllabi and some of our other course materials are on the SJN website here.
At University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), I taught a topics course focused exclusively on solutions journalism in winter term. In spring, Assistant Professor Nicole Dahmen, the faculty advisor for SOJC’s iPad magazine course this year, framed OR Magazine as a “solutions” issue about responses to problems in Oregon.
For me, pairing the courses (although not every student took both) helped address the worry that our 10-week quarters were too short for students to be introduced to solutions journalism, learn how to do it and then produce thoroughly reported pieces. The result of extending learning over two quarters was strong, multimedia solutions stories, which SJN is including on its online solutions Story Tracker. You can read interviews with us, some of our students and the magazine’s editor for more about our experiences.
In my topics class, students learned about the building blocks of solutions journalism – the Four Qualities, (avoidance of) the Seven Impostors, interviewing for how, the “howdunit” structure, solutions story models and reporting rigor – by closely annotating and analyzing solutions and impostor stories. They also explored the difference between journalism and advocacy through in-class exercises and discussion. Simultaneously, students worked in teams on reporting story ideas, putting the building block skills into practice through an iterative assignment called the Idea Memo.
For example, students reporting a story about solutions for campus sexual assault deconstructed other solutions stories about sexual assault to find how those reporters sourced those stories, found reporting to support each of the four qualities, and what story models they used. At the same time, students detailed their own source and story model ideas, and interview questions for their stories. At the end of the term, students coalesced their reporting on a poster, for which the class co-created the rubric, and then presented an oral narrative of how they reported their solutions story.
How Do I Start?
Here are some key things to consider when integrating solutions journalism into your curriculum:
- Find faculty who are passionate and knowledgeable about it. That seems like a no brainer, but there’s a lot of confusion out there about solutions journalism. It’s not advocacy, and it’s not civic journalism. It’s not reporters getting involved in the solution. Teaching students solutions journalism’s finer points – and how it both reflects and differs from traditional journalism – requires instructors who understand what it is and who are comfortable with questioning journalism’s traditional focus on problems.
- Consider how to simultaneously teach a concept and skills course. While this is always an issue in specialized reporting courses, the newness of solutions journalism presents an added challenge. In my research about opportunities and challenges of implementing solutions journalism coursework, this was one of the key concerns of instructors.
- Visit SJN’s website for resources and its Story Tracker, a database of solutions stories that can be filtered by beat, geography or publication.
- Email SJN’s director of journalism school engagement Holly Wise, who taught solutions journalism this year at Texas State, to be connected with SJN and faculty who can mentor you.
When contemplating adding solutions journalism classes educators should note that students say learning about this emerging practice makes them stronger journalists, period.
“Learning the essentials of solutions journalism has already made me a better reporter,” said recent University of Oregon SOJC graduate Sami Edge. “I’ve become dissatisfied with simply hearing that something ‘worked’ or ‘didn’t work,’ and instead find myself diving obsessively into the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind particular results, always looking for the glimpses of knowledge that help teach me about problems, people, or even the world. Regardless of whether I’m writing a solutions journalism piece or not, that line of questioning has made my reporting deeper and my stories more insightful across the board.”
Kathryn Thier teaches journalism and public relations at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, drawing on 10 years of experience as a daily newspaper reporter and communications professional. She also coordinates the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism, a statewide journalism internship program open to all college students in Oregon.