The premise of my 16 years as a visual journalism scholar and educator is that visuals are more than just an aesthetic element. They help us tell better stories.
I joined more than 90 journalists and J-school educators in Utah Nov. 2-4 to take a deep dive into the practice of solutions journalism, exploring such topics as community engagement, trust in the media and story impact. Given the focus of my own research and teaching, as well as the multimedia focus of our j-program at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, the sessions on visually-driven solutions journalism piqued my interest.
We know news media imagery can set the agenda and influence how audiences understand news topics. Research has demonstrated news stories are more likely to be placed on the front page if they have a compelling photograph. Moreover, imagery has been shown to evoke instant emotional reactions and to possess an “attention-grabbing capacity,” which can leave a lasting impression. Visual coverage is essential to reporting news, in comparison to early newspapers’ use of visuals as only supportive content for the written story.
It is also well known that the news media — whether through written, spoken or visual news — effectively presents problem-based narratives, often leading with graphic imagery of the gloom and doom news of the day. Disturbing news images of poverty, gun violence and the negative effects of climate change dominate the media landscape. Certainly, audiences rely on the news media to report on these and other critical societal issues, but for audiences to have a more complete picture of global events, they also need reporting on valid responses to these issues.
Given this understanding, in this article I draw on lessons learned from the solutions journalism summit — as well as my experiences as a visual journalism scholar and educator — to offer some suggestions and tools for visually reporting solutions stories.
Embarking upon Solutions Journalism
There is growing momentum around the practice of solutions journalism, a fact-based, rigorous reporting method aimed at covering workable responses to societal problems. Solutions stories include four key criteria: response, evidence, insight and limitations. Many solutions stories are long-form narrative and are typically print or radio pieces—such as the Poverty Puzzle, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Indeed, words can provide key details needed for effective solutions reporting, but so can visuals—photographs, video, visualizations, virtual reality and the like.
In solutions reporting, the text generally drives the substance of problem-response, while the visuals range from problem-based imagery to no imagery, though there are a growing number of stories that include a mix of problem imagery and solutions imagery. Words have well-established the practice of solutions journalism as rigorous, fact-based reporting. And that’s great.
But as we discussed at the solutions summit—and as we know from decades of academic research—imagery can effectively communicate news to audiences, too.
Looking for Visual Solutions
Now that the practice of solutions journalism is established—and the reporting method is being taught in select j-schools across the country—we need to think more about reporting solutions stories with alternative story forms, especially as the forms and sources for legitimate news continue to expand.
We are beginning to see some excellent examples of visual solutions reporting. This six-minute Al Jazeera video highlights innovative, more reactive prosthetics aimed at addressing the ongoing challenges of mobility and pain that accompany most prosthetics. The New York Times recently published this companion 360-video that immerses audiences in the floating schools of Bangladesh, which bring classrooms to stranded students.
This photo essay from a Seattle Times solutions story about programs to help the homeless population integrated both problem-based visuals to illustrate the seriousness of the situation and solutions-based visuals demonstrating problem response. As a colleague and I recently wrote, “the pictures drew attention to people’s relationships, their aspirations, and their efforts at regaining housing, which presented them as complex individuals, not just one-dimensional victims.”
As another example, The Reentry Project—a collaborative news project about solutions to prisoner reentry in Philadelphia—integrates an infographic about “life after incarceration.” Visualizations are natural explainers, and this particular graphic offers numerous pieces of evidence. See this post for a few more examples of solutions videos and check out the Solutions Journalism Network story tracker for nearly 2,400 stories, which can be filtered by type of media.
Creating Balance Between the Verbal and Visual
The point here is not to set up a boxing match between words and images. Combined with words, the immersive capability of multimedia storytelling can tell effective solutions stories.
To fully integrate imagery—and multimedia more broadly—into the practice of solutions journalism, journalists at the summit suggested visuals must be considered from the start of the reporting process. The idea is to make images that matter to the specific story, rather than seeking visuals afterward that “fit.”
This also has real implications as audiences turn to video and social media as sources of news. Consider the increasingly common two-minute, no-sound, mobile/social media type video that we often see on Facebook and Snapchat from news outlets like Vox or NowThis.
These multimedia media news pieces could be designed to engage audiences in a solutions story. A combination of photos, videos, visualizations and text on screen could be meticulously crafted to frame the problem and engage the audience, while simultaneously presenting the problem response complete with evidence, insight and even limitations.
And consider virtual reality and augmented reality. VR and AR are uniquely capable of immersing audiences in a story to foster understanding and empathy (The Guardian’s VR experience on solitary confinement makes real for audiences the grim reality of life alone inside of a 6-foot by 9-foot prison cell).
Teaching & Practicing Visual Reporting
Given the value of visual-first reporting in the profession, we also need to take this approach in our journalism classrooms. At the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, students learn and practice multimedia storytelling from day one. We have also integrated multimedia storytelling into our advanced reporting courses, including our solutions journalism coursework. Last year, our students produced a solutions issue of OR Magazine, our award-winning, student-produced iPad publication. Most important, it is critical that multimedia instruction and practice emphasize reporting and storytelling and not just button pushing.
The capturing and production of news imagery and multimedia elements does not have to be complicated. While we would generally choose to have a high-quality, professionally-captured photograph, quick iPhone imagery can be cost-effective. Also, the value of authentic imagery to a solutions story (as opposed to imagery as an afterthought or, even worse, stock imagery) cannot be understated.
There are also increasing numbers of free or reasonably priced online or app-based tools for creating multimedia elements. These are generally easy-to-use for people just getting started on a visual-first approach to storytelling.
- Canva is a free, “drag and drop” tool for creating graphics.
- VideoScribe and GoAnimate (both relatively affordable) facilitate the creation of animated videos.
- Adobe Spark is a free, online design app that allows you to easily create graphics, videos and webpages.
Snazzy visuals cannot mask poor reporting—solutions stories, like all news stories, should be rigorously reported and crafted no matter the story form. Not all multimedia elements included with a solutions story need to be solutions-defined reporting in their entirety. The text may identify the problem and insight, while a video might provide evidence and limitations.
The idea is that multimedia elements contribute to the solutions focus of the story as a whole. Not all solutions stories necessitate multimedia elements—an 800-word text story or a two-minute radio story may stand well alone. Multimedia elements should be considered and crafted with the reporting process when they are value-added and not simply an add-on or a drain of resources for the news outlet.
News stories—solutions stories included—can be complex. Visuals can effectively tell and clarify the story, while engaging the audience.
Nicole Dahmen is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She is also co-director of The Catalyst Journalism Project, which brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism. The University of Oregon was one of the first U.S. universities to offer courses in solutions journalism.