Credit: Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

Julia Hotz is the community manager for the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN). This article first appeared on SJN's Medium account The Whole Story on 29 April 2020, and has been republished with the author's permission.

Amid coronavirus-fueled global fear and uncertainty, people want to know what they can do to ensure they are safe. Solid reporting on what is working, from rapid testing to quarantine strategies, helps provide crucial information to individuals, communities and policymakers.

In this 60 minute webinar hosted by SJN, Nina Fasciaux, SJN’s manager in Europe, and Lucie Černá program coordinator of Czech Republic-based Transitions Online, explored how journalists can cover responses to the pandemic, with an eye to solutions stories from Europe.

The webinar is immediately followed by a 30-minute Q&A with Mark Rice-Oxley, head of special projects at The Guardian and editor of The Upside, the newspaper’s solutions journalism vertical.

Start with the problem

Solutions journalism asks 'who is doing it better at solving X problem?' and investigates how 'better' happened. But Rice-Oxley says that journalists often forget to define the problem in the first place.

"I get a lot of pitches from stringers and freelancers on a narrow aspect of the solution — an NGO that’s doing good work here, or a community group that’s reinvented the cafe — and it always makes me think, 'Well, what’s the problem they’re trying to fix? Why should I believe that this one initiative is the magic bullet?'"

Rice-Oxley advises journalists to start with the magnitude of the problem and look at who has responded effectively.

Examine a "small slice" of the problem

After clearly identifying the problem, solutions journalism goes further, deeply investigating a small slice of that problem.

Rather than a general issue area — say, climate change — a solutions journalism approach works best when it zeroes in, for example, on air pollution, investigating success through specific factors — such as lowered costs, expanded access, or reduced racial disparities.

Rice-Oxley says small slices are especially important for covid-19 coverage, which has "lots of different strands" to investigate.

"If the problem was infection, why was it that Taiwan and South Korea were so much better than China or Iran in those early days? When it comes to critical care, why is it that Germany has so many fewer deaths? Is it a matter of testing, or is it a matter of beds and ventilators and ICU units?"

Learn more about “small slices” and finding the positive deviant through SJN’s Basics Toolkit.

Be on the lookout for the positive deviants

Some of the best solutions stories are framed through data — quantitative evidence of what is working. SJN has a list of databases to help journalists find the positive deviant — a datapoint that suggests one city, country, or institution is faring better than others, offering a fruitful starting point for reporting.

For covid-19 coverage, Rice-Oxley adds that this story on Taiwan’s containment successes started with looking at numbers by country.

Hold power to account by showing who is doing it better

Highlighting the positive deviant, Rice-Oxley says, puts pressure on those in power if you find out why one country or city did it better.

"We can pressure our own governments who, let’s face it, are having a tough time dealing with this,” Rice-Oxley says. “We can say, ‘Well, you say it’s difficult to roll out enough tests, but Taiwan did it. You say it’s hard getting a hold of the ventilators, but Germany managed.'"

Proactively engage with your audiences

Stories can better reflect the whole of a community’s problems and responses if journalists intentionally connect with their audiences (SJN explores this in its engagement toolkit).

To that end, and to strengthen The Upside’s covid-19 coverage, Rice-Oxley "proactively engages" with the readers of the vertical’s weekly newsletter by encouraging them to answer questions like "What are you doing? What are you seeing? What’s it like where you are?"

Rice-Oxley says that asking these "teasing questions" and giving readers a simple way to reply has helped The Upside seed several good solutions story tips.

"We’ve had some fantastic input on what communities and neighbourhoods are doing," Rice-Oxley says. "Maybe not as a solution to kill the virus, but as a way to help people cope with it."

Seize the moment for solutions journalism — but be strategic with timing

Readers, journalists, and editors alike are craving solutions coverage now more than ever to complement, what Rice-Oxley calls, "the grimmest story of our lifetime." The Upside has gone from producing two-to-three solutions journalism stories per week to the same amount per day.

"If editors are having to put such grim stories on their front pages, they're going to want something optimistic to level the mix, something to show the light at the end of the tunnel," Rice-Oxley says. “Looking at the reader response and the web traffic, a lot more people understand the purpose of having solutions journalism in the mix.”

Still, Rice-Oxley cautions that freelancers may have a difficult time selling any story right now. For covid-focused solutions stories, most newsrooms, including The Guardian, have a team of reporters dedicated to pandemic coverage. At The Guardian, that coverage accounts for about 70 per cent of the publication’s content. Which means freelancers will have a hard time finding a covid-19 story to pitch that is not already being done in-house. At the same time, The Guardian has a fraction of its typical space for pitches on everything else.

Rice-Oxley advises freelancers to hunker down and consider the long game, preparing strong pitches on the important non-covid-19 stories newsrooms will be seeking — if not now, then eventually.

"It’s really hard to do, but if I was a smart freelancer looking to land a solutions story in a major newspaper, I wouldn’t be focused on covid-19," Rice-Oxley says. "I’d be looking far away from it, unless you've got something really unique and original and nobody else has got.”

The Whole Story posts fellowship, training and mentorship opportunities within the SJN network, as well as practical advice for performing solutions journalism

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