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 15 April 2020, and has been republished with the author's permission.
As the coronavirus forces most of us to stay home, how can journalists still produce strong solutions stories without the ability to travel even across town, or talk to anyone in person?
The good news: while not ideal, good reporting from home is possible. Though remote reporting makes it hard to create a strong, vivid sense of place, or to stumble across the unexpected, there are practical ways journalists can compensate.
From Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of SJN and columnist for the New York Times Fixes column, and Roxanne Patel Shepelavy, executive editor/co-executive director of The Philadelphia Citizen, here are five tips on how to report solutions journalism from your living room. You can also check out their full webinar on this topic, where they walk through two of their own remotely reported stories and answer questions from participants. Check out the full 60 minute recorded presentation from Tina Rosenberg and Roxanne Patel Shepelavy.
Plan your trip — then do not go
You would never travel for a story without first figuring out whether it is worth the time and money.
Before you go anywhere, you need to find data and other evidence that underscores the story’s value. You need to know the particular place also offers the right narrative focus. And you need to plan your trip: identifying what you want to see and who you want to interview.
That is all research you do from your desk, even if you can travel. If you cannot travel, you can still do that pre-work. You just have to find ways to do the rest of the story from your desk.
"With most stories, you're not going to find people randomly, or on street corners," Rosenberg says. "You’re going to be setting up appointments and going to see people, and you can do all that on a video call or by phone."
Shepelavy agrees. "Some of the colour that you miss by being there in person you get by having a wide variety of sources," she says. "If you have three people talking about the same meeting, you might have three different details that stood out to them, that you maybe would have seen or wouldn’t have seen."
Outsource your eyes
If you cannot be there on-the-ground yourself, dial in through a video call, ask someone who is there to take a video, or ask someone who was there to describe the scene in a visual way.
In this New York Times story on a programme called Ceasefire, Rosenberg opens by describing a community meeting on gun violence. Because she could not be there in person, she asked someone to describe who and what was in the room. Through that interview, Rosenberg learned about little details like the type of food served (wrap sandwiches, salad and brownies), which helped her paint a rich picture for the reader.
Shepelavy says you can collect these details by asking your sources to retell the experience as a story. "Tell me what it was like in the room. What were people talking about? What did they say? It could be anything that prompts the source to give you anecdotes.”
Rosenberg adds: “What were people wearing? What did people do when they first came in — did they talk to each other or did they just sit down? What did the room look like — what color were the curtains and the floor?”
Stay on the phone for deeper perspectives
Even journalists who are reporting on the ground may have a hard time going to all the places and seeing all the meetings and events they would like. That is why it is important to ask various people with different viewpoints to tell their version of the story.
"You can stay on the phone for longer and just let them talk, instead of worrying about 'next question, next question',” Rosenberg says, adding that this can help sources feel more comfortable anyway. "And then you can go into questions that might elicit something important. Did anything happen that surprised you? Do you remember the story of any person that behaved in a way that stuck with you?”
One example from Shepelavy: when she was reporting on poverty for The Philadelphia Citizen, she spent a long time interviewing Elisabeth Buck, the president of the United Way of Central Iowa. After asking Buck a "ton of questions", she was able to gather illustrative anecdotes.
Triangulate evidence of the idea’s effectiveness
Even when you are reporting in person, it is crucial to verify what is being said by checking with a wide variety of people as well as researching qualitative and quantitative data.
"If I’m talking about a programme in an area, I want to talk to people who work for that programme, who are clients of it, who are critics of it, and who maybe have not benefited from it," Rosenberg says.
For quantitative data, Rosenberg says you can look for the positive deviant. "Cut the problem into small slices, and for each slice, ask: 'Who’s doing a better job with similar resources?'" Rosenberg recommends looking for databases, organisations, and experts with a broad overview.
Broaden the picture
Solutions stories often strive to tell the story of one promising practice. But it is often also good to explore whether other places have had similar success. "If it works in one place, that doesn't mean it's going to work anywhere else," Shepelavy says.
Sometimes the spread of a programme also is evidence that it is newsworthy. For instance, Rosenberg found that Newburgh is one of 80 US cities using Ceasefire. At one point in her story about that effort, she shifts to Oakland, where the community organiser speaks about how the program works in their city. At another point, she mentions how Newburgh may have a structural advantage thanks to a state funding initiative.
The bottom line, Shepelavy says, is to remember that the colour of the story — the details, the vivid characters, the scenery — is not the story itself. Instead, "the story itself is what the problem is, what the solution is, how it's being approached, and what the data shows."
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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