There are some preconceptions about solutions journalism; it still has the reputation of being 'fluffy', feature-length writing about nice things. But one US-based local TV news station shows that solutions journalism is much more than that.
KXAN is a station based in Texas, owned by the largest local TV company in the US, Nexstar Media Group, with 198 stations dotted around the country. In October last year, after consulting with the Solutions Journalism Network, KXAN launched its 'Pandemic: PASS or FAIL' project; a collaborative, company-wide, solutions-focused investigation into education equity during the coronavirus pandemic. It followed on from its first solutions-focused projects, Save Our Students in 2019 and Locked in Limbo in 2020.
"It is so tough to get in front of the [coronavirus pandemic] and everything changes so rapidly that it is hard to look down the line," says Josh Hinkle, the project lead and director of investigations and innovations at KXAN, in a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.
"So [we thought] if we could identify an aspect of the pandemic, and it ended up being education equity and how students had been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, we could get several stations within Nexstar to create a company-wide project that could utilise the content if they wanted to and contribute to it."
After all, it is not enough to simply talk about solutions and problems, solutions journalism is fundamentally about interrogating whether innovative ideas work and how they might be replicated elsewhere. That is done by assessing the limitations of solutions and measuring its effectiveness.
"What I see most often when the first draft of a script comes back is that the [reporter] gets what the problem is and they get that there is a solution that is being highlighted. But the aspect that often needs more developing is taking that critical analysis of that solution, poking holes in [it]," Hinkle continues.
"Those are easily added once we have that conversation, but that's the part that is different about solution journalism which just takes a bit of time for people to get."
The project wrapped up last month and it produced more than 50 stories on-air and offline, involved more than 100 Nexstar journalists and organised 13 livestream engagement events primarily on Facebook, which also hosted a group for the project.
On Facebook alone, it totalled nearly 2.5 million views. At an average of 192,000 viewers per event, that surpasses numbers seen on breaking news or live press event streams. It has also launched a Spanish-language section and picked up the Future of Journalism Global Award from the Constructive Institute and the Solutions Journalism Network.
One story looked at the issue of internet connectivity outside of big cities, as Texas has more school districts in rural areas than any other US state. As many students struggled to access e-learning resources because of this, the story touted outdoor hotspots as a solution.
As for its impact on a non-metric level, there was some indication these solutions were spreading. For instance, Texas lawmakers who saw the story about rural access to the internet began crafting ideas for legislation in 2021 to expand the programs.
What is also striking about the project is the medium. The Solutions Journalism Network has the most authoritative database of solutions stories on its Solutions Story Tracker. Of the 10,000 stories there, around three per cent are from broadcast TV news.
Hinkle said that the pioneers of solutions journalism heralded from others mediums like print and online and TV news has been a late adopter. But the punchy and precise format of TV news also makes it difficult as there is a lot of complex ground to cover in very strict newscast times.
So KXAN relaxes the rules on solutions journalism stories. A standard KXAN news story is wrapped up in one minute 15 seconds, but more than double the time is afforded to solutions stories. Anchor intros are encouraged to cover the bulk of context so that the reporter can spend more time making the package detailed, succinct and covering its main bases.
"If you have these four elements in it - problem, solution, limitation, measurement - you are able to hopefully get through a TV story pretty quickly," says Hinkle.
"I always encourage spending the most time in a story, no matter what kind of story, on those most affected by it. That's what is going to make a viewer care about this solutions journalism story a lot more if they understand what this student is going through, or what their family is going through."
He concluded that in the future, solutions journalism does not need to just take form in set projects like 'Pandemic: PASS or FAIL', and is now starting to permeate into news meetings and everyday coverage.
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