August 11, 2021

I thought I understood solutions journalism. I’ve read a lot about it, have seen a few presentations about it, and not one, but two of my brilliant former J-school students (Mikhael Simmonds and Allen Arthur) work for the Solutions Journalism Network. However, after attending the Solutions Journalism Educators Academy recently, I realized that my simplistic concept of sojo — “Don’t stop at reporting on the problems, report the solutions too,” —  didn’t come close to a true appreciation of sojo’s concepts and value.

The academy, an initiative of The Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, reinforced for me the fact that you never deeply understand things as well as when you have to teach them to someone else. 

My immersive experience in how to teach solutions journalism taught me that sojo is an invigorating type of rigorous reporting that journalists can offer to audiences in support of democracy. 

It’s also obvious to me now that solutions journalism’s story formula can help journalism students overcome many common problems we educators help them grapple with: focusing on a story instead of a topic, interviewing with confidence, understanding the importance of news research, and how and where to use the research in their stories.

Three Oregon professors — Nicole Dahmen, Brent Walth and Kathryn Thier — led the virtual two-day Educators Academy. This team has built and shares an impressive amount of resources for teaching sojo (lessons, syllabi, events, activities, assignments) incorporating the vast resources that the Solutions Journalism Network provides. Dahmen, Walth and Thier shared the Four Pillars of SoJo: Response, Evidence, Insight, Limitations with my cohort of educators.

Within these pillars and other insights that the professors shared are some keys that can help our students master some of the toughest reporting challenges.

Focus your story on the response 

Within the first half hour, I understood the most critical feature of sojo: Focus your story on a response to a societal problem, and the slice of the problem this solution aims to address.

Solutions journalism is “rigorous reporting on evidence-based responses to societal problems.” Within sojo, you still report on the problem, your reporting holds people accountable and you still confront “uncomfortable truths,” yet your story is focused on problem-solving, community building, what responses work, which aren’t working, and where change has been possible. Local audiences also want to see and hear stories about solutions to problems.

Finding stories becomes more targeted, too. Think of a large societal problem, like homelessness. Then search for disruptors, organizations and entrepreneurs that are responding with a solution to a particular aspect of the problem, like the difficulty of getting an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness.

Researching and confident interviewing — where’s the evidence?

The evidence pillar of sojo can reinforce for students that they need to rigorously research and interview people (the innovators, the beneficiaries of the innovation and experts) to get to the data and anecdotal evidence that explains and supports your findings on whether this innovation is working. “Built for Zero is working with 83 communities across the U.S. With the disciplined data format, five cities have ended chronic homelessness, 12 have ended veteran homelessness, and three have ended both.”

The academy also introduced us to the “appreciative inquiry” style of interviewing, which is “relational vs. transactional, focuses on what is possible; sourcing is from within the community, focused on listening to the community, and on finding solutions from the community.” Students can overcome interview anxiety and gain confidence by focusing their interviews on questions like, “Tell me how this works. Why do you do what you do? Why is your program important? What is possible?” Our sojo academy professors told us that “interviewing for solutions is much easier than interviewing for problems.”

Interview subjects are taken off guard by the future-focused questions, and by “looping” (revisiting an important interview question) for clearer, more incisive answers and trust-building.

Insights

Sojo’s insight pillar answers an essential question students have: Where do you use your research in the story? Along with presenting detailed evidence about the response and its effectiveness, a good solutions journalism story should give insight into the challenges, struggles and lessons learned. As well as looking at the evidence and insights on how well the response is performing, your sojo story should include evidence and insight into a response that is working (if this one isn’t).

Limitations

A good sojo story uses evidence from research and interviews to address the limitations of the response. One of the most important limitations to identify is how “portable” the response is. Can an effective response in one city be implemented in other cities?

‘Objectivity is the process, not the outcome.’

I highly recommend that you apply for the 2022 Solutions Journalism Educators Academy, and engage with the Solutions Journalism Network. Now I have a deep understanding of solutions journalism, which is not advocacy journalism.

Sojo is rigorously reported and evidence-based. It focuses on responses designed to tackle “slices” of the most enduring and compelling problems society faces. Sojo has characters, but does not focus on heroes and villains. I believe that sojo, focused on what is working and what the future may hold, is a profound and inspiring record we have to offer to our students, our audiences and to humanity.

I remember a quote from Walth’s presentation on investigative reporting and sojo (which complement each other separately and in that order, rather than tackling an investigation and sojo in the same article): “Objectivity is the process, not the outcome,” which I think will resonate with our students and the communities to whom we reveal the truth.

The four pillars of a good sojo story also happen to give students a scaffolding that will help them grasp some of the most essential elements of all good journalism: finding a story’s focus; interviewing with confidence; researching a story rigorously to provide context, detail and history; and using research and interviews to support findings with evidence.

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Barbara Gray is a research methods professor and chief librarian at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. She oversees their Research Center.…
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