Solutions Journalism for Science Reporters

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When newsrooms are eliminating entire environmental desks, it might not seem like the best time to launch a nonprofit magazine about the changing Earth. But that’s just what Mary Hoff and her colleagues did when they founded Ensia in 2013. Their goal went beyond shoring up dwindling coverage. They wanted to counter “doom and gloom reporting in the environmental space,” says Hoff, who is the publication’s editor-in-chief. Ensia specializes in finding workable approaches to problems in energy, food, health, technology, ecosystems, and other areas.

Ensia wasn’t alone in trying to shift news coverage to more constructive topics. The Solutions Journalism Network came into being that same year and has steadily gained funding and influence. David Bornstein, who co-founded the organization with Tina Rosenberg and Courtney Martin and is its CEO, says he had been noticing far more attention given to what people were doing wrong than to how they were solving problems. “There wasn’t a sort of rigorous, established practice for how to do that kind of reporting well,” he says.

Covering solutions is nothing new, of course, especially for science journalists. Much of the research we follow aims to eradicate an illness or achieve a new tech milestone. Not to mention that like all reporters, our news instincts naturally alert us when we hear about an innovative approach to problems such as plastic pollution in the ocean or protecting endangered animals from poachers.

But solutions journalism makes the practice more intentional, offering frameworks reporters can use to seek these stories proactively, rather than waiting until they stumble across one. Proponents say solutions stories receive more page views and that audiences linger longer because they are hungry to learn about efforts to remedy problems and improve their communities.

Journalists often operate on the assumption that simply exposing problems is enough to create change. But that model can backfire, especially when issues are complex and worsening, such as climate change and the opioid epidemic. When coverage becomes a negative drumbeat, audiences often become overwhelmed and turn away.

Science journalists are increasingly recognizing the power of solutions-journalism techniques to help them identify novel stories, such as this NPR piece about how protecting fish is saving fishermen’s lives, and this Fast Company article about the use of facial recognition algorithms to track stolen chimps.


A Great Fit for the Science Beat

Telling solutions stories can be transformative when you’re covering “burning issues that keep your audience up at night,” yet that have been covered “ad nauseam,” says Leah Todd, New England region manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. For science journalists, getting readers to re-engage with stories about those issues means possessing the tools to find fresh angles on persistent problems like vaccine refusal and obesity.

“I think there are a lot of issues that we just start to accept as ‘This is the way it is’ and quit expecting them to be solved,” says Erica Evans, a reporter at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Often, when science stories do mention solutions, it’s in a paragraph or two towards the end. By contrast, Hoff expects Ensia writers to engage in storytelling that keeps potential fixes “front and center.” For instance, this piece by Lindsey Konkel presents biopesticides as alternatives to human-made ones, and this one by Erica Gies explores a water stewardship technique that minimizes water shortages, flooding, and pollution.

Such tactics are more needed than ever. “News avoidance is on the rise,” Bornstein says. That applies across coverage areas and issues, with 32 percent of people surveyed worldwide stating that they avoid the news “often or sometimes,” a 3 percent increase since 2017, according to a Nieman Lab article about the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

Bornstein points to a recent New York Times story, “These Days, It’s Not about the Polar Bears,” which describes how counterproductive the “dire warnings” type of climate coverage has been. Despite the publication of thousands of peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary papers since 2014 on the topic of climate change communication, “experts say not enough people have been motivated to act,” writes Benjamin Ryan for The Times. One of Ryan’s sources, Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, says the core problem is a misunderstanding about solutions. “The main reason people reject the science of climate change is because they reject what they perceive to be the solutions: total government control, loss of personal liberties, destruction of the economy,” she told Ryan. “Ironically,” she added, “what motivates people to care and to act is an awareness of the genuine solutions: a new clean-energy future, improving our standard of living, and building local jobs and the local economy.”

It’s bad enough that people are avoiding the news because it makes them feel depressed and powerless. But when journalists fail to report on potential fixes, this lapse interrupts the fundamental role journalism can play as a “feedback system” for society—a system that relies on journalism making society aware of problems and helping society learn how to correct its ills, says Bornstein.

That self-correcting system is at work not only when journalists discover useful solutions but even when they cover failed ones—as Ludwig Hurtado did in “L.A.’s Incentive for Urban Farming Fails to Take Root,” which was published in CityLab, and Sara Morrison did in “Undercooked: An Expensive Push to Save Lives and Protect the Planet Falls Short,” which appeared in ProPublica. Recycling is often touted as a silver bullet for the global plastics problem, but a recent Ensia piece by Rachel Cernansky discusses how kids’ toys made from recycled plastics contain flame-retardant chemicals linked to health problems. Such coverage urges lawmakers and communities to tweak their approaches, directing money, time, and other valuable resources towards evidence-based solutions that prove most effective.


How to Find Solutions Stories

There are multiple strategies for identifying solutions stories. Here are a few to get you started:

Revisit previous stories: Many times, reporters point out a problem, then move on. It’s worth returning to some of your previous coverage to examine whether any progress has been made. Don’t give up if you find there’s no momentum. That itself could be a story. For instance, when Cleveland officials didn’t respond to years of sporadic coverage of the city’s lead poisoning problem, The Plain Dealer embarked on its “Toxic Neglect” series, which examined why officials had failed to act. This time, the attention worked. Two years after the series, the city had hired three new lead investigators, closed most of its 2,998 backlogged cases, and created a searchable public database of properties with known lead hazards.

Come at it from the other side: Sometimes reporters find a solutions story by turning a “problem” story inside out. That’s what Geoff Dembicki did when editors at Ensia contacted him after reading “The Next Financial Crisis Could Be Caused by Climate Change” in Vice. “We saw this as a really important story that could be told more thoroughly by including a solutions perspective, but also saw that it was lacking in the solutions department,” recalls Hoff, of Ensia. “So we invited Geoff to tell the rest of the story.” The result was “Can We Prepare for Climate Impacts without Creating Financial Chaos?

Find a community that’s doing it right: Cast your net wide to find a place that is implementing an intriguing response to a public health or environmental problem. That’s a go-to strategy for Evans of Deseret News, who has written about how a pilot program for low-level drug offenders in Seattle and an air pollution reduction program in Oslo, Norway, might be adapted to Utah. The Philadelphia Citizen has taken this approach to a higher level, with a column called Ideas We Should Steal, featuring intriguing initiatives in other places.

Connect research to the real world: After coming across a scholarly paper about groundwater conservation in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, Luke Runyon, a reporter at KUNC in Colorado, did more digging. He learned that the study involved an actual water shortage in the San Luis Valley and contained “new data and evidence to show that what the farmers were doing was having an effect.” From there he developed this story for NPR’s The Salt: “To Save Their Water Supply, Colorado Farmers Taxed Themselves.”

Look for “small s” solutions: Many problems are too complex to be solved by a single approach. But people may be addressing subsets of the problem. For example, there is no blanket solution to obesity, but there may be programs to help kids get more exercise or stop drinking soda, or to improve access to fruits and vegetables among people living in food deserts. Look for the highest-performing members of a data set, known as positive deviants—for example, communities that have seen significantly reduced pediatric obesity rates or an increase in farmer’s markets.

If you’re still looking for inspiration, check out “72 Places to Find Solutions Story Ideas,” by Julia Hotz, communities manager for the Solutions Journalism Network, in Medium.


Stay Skeptical

Don’t check your journalistic instincts just because you’re in search of hopeful stories. Responsible solutions journalism requires casting aside rose-colored glasses and inclinations towards advocacy. “Keep your antennae up,” Runyon says. “Always keep an eye out for spin” and beware of anyone who’s trying to sell something. The Solutions Journalism Network has developed a list of “solutions imposters,” such as magic bullets or “heroes” changing the world.

It’s critical to consider what types of metrics are used to evaluate a solution’s success. Solutions stories must critically evaluate limitations and provide evidence-based analyses of effectiveness. Reporters must also avoid promoting as viable “solutions” that are still more idea than reality. Todd, of the Solutions Journalism Network, adds that solutions reporters should examine how fixes are working outside the laboratory, as Ben Goldfarb does in this story about how birth control has impacted white-tailed deer overpopulation in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

They should also avoid “feel-good local stories that aren’t necessarily scalable,” urges Kathryn Kohm, founder and editor-in-chief of Anthropocene magazine.

Kohm recommends asking these questions about a possible solution: What could go wrong? What aren’t we thinking of? What are the questions we need to be asking? What should we worry about?

Looking for additional resources? The Solutions Journalism Network hosts the Solutions Story Tracker, a compendium of thousands of solutions-oriented stories from hundreds of outlets. The group offers a vast array of resources for journalists and newsrooms, including online learning guides, grants, webinars, newsroom trainings, and more.


Rachel Crowell Courtesy of Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is a freelance math and science journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific AmericanScience News for Students, RewireEos, and more. Rachel also co-edits the American Mathematical Society’s Blog on Math Blogs. Follow them on Twitter @writesRCrowell.

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