Conducting Interviews for a Solutions-Oriented Story?

person beling interviewed in from of tv camera

We identified the issue and have focused our reporting on characters that illustrate not only the problem, but what these children need to overcome the obstacles created when parents are incarcerated. We found our characters within programs that address the needs and worked backwards, identifying hurdles as well as issues/statistics related to the problem.

Jill Tucker portrait
Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle

The traditional news journalist is taught to report on the five Ws: who, what, when, where, why. Obviously these are critical building blocks for any investigation, whether you’re covering a PTA meeting or an airstrike.

But when exploring the impact and potential of responses to social problems, it’s critical that journalists move beyond basic reporting and look at some of the nuances of making change.

Assuming you’ve already done some vetting on the story in order to pitch it (see sections on vetting and pitching) it’s time to interview a wide range of stakeholders, including the people enacting the solution, those directly affected, detractors, funders, academics, and more. As you prep for those interviews, consider some new questions to ask your diverse experts:

Replace, “Whodunnit?” with “Howdunnit?"

In solutions journalism, what matters most is not the quirks and qualities of the main character, but the transferable wisdom found in his or her actions. How did a small organization revolutionize the way a city recycles? What are the slow, systematic steps they took? What are the teachable lessons?

It’s imperative that you drill down into the fine-grain details of the processes people use when turning great ideas into real, measurable successes. Sometimes, this will throw your subjects off — they may not be used to it. Keep drilling! You have to be very deliberate about drawing out the most important information about process or your subject might gloss over truly illuminating details. It’s only by understanding the real nitty gritty of a response that you can explain what makes it work (or doesn’t), and pass on that learning to your readers.

In addition to “What are the results?”, ask “Which measurements matter most and what are they?”

Organizations can throw metrics your way all day, but if they don’t represent the most critical measurement of change, you can get distracted.

In addition to “What do the experts think?”, ask “What do the people directly affected by this model think?”

Whenever possible, have real conversations with folks on the ground in addition to some of the usual suspects (think-tank wonks, professors, thought leaders).

Replace, “Is it working?” with “In what ways is it succeeding and in what ways is it failing?”

Social change is complex. Our reporting should reflect that complexity.