Vetting a Solutions-Oriented Story


At this stage, you’ve potentially found the bud of a compelling story. How do you know if it’s any good?

As with any story, you’ll have to vet the idea.

First, follow the rules of good journalism. Try to find many distinct perspectives when reporting a story. Interview people who do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the intervention. Think about where your sources get their funding. 

The judgment needed to identify a good solutions story is similar to the judgment needed to identify a good problem story: what happened and how do we know it happened? The difference is in the perceived consequences of getting it wrong. In journalism, saying something is a problem and getting it wrong is a misdemeanor. Saying something is working and getting it wrong is a felony. “Overly credulous” is one of the worst things you can call a journalist. How do you avoid it? 

Don’t overclaim.

Don’t imply the problem is solved — it probably isn’t. Don’t announce that this is the best solution — you can’t know that. Don’t predict it will last — it might well not. Limit yourself to reporting the news: there’s something going on, and here’s what the evidence says. As with a traditional story, “evidence” isn’t just data. It can also be found in interviews, shoe-leather reporting — all the ways journalists gather information. No solution is perfect. Make sure you report on its limitations and struggles.

Such caution is protective. You don’t have to worry about looking like an advocate if you don’t make claims. If the solution falls apart a few months later, you don’t look gullible, because you simply covered what was happening at the time.

These guidelines are also liberating. You don’t have to try to rank and compare solutions to find the most successful one. You are free to write about solutions that are only partly successful — or even unsuccessful, as long as it’s an interesting or important failure, and you can explain to the reader why you’re covering it (see our section on failure). You’re just looking for a good story.

There has to be an established problem or common agreement that there’s a problem. Look at the responses. There needs to be some way to measure the effectiveness of that. If it’s just anecdotal, if we just have people saying, 'Oh, this is great,'' that’s really not enough. We need some way to measure it. If the response or solution came about because somebody just threw aton of money at it, we’re probably not interested in that because that precludes a lot of other places from being able to replicate it or try it out themselves. Which speaks to another thing we look for. Is the response or solution scalable? Could it be replicated somewhere else?

Janet Horne Henderson portrait
Janet Horne Henderson
The Seattle Times

Get the opposing view.

It’s very important in a solutions story to include informed skeptics. Listening to and incorporating differing points of view — especially when on a topic that’s relatively unproven — will give your journalism more weight.

Use data to work backwards from the outcome when possible.

As indicated in our Slices section, this gives you a level of comfort. That said: remember that even with numbers, there may be some vested interests that went into collecting and sharing them.

Be extra careful. Your subjects will likely rush to talk to you about a solutions story. But you shouldn’t rush to believe what they say. Get the evidence to support any claim of success.

Good Solutions Stories...

I don’t think that there’s one way to do a solutions story in terms of the writing. I do think that the 'howdunnit' approach is a really helpful place to start. Not who done it, but how done it. Exactly how did this person or team or community or whatever grapple with a problem and break it down and surmount it? Exactly how? I think that [structure] may be more interesting than a lot of reporters might immediately assume.

Claudia Rowe portrait
Claudia Rowe
The Seattle Times

....Focus more on what’s going on than who’s doing it.

Good solutions journalism stories have characters, just like any story. But the work is usually the main character.

...Answer lots of “how” questions.

In addition to the five W’s (who, what, when, where, why), ask how. They get into the nitty gritty of how change happens. David Bornstein, SJN’s co-founder, explains: “When I was interviewing people for my book The Price of A Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, I had a list of 60 ‘how’ questions. How did you finance this idea? How did you realize people would pay back their loans? How did you decide to make groups have five members? How did you respond when mullahs intimidated the borrowers?"

...Don’t shy away from detail.

When Peg Tyre wrote “The Writing Revolution,” which explored how a writing-based curriculum led to dramatic test score improvements in a Staten Island high school, her editors at The Atlantic were initially worried that the specificity she wanted to include was too wonky and would turn readers away. “Not at all,” Peg responded. “It’s just like ‘House,’ the television show. The details are what bring the story alive.” We’ve seen in solutions-oriented stories that details can often add interest and credibility.

...Put characters in scenes.

Solutions-oriented stories tend to focus less on a character’s intrinsic qualities (e.g., altruism or courage), and more on the character’s work. Show a character trying to solve a problem, and failing or succeeding. Show the results they’re getting, and how this differs from what others do. Show what can be learned from it. This has the added benefit of giving you dynamic scenes and a strong narrative.

...Keep the reader hooked through tension.

Every good story needs tension, but it doesn’t have to come from the clash of two sides, as is so often the default in today’s media. In a solutions-oriented story, the tension is also rarely in, “Will they succeed?” That’s often implied in the headline or in the lede. Rather, the tension is in answering the questions, “How will they solve this problem that has stumped so many others? How do they overcome the obstacles in their way?”