Reporter Chalktalk: Brie Zeltner

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Brie Zeltner portrait
Brie Zeltner

Brie Zeltner joined The Plain Dealer in 2003 and focuses on public health and the consequences of growing up poor. In 2015, Brie co-reported “Toxic Neglect,” an in-depth series that examined the unsolved crisis of lead poisoning in Cleveland. She says, “there’s no magic to” good solutions reporting, whether it’s for a big project like those or a spot news piece. Here are the questions that guide her reporting.

1. Is the problem unique?

The three investigative projects I’ve worked on in the past couple of years [on lead patient, infant mortality and juvenile crime] have all lent themselves easily to a solutions lens. All it takes is a problem and someone, somewhere, who’s tackling it.

As a local reporter, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that what’s happening in my town is either totally unique, or boringly typical. That kind of thinking makes it easier to ignore solutions.

So every time I find myself all riled up (or worse, burned out) about something I’m uncovering in my reporting I force myself to take a step back from my local world and ask ‘does this happen in other cities?’ or ‘is everyone as bad at this as we are?’

For our lead series, for example, we knew that Cleveland was one of many cities facing high child lead poisoning levels, and that the problem had been around for decades. All longstanding problems beg for solutions.

2. Is anyone doing it better?

I don’t set out looking for solutions stories. Like most of us, I tend to find things that are broken and the people who are struggling within that broken system. Any time I write a story about a problem, be it a lack of funds for the local health department or confusion about medical bills, I ask everyone the same question: Is anyone doing this better?

Sometimes that leads to a story and sometimes it doesn’t.

In our lead poisoning reporting, asking those questions led to stories about cities that had different laws in place to protect children from being exposed to the toxin, better screening practices, and more renter-friendly tools to help residents find lead-safe housing. For the infant mortality series, it produced stories on a citywide initiative to curb infant mortality, a small group prenatal care class helping a handful of women at a time, and a care delivery model about to be replicated to other states.

3. Does it change the prism?

The best solutions stories are ones that force readers to look at a problem differently than they ever have before.

Cleveland’s a city where more than half of children live below the poverty line. That’s an alarming statistic with huge implications for kids, families and the community, but stories about poverty and poverty-related health issues are a tough sell, especially when there are no solutions in sight. It’s hard for readers to stick with you through a long investigation without a glimmer of hope. Honestly, it’s hard to keep writing those stories for long without losing steam.

When we launched “Toxic Neglect,” on lead poisoning, and “Saving the Smallest,” a series on infant mortality, we told people right up front that we’d be presenting solutions. These are longstanding problems without simple fixes, and for many readers, the first inclination when faced with the topics is to turn away in frustration.

My goal in offering solutions—even partial ones—is to make it a little harder to do so.

They don’t have to be uplifting—I’m just as frequently ticked off by good solutions work because it points out all the ways people find to solve problems that we’ve failed to tackle, for whatever reason.