With a few simple questions and just a little extra effort, reporters and editors can quickly improve the quality and value of their work and raise the profile and credibility of their news organization.

This column expresses the views of Bart Pfankuch, content director of South Dakota News Watch; contact him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.

And if done correctly, and regularly, this new method of reporting stories can lead to positive changes in our communities and the lives of residents.

The concept is called “solutions journalism,” and it was defined and launched by the appropriately named Solutions Journalism Network. This new form of journalism seeks to look for and cover topics of great importance by examining responses to problems, seeking out and defining solutions, and sharing with readers what is working in our society and why.

As a recent devotee to SJ, let me say upfront: this method is not about choosing only upbeat topics to report on or softening your reporting in any way. 

That said, implementing SJ does result in more positive reporting and a slight shift away from only presenting negative information on problems, challenges, or tragedies. I think we can all agree that in today’s media world, particularly amid a pandemic and ongoing political and social division, the reporting, presenting, and consuming of news can be a pretty big downer and that if there was ever a time for a new, more uplifting approach, it is now.

The group’s mission is to “spread the practice of solutions journalism: rigorous reporting on responses to social problems. We seek to rebalance the news so that every day people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.”

The “response” element of that statement is critical. SJ seeks to drill in on problems and issues just like traditional reporting but adds an element that examines how problems can be solved or addressed to improve life and society. 

The process will lead reporters to do a bit more research, make a few more phone calls, and add material to stories that might have been overlooked in the past. SJ does not require much more work but does require a new way of thinking about the approach to stories and the reporting on issues.

South Dakota News Watch, the non-profit journalism organization where I work, has recently received a pair of small grants from the SJN and undergone training in how SJ can be used. We’ve also embarked on efforts to implement SJ in our work.

Some stories have been born with an SJ focus in place right from the start. For instance, News Watch set out this fall to examine how the pandemic was affecting education on Native American reservations. The result was a newsy in-depth main bar on how limited internet coverage, a lack of access to computers and other socio-economic challenges were inhibiting teaching and learning.

But we went further, and with SJ top of mind, produced a sidebar drilling in on one remote reservation that used federal grant money, assistance from a non-profit, and ingenuity by local leaders to create its own local internet system to reach families for remote learning.

Somewhat to my surprise, the SJ piece fared extremely well in audience metrics. The piece received many positive comments on Facebook and attracted a new audience we hadn’t tapped into before.

News Watch has also taken an SJ approach to many stories in a more subtle way that has raised the importance and value of our work. In a story about flaws in COVID-19 contact tracing, we sought out and found some places where tracing had been effective and explained why. In a piece about pandemic electoral challenges, we highlighted innovative methods for holding a fair, safe in-person vote (one county with tight office space bought a surplus military tent and added lights and heat to provide for socially distanced early voting and ballot processing.) In a story on how isolation was causing a mental and physical decline in nursing home residents, we revealed how one home had used plastic, wood, and shoulder-length agricultural insemination gloves to create a COVID-safe “hugging window” for residents and visitors. Some of that reporting may have happened anyway, but our involvement with SJN has led us to make a hunt for solutions part of every story discussion and reporting effort.

To get started now, ask some of the following questions: Where else is this problem happening, and has anyone made progress? What responses to this problem have worked, where did success occur and why? What evidence is there of success and how is it measured? Can solutions from elsewhere be replicated in our community? Am I giving a full and fair picture of this problem and highlighting potential solutions?

I encourage you to learn more by visiting the network at solutionsjournalism.org. You’ll feel better reporting on solutions, and your readers and community leaders will appreciate it, too.

Interested in Solutions Journalism? Attend the free Solutions Journalism 101 Webinar on January 5, 2021 at 10:00 am EST