Sara Catania is a director of journalism school partnerships for the Solutions Journalism Network. She worked as a digital leader, newsroom manager, and reporter for Reuters, NBC, AOL/Patch, and the Los Angeles Times, where she contributed to the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Northridge Earthquake. She also got involved in long-form investigative features at Mother Jones and LA Weekly.
She teaches digital journalism at the University of Southern California and also supports the Online News Association Women’s Leadership Accelerator as a mentor and advisor.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Can you tell me a little bit about the Solutions Journalism Network, how did it start? What is its purpose?
The Solutions Journalism Network was founded seven or eight years ago, co-founded. Two of the co-founders were journalists based in New York and contributing to The New York Times. Tina Rosenberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and David Bornstein. They were co-authoring a column in The New York Times called Fixes. And that column really focuses on responses to problems. And the reason they started writing that column is because they really felt very concerned about what they identified as a terrible imbalance in the way journalists were covering the news, where journalists were focusing primarily and almost exclusively on problem journalism, and not applying the same degree of rigor and depth and sophistication to reporting on effective risk. And they felt that it was actually really a disservice to the public and not really an honest reflection of the world and, in fact, was contributing to a distorted and overly negative view of the world. And they felt obligated to create a new opportunity and a framework or an approach that would accurately reflect effective responses underway. And so that’s how the solutions journalism network came about.
So what makes a great solutions journalism story?
The first thing to know is that the word solution to describe this approach is a bit of a misnomer because it suggests that somehow these are problems that have some kind of an easy answer, that they can be “solved”, when in fact, really effective and powerful solutions journalism takes a very small slice of a big social issue and looks at a response, that is showing signs of effectiveness in addressing a small area of the problem. So it’s sort of chipping away at a big social issue. That’s the first thing: it’s not like “Okay, we donated money.” That’s not solutions journalism. It’s not about one quick action. It’s not about a person sweeping in and saving the day. It’s not about an idea that somebody has about a thing that might work. It’s not advocating for anything in particular. Those are all the things that it is not.
It is deep reporting on a response, that is showing signs of effectiveness. Reporting that shows how that response came about, shows evidence that a response is having some impact. And that can be data that shows the response is actually working, like the number of people helped over a period of time, or rate of people recovering or maybe raising infection low, or whatever it is, good data points can be very helpful. And, of course, great storytelling, great anecdotes from people about experiences and show that the response is effective. So, good, solid evidence of qualitative and quantitative. The foundation is describing where the solution came from and if it was inspired by a response that was working well somewhere else.
Good solution journalism also has insight, meaning it should describe what is it about this particular response that makes it work so well and that others can emulate in other places. What is it about the response to keep that might work elsewhere? People try this response somewhere else. And of course, it needs to describe limitations. Sometimes the response works very well for a certain community under certain circumstances, and wouldn’t work well for a different community under different circumstances. There are all kinds of ways that a response can be very effective, but there are also limitations to that effect.
Why should journalists produce solutions journalism stories?
Researches show how audience responds to overly negative news and people’s response to just news, in general, is to shut down and turn it off, because they feel that they don’t want to hear about it anymore. So what studies have shown is that if you provide sophisticated nuanced reporting on responses, not like “Oh my gosh, unicorns and rainbows and everything fixed” but like “Look, people are actually working to try to address some of these issues; here’s how it’s working; here are their challenges,” that feels much more hopeful. Journalists not telling them that problems are all gone, but just saying “Look, it’s not the end of the world, there are things that are happening, there are people who are working to try to address these problems,” people will turn back towards the news. And they will engage in ways that they are not dealing with this relentless assault of negative.
How have journalists in the U.S. used solutions journalism techniques to report on the pandemic?
Well, in lots of different ways. The pandemic is still pretty new. The very first instances where we’re learning about it, we’re late in 2019, since it didn’t really become a major story in the US until February and March 2020. And then responses started emerging. So in order to do good solutions journalism, you’re looking for stories on responses to problems that are pretty well known. At one point the pandemic was a well-known problem, it was pretty well known in March. But then people immediately started working on responses, but the responses were very new. The problem was new and their responses were even newer. So there were lots of responses that started emerging in March. And now we’re several months in, six months in, and we’re seeing lots of iterations of responses, responses are evolving. They’re getting more sophisticated, they’re getting more nuanced. And so when you look at the coverage of responses to the pandemic, you look at solutions journalism, and you see that evolution in the coverage.
You can go into this curated database of solutions journalism stories called the Story Tracker, it is a free online resource that we provide. You can just search story tracker solutions journalism on Google and it will be up. You’ll see a total of about 10,000 solutions stories, but you’ll also see a search opportunity there for COVID-19 stories, so you can see stories related to all of the stories on COVID-19.
Do you have a memorable example of a story?
There is one story that I’m thinking about right now that I think is really terrific. It was actually quite early. In the pandemic, it may have been sometime in March or early April, from a reporter named Robert Samuel, from The Washington Post. He went to a neighborhood in Milwaukee, to document how that neighborhood was coping with the pandemic, a community that was a predominantly African American. And while he was there doing his reporting on this community, some of the larger statistics were starting to emerge, documenting the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, particularly the Latino and the Black community.
So he was there covering both the emerging problem of the pandemic and a deeper understanding of who was being impacted and how. And at the same time, he was covering how people in that community were developing their own responses and their ways of coping with this problem. They were coming together and creating a shared collection space for food, and all those household items that we all remember were stripped bare at the supermarket. They were creating places for people to come and bring food and important household items that people would need — toilet paper and things like that. They were creating those collection points and they created their own distribution network in their own neighborhood.
And I thought that story was really powerful because all too often we see communities of color, the Black community, being characterized in the media really through a victim lens, where you come in and say “Oh, look at these people, they have problems, and they need to be saved from the outside,” when in fact, very often, there are responses that emerge from the communities themselves. I thought this was a really powerful example of that, and done in a very agile way for a problem that was still emerging, and a response that was still emerging, but this journalist Robert Samuels recognized that and with this, captured that very beautiful story.
What are some of the challenges that reporters are encountering using this approach to report the news?
It takes time to really do a good story that focuses on an effective response. You need to ask a lot of questions. You need to really understand what you’re talking about to be able to report on it with depth and complexity. Otherwise, if you’re just gonna go in and do a PR job and say “Oh, look at this awesome thing, isn’t it great?” that doesn’t really help anybody understand what’s going on. To do these stories, first of all, you have to invest in understanding the approach, because it isn’t how journalists typically go about their work. You have to invest upfront, understand the approach, and then you have to invest in taking the time to do the story. Time is at a premium in newsrooms today, it always has been but now more than ever, because resources are so tight, and newsrooms really feel pressure to do more with less.
But the vicious cycle of that is if they just continue perpetuating the bad news, things will never get better, and the audience will never come back. So it takes a lot. You have to be ready to kind of take things in a counter-intuitive way, and invest more time and thought in these stories, to be able to create journalism that people will respond; but that it’s hard to do. It can be a challenge.
If a journalist wanted to produce solutions journalism stories, what would your advice be on how to start?
The first thing to do is to go to solutionsjournalism.org, which is our website, and check out some of our resources. We have a section of the website called the Hub, where we have a basic tool kit, which provides the kind of like the fundamentals of how to do the approach. We also offer free online webinars, pretty much at least once a month. If you go to the website, you can see when the next one is — anyone can attend. That’s also an opportunity to be present virtually with someone from the network and ask them questions. If you’ve gone through the basic toolkit, and there’s something you don’t understand, a live human being taught to interact with other people who are interested in the approach can help. That’s a great place to get started. There are lots and lots of materials and resources on the website. Dig into the Story Tracker, which I also mentioned. And then we have a blog on Medium called the Whole Story. There are lots of case studies and interviews, profiles that can give you a sense of who’s doing this, how are people doing it and what are the different ways people are thinking about it.
How do you see the future of solutions journalism in the U.S.?
To me, personally, my ideal would be for this approach to be incorporated into just good journalism, so that it wouldn’t be a freestanding, separate thing. Every journalism school, every class, every newsroom, would just be asking these questions. Every time you’re having a meeting or having a story idea meeting and you’re talking about the fourth day that you’re covering something, there will be a solutions approach to this. Is anybody responding? Is there anything effective happening? Are we covering it? Those questions have just become incorporated into good journalism. To me, that’s the dream. Because it should just be a part of journalism.