Journalists practicing a solutions-oriented style of reporting shared story ideas and tips for how covering the COVID-19 pandemic can unearth strategies for solving problems the crisis has revealed during a May 11, 2020, Power Shift Project webinar.
Freedom Forum Fellow Jill Geisler moderated the fifth webinar in the series COVID-19: Taking Care of Journalists and Journalism, which was a collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network. Geisler cited a new Pew Research poll that showed that although confidence in journalists remains low, 59 percent of Americans surveyed felt reporters were giving people the information they needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Solutions journalism is “journalism that goes beyond identifying and describing a problem and leaving it there … to offer evidence of responses,” said Liza Gross, vice president of Practice Change at the six-year-old Solutions Journalism Network. “It is not happy journalism; it’s useful journalism.”
“It empowers audiences by giving them options, giving them information,” Gross said. It’s “not presenting the challenge and leaving them without hope. It builds a trust and a kind of relationship that we have not seen.”
Solutions journalism provides evidence of successes and their limitations, Gross said. She urged reporters to visit the Solutions Journalism Network website and its free downloads, webinars, case studies and story trackers.
Lenora Chu, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, said half of her work there falls into the solutions journalism category. To report a recent story on the worldwide nursing shortage, Chu focused on how countries – including Germany, where she lives – were rethinking healthcare during the pandemic. She found they were recruiting healthcare professionals from abroad, calling retirees back to work and soliciting volunteers. “The most surprising thing to me was the jump in telehealth.”
Advocacy groups have been promoting the advantages of telehealth – healthcare visits by phone or video link – for more than a decade. “They saw 10 years of advocacy completely leaping obstacles in the space of two weeks” of the pandemic, including health insurance and state restrictions on telehealth, Chu said.
The Hechinger Report’s Amadou Diallo explored the ways schools were providing for the estimated 21 million Americans the FCC reports lack broadband internet access. Diallo noted an independent research group thinks the number is double that. As the pandemic forces students out of classrooms, Diallo found schools were bringing learning to them in a variety of ways: bus drivers delivered school packets and lunches to children; communities partnered with local PBS affiliates to bundle lessons with their shows; and some schools promoted school and library parking lots as Wi-Fi access points for students.
The pandemic “is not effecting everyone in the same way. My 10-year-old has her own laptop,” Diallo said. “That is hardly the norm, even in New York City. You can … see how people from different parts of the country are being affected in far different ways than we are here.”
Rachel Dissell, formerly with Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, reported on how public health workers enlisted medical students to reach out to people who were exposed to the coronavirus to get them the help they needed. They worked together as contact tracers, chronicling the spread of the disease in the community. A network developed through a Case Western Reserve professor linked medical students who had just gone through training on how to respond to a pandemic with community health workers.
A follow-up story reported on how marginalized communities, particularly those with language and culture barriers, were reluctant to take the advice to stay home and isolate, Dissell said. Their main concern was financial barriers – how would their family eat?
In a large Arab-American family with confirmed infections and exposure to COVID-19, a mother didn’t want to stop cooking for her family. The county found someone who could prepare and deliver culturally appropriate food for them and talk them through cultural misconceptions. Dissell said that healthcare workers discovered the word “quarantine” had a different meaning in other languages.
“When you are dealing with something that is rapidly changing, watching how folks adjusted to make things work better often can give you mini lessons to look at, and compare what’s being done here to what’s being done elsewhere,” said Dissell.
DigBoston’s Jordan Frias focused his reporting on the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to find out how they were getting residents, particularly the homeless, access to COVID-19 testing.
Many Bostonians rely on community health centers for primary care, so the doctors and nurses at Whittier Street were well-versed in what people needed. By using a mobile van to get to people who had no access to transportation, they did rapid response testing, so people found out quickly if they needed to self-isolate.
LAist’s Erick Galindo found people in his community were turning to Latino supermarkets, liquor stores and tiendita, or corner stores, for pandemic supplies that were scarce elsewhere. “What you were seeing in the media was the white side … people that go to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. They’re overcovered. My perspective has always been on the community I grew up in and what that community is doing.”
Galindo found people liked shopping at their tiendita as both a way to maintain normalcy and keep neighborhood economic systems intact. “These neighborhoods in L.A. are super tight-knit. They are almost like their own little universes and at the center is often this little stores that’s supplying people with masks and gloves, stuff you can’t find anywhere else. These places have adapted so quickly to the environment that it’s amazing to see.”
Halfway through reporting his story, he got coronavirus symptoms, and did the rest of his work via telephone. He has since recovered.
Sigal Samuel from Vox said that in March, she started noticing people sharing Google spreadsheets with the words “mutual aid” in the title. They were lists of people who needed help, whether it be an elderly person who needed medication or someone who was immunocompromised, along with volunteers who offered to help deliver food and medicine. These spreadsheets expanded to Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and beyond.
With mutual aid groups, “the assumption is every single person has something to give others,” Samuel said. “Epidemiologically, that is factually true. Anyone who stays home is lessening the chance they will contract the virus and therefore taking up an ICU bed, freeing them up for those who might need them down the line.”
Said Geisler, “It’s about the changing nature of relationships.”
Amid the surge in “scary things going on, there’s also an upsurge in altruism happening,” Samuel said. “If you can show there is some hope, there is some way we can make progress … it can increase odds that we can social distance successfully.”
Samuel said journalists could “Just Google your town, your state. There are pre-existing organizations, like food banks as well as faith-based organizations you might want to hook up with” to see if there are similar efforts in their communities.
The Washington Post’s Robert Samuels said too often when journalists arrive in a new community to report a story “there’s often a sense of victimization about places when you are visiting them for the first time and they are going through something, (but) there’s not a sense of agency there. One of my first questions is: What are you doing, what’s being done, not just describing this problem.”
He reported from a neighborhood in Milwaukee where the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color was particularly stark. Most of the people dying of the disease were black.
The neighborhood was heavily reliant on food banks and food pantries, but since many volunteers were elderly, the system was struggling to find people who could hand out food and supplies. A community group volunteered to help deliver them.
“Sometimes the solution helps to expose a larger problem that merits discussion,” Samuels said, such as a lack of essential food and supplies in poorer neighborhoods.
His advice to journalists: “Listen and ask lots of questions. It’s a disservice to come out with simple answers and simple sentences that explain things. It’s importance for people to be able to present the complications in their lives, and that means highlighting the things that are working, the things that are not working, but also the sense of agency they feel.”
Zach Toombs, an executive producer at Newsy, compared the ways St. Louis and Philadelphia responded to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic to show people the impact that social distancing could have.
Mixing archival imagery with data reporting and animation, Toombs’s video showed that social distancing was “not just something that could work, but something that has worked in the past. You could flatten this curve and help avoid overwhelming hospitals.”
“Putting data reporters and talented animators always gets great results for us,” Toombs said.
Summing up the impact of solutions journalism, Gross referred to Amadou’s story about the lack of broadband access for many students. “The pandemic has been the trigger. But what he is doing is highlighting issues that have been a challenge for society for a long time. They just became starker with the pandemic.”
Using solutions journalism’s strategies, she said, “What if instead of responses, we called them innovations and tracked them over a period of time to see how efficient they are,” Gross said. “They could lead to an overhaul of how we think of our whole educational system.”