Dear journalism students: Feeling dispirited? Try covering more than just problems

Written by on February 20, 2021

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

By Sara Catania | Solutions Journalism Network

Going into her senior year as a journalism major at FAMU, Nallah Brown was having serious doubts about her chosen career path.

She wanted to make a difference with her reporting, but she knew for certain that she didn’t want to spend her life focused on the gloomy problem stories that dominated the news. “Hearing about this and talking about it with my peers it felt as though more and more I was getting pushed out of the realm of journalism,” she said.

What Brown was most interested in were community-centered stories of people confronting and working through problems, and finding responses that were working.

“I had hesitation and self-judgment around the fact that I wanted to tell these kinds of stories that I naturally gravitated towards,” she said. “Within my heart it was really this pull of like, okay, I care about this, I care about these kinds of issues. So it’s like, can I tell this story? Can it be legitimate?”

Fortunately she’d enrolled in a course taught by Francine Huff, a longtime journalist whose newsroom experience included the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe and who was now a FAMU professor teaching reporting and magazine writing.

It was in Huff’s class that Brown first heard about solutions journalism, and learned that this was an established approach to rigorous reporting that went beyond problems to document evidence-based responses. (Huff and Brown shared their experience with that course and with teaching and learning solutions journalism in a Facebook Live conversation on which this write-up is based.)

Huff began incorporating solutions journalism into her teaching several years ago for two reasons. First, she said, because it forced students to deepen their reporting. “I saw this as a way to amplify what I do to teach students to carefully research and look for the evidence,” she said. “That fits right into the definition of solutions journalism.”

And second, she said, to counter the sense of despair and powerlessness her students feel at the state of the world and of news. “It allows them to have a little bit of power,” Huff said, “to show that there are some bad things going on and some serious issues, but here are some things that people are doing that might give others hope.”

For Brown, Huff’s course, and the discovery of solutions journalism, was both a relief and a revelation. “It was like, oh, there’s already a space for this,” she recalled. “People are already doing this and it’s legitimate.”

Brown pitched a story to Huff on a fitness program that tackles the problem of isolation often felt by LGBTQIA+ people by offering group workouts and outdoor time to help build community. “When I first brought it up to her, she was like oh this is great, this is it, go ahead,” Brown recalled. “I was like, OK, cool.” Brown laughed as she recalled the ease of the pitch conversation. “It was in sync, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Huff recalled that Brown “was very engaged and focused on getting that story and making that connection to tell that complete story.”

Brown’s focus and commitment paid off. The completed story was published in Journey, FAMU’s student magazine, was accepted for inclusion in the Solutions Journalism Network’s Story Tracker and won a 2020 Sunshine Award from the Florida chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists for best LGBTQ story.

Huff’s course was an affirming experience for Brown, who is now freelancing as a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist.

“I love solutions journalism because of the very fact that we are not only talking about the problems within the communities, but we’re actually inviting this information and this knowledge that addresses those issues and problems in a solutions-based way,” Brown said. “So we’re not only talking about the issues, where people are left empty-handed.”

Huff, a fellow in the inaugural HBCU Solutions Journalism Educator Academy, sees the approach as holding a particular relevance for her students, who are predominantly African American. They all too often see themselves portrayed in news accounts in a negative light, she said, while at the same time see too few role models of others who look like them in leadership newsroom roles.

Solutions journalism, Huff said, “definitely can allow the students to go out in the communities and find those people and show there is change, there are positive things, there are people looking for ways to improve the community, to improve the lifestyles of people out there,” she said. “That really resonates with me and I hope that’s what I’m able to impart to the students.”

Beyond that, Huff sees solutions journalism as critical to the health of the overall news ecosystem. “Some of the smarter stories that I’ve seen during coverage of the pandemic and different political things and Black Lives Matter, have gone beyond just ‘here’s the problem,’ ” she said. “Being able to cover those stories and get my students to think in that way, to cover those stories, is a way that continues to give us hope, I think, and puts a fresh wind into our field, as journalists.”

Original article can be found at solutionsjournalism.org

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