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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

A new, mainstream solutions journalism

“It’s reporting that seeks to build context and community around a politically and emotionally charged subject. It is journalism that engages in meaningful conversation.”

All last weekend, the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has played out on what feels like every news outlet. The faces of the dead, their stories, their lives seem to be everywhere. Also ubiquitous: the questions of what happens next. How do we heal? How do we prevent this from happening again? What can we do?

The depth of our sadness is equal to our need to prevent these tragedies. Whether our preferred solutions are gun control, accessible mental health treatment, improved school security, or something else, it’s clear that right now, across the United States, we are having these conversations with our friends, families, and communities.

It’s a positive sign that the media is paying attention and participating in these conversations, too. In less than a week, we’ve seen polling from The Washington Post, poll analysis from The Huffington Post, a mass shootings map and timeline from Mother Jones, a state-by-state breakdown of gun control from The Globe and Mail, facts on mass shootings from The Washington Post’s WonkBlog, and sensitive, deep reporting from the Christian Science Monitor including ways to helpand an attempt to find answers.

These are examples of what the birth of mainstream “solutions journalism” looks like from the ground floor of crisis. It’s reporting that seeks to build context and community around a politically and emotionally charged subject. It is journalism that engages in meaningful conversation.

My prediction for 2013: What we learn from our approach to the Sandy Hook shooting will inform our approach to many key social issues on the front burner in 2013: immigration, healthcare, and now gun control.

Solutions journalism typically refers to reporting that focuses on solutions to community problems, offering up ideas for change. When done right, it does more than turn a beat’s focus to the betterment of the future. It builds community by sharing the tools necessary to have a conversation and creating an open space for that conversation to happen, much as we’re beginning to see in coverage of Sandy Hook.

What could a solutions journalism response, grounded in context and community-based reporting, to major issues of 2013 look like? It would rely on four criteria:

  • Reporting: Conversations are most valuable when those participating in them are well informed. That means that solutions-based journalism models must make every effort to provide simple, straightforward, unbiased reporting. News organizations must make data and reporting processes open to the public.
  • Safety and respect: The audience takes part in conversations when they feel safe doing so. When the topic of conversation is particularly political or emotional, it’s doubly important to cultivate a sense of community safety. On Homicide Watch sites, this means adhering to a strict comments policy (no threats, no foul language) and pre-moderating comments. The audience feels as though their participation in the conversation is not only welcomed, but valued and honored. This comes from recognizing that solutions come from many different places and experiences, and that all voices contribute to conversation.
  • Commitment: Solutions journalism is a step away from the story-of-the-day. Communities need to understand the news organization’s commitment to the topic and what the news organization hopes to accomplish.

Reporting. Community building. Commitment. Smarter applications of these traditional reporting techniques have the ability to cement solutions journalism into the mainstream, and to transform the ways we cover some of the most serious issues in the coming year.

More importantly, this contextual, community-centric approach has the ability to raise the level of conversation and build understanding and consensus around volatile subjects. It’s important for the community of Sandy Hook Elementary. And it’s important for building an engaged democracy.

Laura Amico is founder and editor of Homicide Watch D.C. and CEO of Glass Eye Media. She is a 2012-13 Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation.