“We really care about journalism that does more than just diagnose the problem,” explains Leah Todd, New England region manager for Solutions Journalism Network. Her organization trains journalists to explore how people are responding to challenges, empowering rural newsrooms to look at serious social problems in a whole new light.
“There’s this really powerful change that happens when newsrooms start producing solutions journalism,” she notes. Not only do journalists become more energized, but audiences also begin to respond differently. They express higher levels of trust in their local news organizations, as well as increased optimism and agency.
This was true in North Carolina, where the Carolina Public Press undertook a collaboration with 10 other news organizations in 2018 to uncover shocking facts about sexual assault cases across the state.
After six months of deep investigation, the team of print, television, and radio media outlets released “Seeking Conviction,” – three gigabytes of data from the North Carolina Administrative Office, as well as numerous other records and interviews.
They revealed that North Carolina had the largest rape-kit backlog in the nation, had not convicted anyone of sexual assault in 38 counties for more than four years and that fewer than one in four people charged with sexual assault could expect to be convicted.
Putting the data out there was an empowering move for North Carolina’s rural population of nearly 30 percent, not often fully represented in the news. Following the release of “Seeking Conviction,” Carolina Public Press hosted several community events to share its findings publicly and answer questions.
These types of interactive events are now regularly being used by news collaboratives across the country to give community members a direct role in thinking about and solving critical local issues.
“When one news organization shines a spotlight on a particular issue, that’s one flashlight. When 15 news organizations in a county or across a state collectively bring their attention to a particular issue…news consumers and elected officials take notice,” Todd says.
SJN took this approach in Montana several years ago, when they helped a handful of newspapers, as well as the state’s public television organization take a solutions approach to a rural issue spreading throughout the state, avoiding the spotlight.
While evidence of significant economic growth could be found just about anywhere in Montana’s major cities, the picture in rural areas was drastically different. Small towns were suffering from unemployment, shrinking population, and pressing social issues, such as a lack of mental health services.
For a full year, journalists from participating media sources went to those small towns to investigate their strategies for resilience and to find out what residents and communities were doing to flourish instead of flounder. The project became known as the Montana Gap.
That kind of journalism, once placed in the hands of the people, can be used to “drive conversation and hopefully changes where they need to be made,” says Nick Elhi, managing editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, one of the news organizations involved in the Montana Gap project.
Next, the group plans to seek solutions surrounding Montana’s rapidly aging population. According to the Flathead Beacon, the state “currently ranks first in the nation for having the largest share of Medicare beneficiaries living in rural areas – 77 percent, compared to a nationwide average of only 24 percent.”
Critical issues like that are often the most overwhelming but necessary to address, and solutions journalism provides a framework for unraveling them. When she meets with a team of journalists, Todd likes to ask: “What’s the most burning issue keeping your audience up at night?”
She also points to the flip side, emphasizing how important it is for news consumers to demand meaningful coverage. In rural places where the same discouraging story has run over and over again, she suggests readers ask: “What stories can you bring us about maybe how other communities have tackled this same problem?”
Radically Rural explores ways rural leaders are building stronger communities through innovative strategies. The column is produced by the organizers of Radically Rural, an annual summit of rural leaders that last year brought together almost 600 rural leaders from 25 states working in community journalism, arts and culture, main street development, land and community, entrepreneurship, and renewable energy. For more information on Radically Rural, visit the organization’s website or contact them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.