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How to Tell a Story with Data and Solutions Journalism: Getting Started

By Kalena Thomhave
Poverty Solutions at U-M

How to Tell a Story with Data: Getting Started

As both Scott Levin, data reporter at MLive, and Emily Badger, reporter at The Upshot at The New York Times, told us in this session on telling stories with data, people love maps. Effective data visualizations can convey what people need to know and can work against misinformation. Here are some questions to ask when bringing data into your stories:

  • What is the narrative behind these data?
    • Levin reminds us that “data visualization is nothing without a narrative.” Data should be paired with real stories, as readers need a compelling reason to engage with a map or chart. MLive’s coronavirus coverage pairs statistics and visuals with the stories of how the virus has impacted Michigan.
  • Who might have data on this that we can use?
    • While government resources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census are old standbys for data gathering, Badger often looks to “strange new sources of data,” like those from private companies or apps, which can “help get at questions that government data alone can’t answer.”
  • How can data shift the poverty narrative?
    • The Upshot published a story that tied together a quiz and survey results to get Times readers thinking about administrative burden—how low-income people must jump numerous hurdles in order to obtain and keep public benefits—when many upper-income people may have forgotten to pay a utility bill and not lost their health insurance as a result. Session moderator and Poverty Solutions faculty director Luke Shaefer notes how this story represents one way that data can combat stigmatizing narratives like that which expects low-income people to prove that they are “deserving.”
  • How can we grapple with the fact that data can be read in different, sometimes conflicting ways?
    • Badger shared how “different people looking at the exact same [data] can have different takeaways.” The Upshot wrote a piece about how the percentage of local funding for police had been increasing over the past couple decades, even while crime has fallen sharply. Instead of critically examining the need for increased police budgets as The Upshot intended, some readers concluded that crime had fallen because of increase police funding. Try to think through the different ways a story can be read, and preempt inaccurate conclusions before publishing.
  • How do I get started?
    • Levin pointed to and as two free tools that beginners can use to start better using data to tell stories about poverty.

Solutions Journalism: Getting Started

Traditional news reporting tends to focus on disaster and deprivation, often meaning that it reinforces harmful narratives about who is poor and why. “Solutions journalism” aims to disrupt neat narratives about social problems by instead focusing on how communities are responding to problems—showing readers that solutions do indeed exist.

Sarah Gustavus, economic mobility manager for the Solutions Journalism Network, began this session by giving an overview of solutions journalism and how reporters and researchers can get started producing and promoting more solutions-focused work. It’s easiest to understand solutions journalism by thinking about what it’s not. It’s not focused on just one person’s response to a problem, but a collective response. It’s not theoretical—it’s what’s already happening on the ground. And it’s not a cure-all—solutions journalism stories be sure to discuss the limitations of a proposed solution.

For a local example of where solutions journalism approach would have been welcome, in 2015 national media covered the story of a Detroit man who walked 21 miles to work each day. Instead of presenting this story as a problem of poverty and failed transportation policy and looking to solutions, the man’s story was often framed by focusing on his individual resiliency—and the subsequent car that a Ford dealership gave him. Gustavus calls this genre of story “They bought him a car!” stories. The car was a solution to this commuter’s problem, but it was not a solution for the many thousands of commuters that struggle to get to work in Detroit, where public transportation infrastructure is wanting. (A curated database of more than 9,000 stories is available on the Solutions Story Tracker).

Local solutions journalism work can better tell these stories and also shift the traditionally lopsided dynamic between reporters and communities. Gustavus shared the four pillars of solutions journalism:

  • Response (to a problem)
  • Evidence
  • Limitations
  • Insights

Resolve Philadelphia, a journalism organization that partners with newsrooms, grew out of the Solutions Journalism Network. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, co-executive director of Resolve, detailed how their project Broke in Philly has worked to build trust in communities where journalists have often preyed on community stories without centering community voices. Broke in Philly is a collaborative of 24 local Philadelphia newsrooms that focuses on economic mobility in the city; nearly half of the people in Philadelphia make less than $41,000 per year.

One example of a Broke in Philly solutions journalism piece, published in Green Philly, looks at the ways people in a low-income community of color are greening their spaces. The story focuses on how “people who are directly affected by the problem are leading that change,” says Friedman-Rudovsky. This powerful form of solutions journalism asks: “What are people already on the ground doing—and how can we elevate [their work] so that the narrative about those folks experiencing poverty can be changed?”

Gustavus shared some initial questions for reporters to ask themselves when beginning to delve into solutions journalism:

  • Who is solving the problem better?
  • How does the response work?
  • What evidence and metrics matter?
  • How is the community measuring success?
  • Who is the response not working for?

Additional resources

Slides (PDF) and stories referenced in Sarah Gustavus’ presentation: