Solutions: The foundation of empowerment

July 10, 2013

I spent 23 years as a TV reporter, toiling under a self-evident operating principle “If it bleeds, it leads.”  My environmental stories were rarely grisly enough to creep into the top story slot; but they still contained plenty of bad news. Like all journalists I fielded plenty of complaints about the prevalence of gloom, doom and bad role models on our air. Like most journalists, I tepidly defended the status quo by turning it back on the viewer…if we did nothing but cheery news, nobody would watch.

Yes, news stories generally need conflict to draw people in. Still, good journalists are acutely aware that driving all optimism and sense that problems can be solved from the daily news digest is…well…a problem of its own. I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the steady drumbeat of “gotcha” stories where some hapless public employee was roasted on air for calling his girlfriend on a government cell phone, or pulling a few levers at a casino during a publicly funded trip to a Las Vegas professional conference; all reported as if the incidents were the next Watergate. No stories in there about the thousands of public employees who work overtime for nothing and are truly dedicated public servants. Net result: the public thinks government is wholly inhabited by laggards and cheats.

We know good news is hard to pitch. We asked working journalists for their suggestions on selling solution stories. Here are a few highlights:

Robert McClure of Investigate West advised highlighting both the unique nature of your solution and its multiple benefits.

Not to be too basic about it, but news is by definition what is new. So a solution that is truly new has something going for it. Novelty sells.

“News also is about what is meaningful to the reader’s or viewer’s or listener’s life. So the benefits to people are important. The case has to be made, preferably in the news story, as to how this solution is going to make a difference.”

One science blogger for a national daily advised that we all adopt a great sense of wonder. “Enough with the doom and gloom! People want to read interesting stories, to be dazzled by this amazing planet we live on, to be intrigued by beautiful and interesting photos.”

A national correspondent for a popular news and culture magazine points out that even solutions stories can have a “gotcha” element that gives them a saleable edge. “To overcome the media bias toward ongoing controversy is to recall past controversy and point out how silly it was (e.g. States implementing Obamacare as designed isn’t big news; Governors who opposed Obamacare seeing greatest increases in insured is big news).”

Finally this offering from a veteran reporter who has had years of exposure to the conservation community’s misanthropic side: “A good news story from an enviro is unexpected and it’s the unexpected that’s fascinating. It’s like Bill Clinton taking a vow of chastity, or something sober coming out of Lindsay Lohan.”

Have great tips of your own? Share them in the comments below.

Scott Miller