Kathryn Thier and Nicole Dahmen present on solutions journalism at AAN conference

Editor's note: This post is the second in a series of two student blog posts about the 2017 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Digital Conference held in January in Portland, Oregon. For more information, read the first post in the series, "Damian Radcliffe talks trust in media at AAN conference" by Kenny Jacoby.

Caitlin Howard
SOJC student Caitlin Howard reports on Kathryn Thier and Nicole Dahmen's presentation about solutions journalism at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Digital Conference.

Story by Caitlin Howard

I listened to an episode of the “Radiolab” podcast recently that explored the concept of fear. In it, they reference a study done in some small American town where children who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s experienced levels of freedom they would never allow their own children today. Only a few decades ago, children were allowed to run off and play with instructions only to come home before dark. Crime rates have remained relatively stagnant since then, but parents now rarely let their children leave their sight.

The podcast hosts discussed how the fight-or-flight response in the human brain, which has been so crucial in our evolution, no longer serves us when it comes to digesting modern media, which has become increasingly conflict-focused and, with the help of technology, ever-present in our daily lives. When we’re faced with so much negative news coverage, our brain responds by feeling scared. But the risk isn’t imminent; we just process it that way. So we’re living in this constant state of fear, believing that danger is always right around the corner, even though there is no real increase in risk.

We’ve all seen the repercussions of this mindset. The Republican National Convention’s unofficial theme was “law and order,” which Donald Trump professed we need now more than ever. The truth, however, is that violent crime rates have been cut in half since 1991. Unfortunately, the ways news is presented to us creates the impression that trouble is lurking just around the corner, 24 hours a day.

In their session on solutions journalism at the 2017 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Digital Conference in Portland, Kathryn Thier and Nicole Dahmen suggested an alternative way to present news. The UO School of Journalism and Communication faculty members discussed how solutions journalism goes beyond covering a problem to highlight a response, with supporting evidence. Solutions journalism focuses on deeper, structural issues — of which day-to-day problems are often just a symptom. The approach attempts to expose a larger truth so that the proposed responses can potentially be applied more broadly.

Thier and Dahmen explored the technique of using a restorative narrative to tell a story that illuminates recovery, resilience and restoration instead of the ever-common angle of destruction and despair. This form of narrative follows a story past the newsworthy moment of tragedy and chaos, allowing readers to know what happened next, how people continued forward with their lives. Telling a story from this perspective can tease out the inherent strength of our communities and how people come together to heal.

Solutions journalism provides a way to present news that doesn’t focus on any inherent fear, danger or negative aspect of a story. It can shed light on a tragedy or problem by focusing on the solution (hence the name) — the positive side of things. Digesting a story from this angle won’t spark the fight-or-flight response in the human brain. Instead, it will leave news consumers feeling hopeful and inspired, and more likely to take action on an issue.

I’m writing a story right now about sex trafficking. As I began working out the story in my head, the first (and easiest) route I took was trying to expose how big of a problem this is in the friendly little college town where I live. I imagined highlighting jaw-dropping statistics and featuring tragic stories of individuals who have been sexually exploited. That would catch everybody’s attention, right?

As the story began to take shape, however, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to tell another story about a big problem. Instead, I want to tell a story about what people and organizations are doing to help solve the problem. In doing so, I will have ample opportunity to highlight the problem itself. But instead of having that horrendous issue be the center of my story, the focus will be on the positive, on how the problem is being addressed. In my story, there will be a “but”: But look at what’s really being done to help solve this.

I want my story to be one of the ones that doesn’t cause us to live in a state of fight-or-flight, subconsciously worrying about all the danger cues we subconsciously digest in any given day. I want it to show that we can exist in a state of believing that things are OK, that bad things can get better and that strong reporting can help us play a part in whatever that solution is.

Caitlin Howard is a communicator and connector refining her storytelling skills in the SOJC’s Professional Master’s of Journalism program. She was a political science major at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and then spent a few years traveling overseas before making her way back to her home state. She teaches yoga around Eugene, speaks fluent French and conversational Spanish, and continues to make time for adventures abroad.