February 17, 2015

In Storytelling, Focusing on Solutions, Not Problems

Samaritan's Purse volunteers rebuilding after a tornado hits Shuqualak, Miss.

A poll conducted last year by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 1 in 4 people had experienced a “great deal” of stress in the past month.

“These stressed-out people said one of the biggest contributors to their day-to-day stress was watching, reading, or listening to the news,” NPR reported.

And why wouldn’t the news stress people out? Turn on TV news and you’ll hear plenty about disasters, fires, accidents, rapes, robberies, bombings and bad people wanting to do bad things to you.

Watch Michael Moore’s satirical take on media scares, or Andy Schocken’s short film Live @ 5, a brilliant reminder of the hype and fluff that fill newscasts.

Newspapers and magazines, likewise, have an ample share of dire stories.

Consider your own news diet, and ask yourself what frame of mind it puts you in.

Where is the rulebook that says disasters and violence constitute “real” or “hard” news any more than people doing the hard work of healing after disasters or acts of violence?

That question is familiar to Mallary Tenore, managing director of Images & Voices of Hope (IVOH). That group is championing a storytelling genre it calls “Restorative Narratives,” which show “how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover in the aftermath, or midst of, difficult times.”

She points to outstanding examples such as a Dallas Morning News series on a young woman’s long struggle to recover from childhood abuse and San Francisco State University’s work-in-progress on the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

To advance “restorative narratives,”Tenore’s organization is sponsoring a fellowship program that enables veteran storytellers from journalism, photography, film and even gaming to produce in-depth ones. Fellows will join other speakers at the group’s annual media summit, open to all, this summer in upstate New York.

Restorative narratives may, unlike the doom-and-gloom focus of television’s evening news, prompt people to become more generous, courageous and compassionate. Psychological research supports that notion.

It also just makes common sense.

“Depending on what gets highlighted and what gets overlooked—and how stories are framed—the media can accelerate social progress or do just the opposite,” says the Solutions Journalism Network, another organization working to change the kinds of stories the media tell. “The question is: What kind of feedback is likely to enhance or diminish society’s capacity to solve problems?”

The news media have a critical role as watchdogs, but SJN —founded by veteran journalists—says that function is “incomplete” on its own.

“It’s not enough to know what’s broken; people need to know how problems could be, or are being, fixed,” it says.

SJN offers its own list of best “solutions journalism” stories from 2014. It also has a stellar new Solutions Journalism Toolkit.

What do nonprofits have to learn from these approaches to journalism?

Tell stories that point a way forward.

“So often in the media, we hear the ‘what happened’ stories in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy,” says Tenore, of IVOH. “We don’t tend to hear nearly as many ‘what’s possible’ stories.”

She says it’s critical to focus “not just on where someone is today, but how they got there.”

A parallel idea at SJN is to replace “Whodunnit” with “Howdunnit.”

The group is concerned not with “the quirks and qualities of the main character, but the transferable wisdom found in his or her actions.”

Are your organization’s stories focusing exclusively on what happened or who did it? If so, use these two groups’ resources to rethink the stories you’re telling.

Take time and care when needed.

At first glance, “restorative” and “solutions” stories might look like puff pieces, but both organizations argue that these kinds of stories can be every bit as in-depth and rigorous as any other sort of reporting.

Tenore says that “recovery takes time,” and stories about it “may not come to fruition until months or years after a tragedy or period of disruption.”

But she cautions against telling stories that show a false sense of hope. Nonprofits would be wise to let some stories unfold over time; doing so might even bring audiences deeper into your story—and your organization.

Tell reporters about the work you’re doing to salve and to solve.

When working with the press, give reporters the information they’ll need to write a good “restorative” or “solutions” story.

SJN’s toolkit gives reporters pointers on what to ask interviewees, and you can use those same tips to guide what information you provide.

Speak about the results of your work and which measurements matter most. Give reporters the opinions of experts, but also those of the people whom your work directly affects and the social issues address. The more information you can provide to reporters along those lines, the better able they will be to write productively about solutions.

For more on how your organization can use “restorative narrative” or “solutions journalism” methods, check out IVOH’s research page and SJN’s new toolkit, in addition to the groups’ other resources.

Paul VanDeCarr writes once each month about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration in this feature via this online form or e-mail Mr. VanDeCarr at

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers and others to “change the story” on the big social justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers,” and is working on a second edition to be released this year for nonprofits, advocates and storytellers.