Five ways the media and the impact community can spotlight solutions to global challenges

While vulnerability is crucial to engage audiences in stories about social and environmental problems, storytellers and social entrepreneurs must work together to draw attention to the resilience needed to create solutions.

Storytellers need to find the sweet spot between highlighting the vulnerability and resilience of their characters to capture audiences with stories about how people are tackling social and environmental issues. 

This was just one of the key takeaways from Pioneers Post’s ‘Good Stories: New narratives, bigger impact’ event, held on 19 July at Impact Hub London’s new venue near Euston Station. The event attracted a capacity crowd of over 50 people, including journalists, communications specialists and social entrepreneurs.

Hosted by Anna Patton, associate editor at Pioneers Post and solutions journalism trainer, the event featured two panel talks, one on the theme ‘How can journalists and solutions-makers team up to create stories that change the world?’ and the other on the topic ‘Good and bad practices in storytelling’.

The speakers in the first panel included Caroline Diehl, founder of the Social Founders network and ImpactMedia.Global, a network for people involved in creating and supporting media for social impact, Isabelle Gerretsen, a senior journalist at BBC Future Planet, the climate and environmental solutions section of the BBC’s website, and Natalie Campbell, broadcaster, co-CEO of social enterprise Belu Water, and an independent candidate for London Mayor during the elections in May.

The first panel was moderated by Tim West, founding editor and CEO of Pioneers Post, while the second panel was moderated by Amruta Byatnal, Asia editor at Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Context newsroom, and featured Sebastian Rocca, founder and CEO of Micro Rainbow, a social enterprise that provides housing for homeless LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, and Zino Akaka, programme manager at Heard, a charity which connects people with lived experiences of social issues to journalists.

The speakers offered guidance on how media professionals and social entrepreneurs could collaborate to drive progress on global issues through better storytelling and ‘solutions journalism’ – defined by the Solutions Journalism Network as reporting on the responses to social and environmental problems. 

 

1. Embrace vulnerability but also shine a light on resilience

Capturing the vulnerability of those with lived experience of the issues you cover is inevitable if you want to truly engage audiences, said Zino Akaka of Heard, when Amruta Byatnal of Context asked whether vulnerability was the best way to portray impactful stories. She added: “When I talk to people in my network, I ask them, ‘How vulnerable do you want to be? Because if you’re going to talk about your story, you can’t avoid that.’”

There is a difference between vulnerability and dehumanising or victimising people. Trying to portray stories of strength and resilience is also really important

However, Sebastian Rocca of Micro Rainbow emphasised that media professionals should find the balance between spotlighting vulnerability and resilience when telling the stories of vulnerable groups. He said: “I think there is a difference between vulnerability and dehumanising or victimising people. Trying to portray stories of strength and resilience is also really important.”

He added: “As an organisation, we don't want to shy away from our vulnerabilities and from the challenges that we face, but we also have resilience. We can tell our own story, we can come up with solutions, and hopefully, the media and storytelling can provide a platform for our suggestions and solutions to flourish.”

Pictured (left to right): Amruta Byatnal, Context, Sebastian Rocca, Micro Rainbow, Zino Akaka, Heard

 

2. Data is key

Data is crucial in stories about environmental solutions, emphasised Isabelle Gerretsen, who leads the BBC Future’s Climate Guardians series, which spotlights scientific solutions to climate-related issues pioneered by women and indigenous communities in the Global South. “Evidence is a really important part of what we do because we’re a science features site. For all our stories, there needs to be strong evidence backing it up, ideally scientific studies and reports,” she explained. 

However, she added: “With stories about the Global South, there’s often a lack of data.” To overcome this challenge, she said that her team encourages their reporters to find data from similar solutions in other parts of the world, or to find experts who can share their insights.

According to Gerretsen, her team also relies partly on collaborations with nonprofits in the Global South to collect data on the projects they report on; however, they ensure that there is “a very clear understanding” that their coverage is “very impartial”. She said that they clarify to the nonprofits: “We will scrutinise the data you can make available and we’ll do lots of additional interviews around this. We won’t just spotlight one individual.”

 

3. Use characters to develop the human-interest aspect of stories

When asked by Tim West how storytellers can find the balance between making their stories data-rich and including human interest to avoid telling “a boring, wordy story”, Gerretsen said: “Characters are the heart of our stories, so each feature will lead on that.” 

She added: “We do need the data and the evidence in there, but we wouldn’t lead with that. That’s not the way to grab the audience.”

Natalie Campbell of Belu Water, who trained as a journalist before venturing into social business, echoed this, saying: “To tell a story, you need a character, and that was one of the first things that I learned when I got to journalism school.” To tell Belu Water’s story, she said that a “key part of it” was depicting herself “as the vehicle driver” of the change that she wanted to see represented and using the label of co-CEO of the business to “tell a story about how people do [good] business”. 

When the story was about the impact Belu Water was delivering, “no one listens”, she said, adding: “[If the story is] we’re going to invest in nature-based solutions in the UK, no one wants to tell this. I haven’t entirely figured out how to drive the message other than myself and other members of the team being the character that people want to tell stories about.”

When asked by West whether this issue was down to journalists or audiences, Campbell said: “I think it’s a bit of both. Journalists assume that audiences aren’t interested [in anything that isn’t] sex, shock, scandal. Audiences don’t necessarily have stories that make them want to go on a journey, because if Charlotte [co-CEO] and I do a podcast, people listen. In that long form, people are engaged, but in the medium of a traditional column, Belu doesn’t seem to resonate.”

 

4. Understand the financial aspect of the media ecosystem

To shift the goal of journalism from clicks to impact, Natalie Campbell said it is important for storytellers to have a grasp of funding sources in the media, and to “understand the entire ecosystem”. She said: “We always need to ask ourselves, ‘This organisation that I’m pitching to, who is funding it? What are their drivers?’”

Instead of relying solely on “corporate sponsors”, another way to raise the funds to create impactful media content was crowdfunding, said Caroline Diehl of the Social Founders network and ImpactMedia.Global, adding that this method was “huge in the US”, where they termed it “value for value”.

She referred to how she used this model to fund programmes on TogetherTV (formerly known as The Community Channel), a national TV channel she founded, aimed at inspiring people to create social impact. She said that after the death of George Floyd and the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, her team “used crowdfunding to commission black filmmakers who weren’t getting into mainstream media to create content about black communities in the UK”.

Funders are realising that they need to invest in voices, stories and communications as much as they need to invest in food banks and football pitches

Diehl added: “People want to give money to the media and communications sector. Funders are realising that they need to invest in voices, stories and communications as much as they need to invest in food banks and football pitches.”

 

5. Rebuild trust in the media through training and preparation

People often have negative stereotypes of the media and are fearful of being interviewed by journalists, said Zino Akaka, adding: “So many people are worried about being asked inappropriate questions. They think: ‘All I see is negativity in the media. So you must be a negative person who is trying to mine my trauma’, which most of the time isn’t necessarily the case.”

To help tackle this, she said that her organisation has found it helpful to media-train the individuals they work with by providing “really practical and safe ways for them to practise engaging with the media”. By organising five-minute practice interviews where migrants can “pretend to get interviewed” by a journalist that may be asking invasive questions, the organisation “encouraged them to engage with something that they might find scary”.

Adding to this, Sebastian Rocca recommended that journalists inform their interviewees about the questions they plan to ask in advance. He said: “This preparation is so important because that’s where you can unpack those questions to make sure that the space becomes safe for both the journalist who wants to do the right thing but might not know how to do it, as well as the beneficiaries. [They need to have the mindset] of ‘We both want to get the story out and let’s try to do it in the right way.’”

Caroline Diehl emphasised that mistrust of journalists across some communities is still a “huge issue”. “It can sound really patronising, but it’s also about connecting the people who would never have access to a journalist and training them to have the confidence to tell their story.”

 

Top photo (left to right): Caroline Diehl MBE, ImpactMedia.Global, Isabelle Gerretsen, BBC Future Planet, Natalie Campbell MBE, Belu Water, Tim West, Pioneers Post

 

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