Editor’s Note: Ruona Meyer is a key person in CCIJ who has already made significant contributions by helping us develop a social media strategy and connect with journalists from across Africa. She’s also embodied a core part of our mission by taking advantage of opportunities we provide for team members to grow and develop. In this piece she describes how she moved rapidly from attending a March 26 webinar hosted by the Solutions Journalism Network to writing a thoughtful and informative piece about the first drive-through COVID-19 testing site in West Africa. We consider solutions journalism to be valuable both because it illuminates positive examples to grapple with key issues and because it creates a basis to ask pointed accountability questions.
From Webinar to Reporting on COVID-19 Remotely
By Ruona Meyer
I’ve always had a solutions-journalism approach to my reporting; I was lucky to be taught by a senior colleague that facts are never good or bad — it is the withholding of all facts or providing one fact but not its context that is bad journalism.
In 2011 Agnieszka Flak (yes, I name my helpers) told me something along the lines of: it doesn’t matter if a proven fact, data or statistic is for or against anyone in your story. Your job is to provide as many relevant facts as possible.
For example, when I was reporting on Sweet Sweet Codeine, we saw patients chained.
It would be easier to report only that, but we also had to provide another fact — the facility was understaffed, underfunded and most patients were violent, which led the management to think the solution would be to chain them to prevent destruction of the facility, especially at the weekends.
Our job is to strive to present a full, fact-backed picture and…exit the building.
But things are slightly different with Coronavirus, because it’s a pandemic – scientific facts change, with scenarios playing out in various ways in various countries, as governments battle a common, still-unknown enemy.
Are there ways to report solutions? Yes.
And thanks to CCIJ’s Founder Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, I was made aware of guidelines on reporting Coronavirus using a solutions journalism approach, when he posted a link to a webinar from the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), which notes:
So on 26 March, I attended the SJN webinar, alongside about 1,000 colleagues from all over the world. It was so beneficial that less than a week later, I wrote this story:
Applying Webinar Lessons to Remote Reporting on Germany from Nigeria
1. Pick an angle
One of the first things I picked up quickly in the seminar was: stick to your area of expertise and use that as a strength, to report on how COVID-19 is unfolding. Apart from ties to Nigeria and Germany, my first degree was in Microbiology, so I relied on these to find a relevant angle, and decided on Drive-through testing, as this is being adopted worldwide. The SJN even has a selection of questions to ask yourself as you streamline the focus of your story — and this is where I started.
2. Context is non-negotiable
It is necessary to draw parallels from other countries, varied sources, etc., because the very nature of COVID — from its spread to common consequences — is interconnected, no matter where we are. People, systems and markets are all trying to survive and learning about challenges, limitations and solutions from each other is key. I therefore decided to speak to authorities in Germany, as they were early adopters of drive-through testing, as well as in Lagos, which has just begun pioneering it in West Africa.
3. Use “spontaneous” coverage for verification
The biggest challenge of COVID-19 is social distancing, and the question-and-answer segment of the webinar was where the panellists advised us to try using video calls to verify locations. What I therefore did was spontaneously call my sources, and let them give me tours as safely as possible and capture images at the same time. This allowed me to independently view the testing location and gave me the ability to describe what I saw, in my article. For Germany, I asked for, and got official, royalty-free images for purposes of comparison.
4. Present information in other ways
Solutions Journalism doesn’t have to be in text form only, we were told — there is a framework called W.HO.L.E which we were given during the seminar. I utilised this to come up with graphics for my story, one of which is shared here. My main goal was to insert the images to break up text in the story, but also for use on Twitter. Below is one of five images.
5. The science changes — update till the last minute
COVID-19 is a medical story that changes based on advances in research, deaths or demographics so whatever angle you take, you will likely have to deal with updated facts, figures and data. As you are the custodian of information on behalf of the public, it is best to continually update your story in these aspects as much as possible. If you do not understand a scientific process or term, it is usually best to ask experts to explain in easier terms. When they do, immediately repeat what you understand back to them, so they can let you know if you got it right.
The webinar I attended was called Solutions Journalism 101: Covering the Coronavirus Outbreak and later shared as a Youtube video.
You can enroll for other Solutions Journalism Network webinars, sign up to be a member of the Network, and also see close to 200 stories where journalists worldwide are using a solutions approach to report different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.