aerial view of green trees and river during daytime

October 17, 2023

Story produced from Solutions Journalism course aids local conservation efforts in Colombia

Conservation biologist James Hall is new to journalism, and the solutions journalism movement in particular, but that did not stop one of his latest stories on conservation efforts in Colombia from having a real impact with the subjects of his story and the wider research community in the country.

A black bear is photographed by a camera trap
Camera trap footage of the spectacled bear, or Andean bear. (Photo courtesy of Techo de Agua)

After taking a course on solutions journalism with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Hall incorporated the approach for a story he wrote for environmental journalism site Mongabay. The story, which focused on the conservation efforts of a small NGO in Colombia called Techo de Agua (Roof of Water), prompted an alliance between the NGO and local researchers, aimed at finding real-world solutions for conservation efforts.

“This alliance allows for our research and methodologies for the conservation and management of conflicts between wildlife and human communities to be recognized as products of scientific, academic and practical interest,” said Mayra Natalia Parra Salazar, general director of the NGO, who told the Knight Center that a university professor who directs a research group contacted her to form an alliance after reading Hall’s article.

The story explained how Techo de Agua works to mitigate conflict between humans and wildlife, like the spectacled bear or black-and-chestnut eagle. The team visits community centers and schools to explain the role of wildlife in the area’s ecosystem, and also enlists locals in conservation efforts.

Originally published by Mongabay in English in June, the story was later reposted in Spanish, allowing for greater engagement. Course instructor Hugo Balta commended it as a “thought provoking piece,” and Mongabay editor Jeremy Hance also lauded Hall’s efforts.

“I think James did a fabulous job with digging into a small-scale program that’s really making a difference for some charismatic and endangered species in Colombia,” Hance told the Knight Center. “He did it in a way that I find most engaging: telling the stories of the people involved, both the conservationists and the villagers in the area. It also did a great job of highlighting how a few people can really make a difference in changing attitudes about sometimes troublesome wildlife.”

Parra Salazar said the article was of great importance for her small nonprofit organization, especially in a country like Colombia where “resources are scarce, there is little recognition and people, in general, feel a lot of distrust.”

“That our story was made known in many places thanks to James Hall’s article allowed our actions to have greater credibility,” she added. “We still need to gain more recognition to be able to get important financial help, but that publication was a great first step to raise the spirits of our team and make ourselves known as a serious and committed organization that is really doing and wants to continue doing things well.”

Learning the ropes

When he’s not working to protect the Buffy tufted-ear marmoset in the Atlantic Rainforest as volunteer research coordinator of the Mountain Marmoset Conservation Program, or teaching English in São Paulo, Hall is dedicated to his newest venture in journalism.

Prior to signing up for the Knight Center course, which was sponsored by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), he had been reading about the solutions journalism movement and was inspired to learn more.

“From my perspective, there is a clear need to explore alternatives to the current focus on problem-based reporting, which has resulted in a media ecosystem with all sorts of harmful societal consequences, from news fatigue and public disengagement to negativity bias,” Hall previously told the Knight Center.

Solutions journalism focuses on how people are trying to solve the big problems of the world, according to the SJN, which was founded in 2013 and promotes the practice globally.

Hall got into journalism by writing for travel site Atlas Obscura and eventually graduated to publishing commissioned articles about animals like the golden lancehead that lives on Snake Island in Brazil.

“I’ve just been a voracious reader and I’ve just digested things and learned things kind of inductively,” Hall said. “It’s still a massive learning curve for me. Every time I write something, it’s like I’m learning something new. It’s a bit intimidating in some ways, but I’m just trying to learn the ropes and learn on the job.”

From May to June 2023, Hall enrolled in the Knight Center course and learned how to incorporate a solutions journalism approach to his reporting.

Black and white marmoset sits atop a tree
Hall is also a volunteer research coordinator working to protect the Buffy-tufted marmoset. (Photo courtesy James Hall)

This massive open online course (MOOC) was taught by Hugo Balta, owner and publisher of the Latino News Network and an accredited solutions journalism trainer. It attracted more than 2,300 participants from 137 countries and is now available as a self-directed course that can be taken at any time.

“I just feel like my learning style is more suited to massive open online courses,” Hall said, highlighting the course’s flexibility, the interesting weekly quizzes and the manageable and succinct course material.

He said the course was a “turning point” for him.

“It was the first time I’d actually done a course on journalism… I wanted to do solutions journalism, but I just didn’t have the conceptual framework,” Hall said. “Once I had that framework, everything just sort of fit into place.”

Hall sees solutions journalism as necessary and as “the movement that journalism needs.”

“I think there’s been too much damage done to the media ecosystem through this bias towards negativity,” he said. “I also just find solutions journalism really exciting. It’s new, it’s different, it’s making waves, and I just think it’s the way things need to go, both in terms of coverage of social issues and definitely in conservation.”

For him, having the article shared around towns and villages in Colombia and to have amplified their voices is “the most rewarding thing in the world.”

“I always think the idea of having impact is always exciting and I just hope to keep doing that, and to keep telling these stories,” Hall said. “The other thing that excites me is covering stories that people haven’t told before.”

Hall said he has more articles in the works and plans to take more courses with the Knight Center in the future. During the solutions journalism course, he also met colleagues in Venezuela whom he’s talking to about potential future collaborations.

You can find the self-directed version of “Solutions Journalism: New ways of elevating your reporting and engaging audiences,” taught by instructor Hugo Balta, at JournalismCourses.org. And if you have a story to share about how the Knight Center’s online learning program has impacted your career, please email us at journalismcourses@austin.utexas.edu.