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New USC Annenberg community engagement grants aim to spur journalism with a deeper impact

New USC Annenberg community engagement grants aim to spur journalism with a deeper impact

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Center for Health Journalism
Center for Health Journalism

At the Center for Health Journalism, we believe in the power of engagement to advance journalism. In fact, we could be accused of being evangelists on the topic.

We urge the journalists who participate in our programs to connect with their communities in new ways. We’ve seen the home run projects that have resulted. Yet, we recognize that even though engagement may be the buzzword of the day, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to reporters.

In an effort to build capacity among health reporters and to support their engagement efforts, we offer Community Engagement Grants in each of our Fellowships.  We launched our engagement work in 2012.

Click here to access the supplemental application for a Community Engagement Grant. Only journalists who are selected for a Fellowship will be eligible to receive a Community Engagement Grant. Click here to see our Community Engagement FAQ.

What is engaged journalism, anyway?

You may ask, so, what do we mean by engagement? Yes, it’s one of those amorphous, feel-good terms that might conjure up images of community forums or expert panels. We want you to go deeper and think more creatively. What communities does your journalism address? Can they be involved in the storytelling. How might they shape your journalism beyond traditional reporting methods? Can your engagement equip people, companies, local institutions and policymakers with information they need to make change?

Engagement can go much further than hosting a forum after your project is published or aired. We’d invite you to start engagement much earlier, as your reporting gets underway in earnest.

 At the most basic level, engagement means making sure that your stories reach diverse audiences in your community – including the subjects of your reporting and the policy makers who have the power to make a difference. Figuring out these natural constituencies and communities of interest takes some time. Make lists. Think of groups in industry, the non-profit sector, academia, and among health professionals. Look online as well for support groups and interest groups you can connect with. Provide opportunities for these interested people and organizations to share their stories in ways that are broader and more inclusive than the traditional reporting process. Start this outreach effort early, as soon as you focus your project and launch your reporting.

Some examples of how to get underway 

That’s the approach taken by journalist Kate Long, a USC Annenberg National Health Journalism Fellow, who launched a statewide conversation on childhood obesity several years ago with her Fellowship Project for the Charleston Gazette, “The Shape We’re In.” As her stories ran, Long provided multiple opportunities for her readers to share their stories and built connections with just about every organization and individual in town who had cared. Long wanted to build momentum. Borrowing a term from the Charleston Gazette’s late publisher, Ned Chilton, she talks about creating a state of “sustained outrage.” Chilton would have deployed this journalistic approach for ongoing reporting on a corrupt politician. Long decided to apply the principle to call attention to a public health crisis in her native state. “How can we engage the public interest in this?” she asks. “The idea is to use the project to stir up interest and exposure way beyond what would happen if it were just published (without an engagement effort).”

Other former Fellows have undertaken notable community engagement campaigns as well:

-- 2015 National Fellow JoNel Aleccia of the Seattle Times investigated the possible reasons behind a cluster of devastating birth defects in three rural Washington counties that disproportionately affected Latino babies. To make sure that the people most affected by the cluster -- largely Spanish-speaking immigrants -- were informed of her findings, Aleccia partnered with Catholic churches in the area to distribute more than 15,000 postcards that included information about her series, as well as a public health message from the March of Dimes about the need for women to take folic acid supplements if they were planning to become pregnant.  Click here to read more about her community engagement strategy. "More than half of the women affected by these birth defects are Hispanic, and we wanted to ensure that our stories were seen by Spanish-speaking readers," Aleccia wrote. "So we paid someone to translate all the stories into Spanish, and then we ran those versions on our website, too. We also worked with the Spanish-language newspaper that circulates in the affected area and they ran the story, too."

-- 2014 National Fellow Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic combined deep investigative reporting on the disproportionate rates among Latino children of injury and death from traffic accidents with a community engagement campaign that raised awareness of the importance of car seat usage -- and led to a state grant of $400,000 to provide 2,460 families with car seats. Ortega built a broad coalition of community groups to disseminate the findings from his reporting and run a public education campaign, which included the distribution and installation of free car seats.  Click here to read more about his community engagement campaign. "It wasn’t enough simply to report the fact of these low rates of car-seat usage and high rates of misuse," Ortega wrote. "The bigger questions were how to reach those parents who tended not to use child car seats, and how to get them to install and use them properly."

-- 2015 National Fellow Jackie Valley of the Las Vegas Sun spent months exploring the reasons behind an upsurge in mental health problems among adolescents in Las Vegas and whether there were sufficient resources to address them. "Children in Crisis" exposed the desperation of parents unable to find help for children with serious emotional problems.  Following publication of her series, Valley organized a forum that brought together leading mental health experts and parents to talk about possible solutions. "I wanted “Children in Crisis” to educate readers about the problem but also to prompt a conversation about how we, as a community, could better serve children with mental health problems and their families," Valley wrote. It attracted a standing room only crowd of more than 200 people.   Read more about Valley's community engagement strategy here.

Blair Hickman, audience editor of The Marshall Project, advises reporters to launch a similar exercise online – identifying your audience early. Then, start connecting. One simple way to do so is with a “callout box” on your news outlet’s website that is linked to a form where you can stores responses to a questionnaire you design. Pro Publica has used this approach quite effectively for what some of its reporters call an “open investigation.” Reporters can share their questions online early and often, building a community of interest and an engaged audience along the way, as Marshall Allen has done with his ongoing patient safety project.

The New York Times has used callout boxes to launch crowdsourcing projects such as this effort to plumb its own historic archive of advertisements, a kind of snapshot of everyday life at the time. And the Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal relied upon an even simpler callout box to solicit reader feedback for her seminal series on the high cost of health care, “Paying Till It Hurts.” The information she received from readers took her stories in entirely different directions and alerted her to emerging trends early, she said.

“It really changed my view of social media and reader comments,” Rosenthal said in a talk at USC Annenberg last year.

Hickman shares some of her engagement strategies from her time at Pro Publica in this blog post. And, she invites reporters to reach out to community members to encourage them to launch their own parallel story telling effort, as one of her colleagues did with high school students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama around the topic of race.

Some community engagement projects can be playful and fun and instructive too, such as WNYC’s “Clock Your Sleep,” a collective sleep journal created by its listeners.

So, what's your plan? If you are interested in dipping in your toe in these waters, please get in touch if you would like to discuss! Contact engagement editor Danielle Fox for more information at


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