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How to deepen community engagement before, during and after the reporting process

How to deepen community engagement before, during and after the reporting process

Picture of Josh Stearns

In early 2015 I wrote a post about why journalists should focus on building the future of news with communities, not just for them. As part of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, we are profiling people trying to embody this community-first approach.

Profile: jesikah maria ross, Capital Public Radio

In 2013 Sacramento, California’s Capital Public Radio hired jesikah maria ross to develop a deep community engagement strategy around their multimedia documentary project The View From Here. I talked to ross (whose name is written in lowercase) earlier this year about how building journalism with community is helping the radio station rethink how they put the public in public media.

ross works with the documentary unit inside newsroom whose reporting projects are often six months long. That timeline allows for more time for relationship building in the community but the tactics she uses can be adapted to many other reporting contexts. Her projects have been so successful that Capital Public Radio is expanding the work to engage more staff in these efforts. She walked me through Capital Public Radio’s recent documentary called Hidden Hunger, as an example of how she builds community participation in before, during and after the reporting process.

Newsgathering as Coalition Building

At the inception of a new documentary project ross maps the local stakeholders for the issue they are reporting on. She looks for people and organizations who have been working on this issue for a long time — recognizing at the outset that the audience often knows more than the reporters do. She then invites reporters and the community together for a three-hour convening where they share a meal. The gathering uses a “World Café” group dialogue format and seeks to surface a wide array of perspectives, stories, and issues that might intersect with the reporting. According to ross, the goals of this event are to “build people in from the start, craft a shared vision, develop trust, define common goals,” and to do it all in a manner that is ethical in the eyes of journalists and the community.

After this initial gathering ross reaches out to participants to find 15–25 community members who want to stay involved in the project. Those people become a kind of coordinating council of community liaisons. They act as a sounding board for the newsroom, providing feedback on interviews and clips throughout the reporting process but their role goes well beyond just providing input. They actually work with ross to help define and develop the community engagement strategy itself and are key to implementing it. This is about helping the newsroom and the community forge shared goals, but it is also about managing expectations. “No one comes up with ideas they aren’t willing to help implement,” ross tells me.

Anytime institutions are engaging communities issues of power come into play. One way ross helps create a more level playing field is by working with journalists and communities to define roles and responsibilities, which are formalized in an informal memorandum of understanding. The MOU is a shared commitment to the work ahead and they throw a party when they sign it. “When communities are involved in co-creating journalism,” ross told me, “they are more engaged and they use our work in their work, helping bring our reporting out to a much broader community through their networks in a way that is authentic and meaningful.” This is newsgathering as coalition building.

Journalism as Service

It’s important to ross that the outcome of all this work is not just a news story or documentary that lives at the radio station. “There is a lot of language in newsrooms that is very extractive,” ross notes. “There is a sense that you have to ‘get everything you can from a source’ and that approach doesn’t always benefit the community, it benefits us.”

If journalism is to be of service to community, part of that service might be helping them build something as they help you construct a story. To that end, ross works with communities to develop a “community voice platform” to make sure that people’s stories can be heard in their own voice. For Hidden Hunger, for example, ross and the station created a mobile story booth and collected more than 50 stories from people. The Hidden Hunger Storybooth site (which ross created in this case with the simple website building platform Wix) is meant to live on within the community beyond the end of the reporting and be designed so local nonprofits and others can leverage the stories there.

Creating Open Space for Discovery

Throughout our interview ross returned to the idea of how powerful it is to create safe space for open dialogue inside newsrooms and between journalists and communities. Internally, ross suggests that newsrooms who really want to push the envelope on community engagement need to make space for staff to “bump into challenges,” challenge assumptions and learn from failure. “Everything I have done is in response to what I have learned along the way,” ross said.

ross is not a journalist by training. Her background is in community development and documentary art and through this project she has worked to translate the tools from those sectors into the newsroom. ross thinks that as more newsrooms see the value of working with communities they need to bring more people in who understand relationship building — like artists, organizers, and educators. The different tactics, techniques and values ross has brought to the newsroom have led to “fruitful friction” that forces everyone (including ross herself) to be more intentional about the choices they make as they experiment with deeper forms of engagement.

Bringing people into the reporting process doesn’t diminish professional journalists’ role or their craft, it actually enlarges it. Newsrooms can be incredible civic facilitators of critical community conversation. ross noted that at the end of the reporting process there are often times new civic collaborations emerging because of the space that was created during these projects. “Stories connect us across our differences,” she said. When the documentary finally airs, Capital Public Radio hosts a live viewing event with everyone who was involved to celebrate the work, let people reflect on the process and talk about what comes next.

Building With Communities Builds Stronger Newsrooms

ross says that the benefits to this approach stack up and build on each other. At its most basic, it helps her newsroom meet their mission and tell better stories. But it also extends the reach of those stories and ensures they are of use to more communities. It creates a more porous newsroom, welcoming more, different voices into the process and diversifying stories. And it gets journalists outside the newsroom, testing assumptions and allowing the community to hold us accountable on their turf. Finally, she says, this approach generates empathy across newsrooms and communities, helping us stay humble and compassionate.

ross admits, this is a long and very work intensive process, but, “You can’t short cut relationship building.” However, she insists that the values that undergird this approach can be applied and adapted to fit other kinds of newsrooms and projects.

[All photos are via jesikah maria ross]

Josh Stearns is the director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which makes media grants to strengthen the New Jersey news ecosystem and support local journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearns and check out his Local Fix weekly newsletter. This post was originally published by The Local News Lab.


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