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Milwaukee’s James Causey shares advice for deeper reporting on underserved communities

Milwaukee’s James Causey shares advice for deeper reporting on underserved communities

Picture of Ryan White
Emmanuel Johnson, 12, readies a vegetable for planting at Milwaukee's "We Got This" summer garden program.
Emmanuel Johnson, 12, readies a vegetable for planting at Milwaukee's "We Got This" summer garden program.
(Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

If you were trying to imagine the opposite of “helicopter” reporting, that often-glib practice in which reporters drop in on communities they scarcely know, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than James Causey.

Causey, special projects reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was born in the heart of Milwaukee’s central city, an area known for high rates of poverty, crime and incarceration. “Milwaukee’s 53206 may be the most famous — or perhaps infamous — ZIP code in Wisconsin,” Politifact wrote last year. “For politicians and policymakers, the area has become a five-digit shorthand for dysfunction and decay.”

That shorthand has a way of obscuring a vast web of deeply human stories — not just of pain and struggle and loss, but of hope, community and healing. Causey’s deep roots in the neighborhood allow him to see such stories where others — including reluctant editors — might not at first. 

“My approach is, ‘These are my people,’” Causey told fellow reporters in his online keynote address to the 2020 California Fellowship. (The Center for Health Journalism moved its annual California Fellowship to an online platform because of the COVID-19 outbreak.) “I cover my community in a very unique way because, first of all, I know no one else will do it. Second of all, I love and care about my community.”

But how does a reporter tell the story of a community beset by big problems while still honoring the complexity of real lives? Causey’s method echoes that of other narrative aces: Find the smaller stories that illuminate larger themes.

For an earlier series, “What Happened to Us?” he tackled big issues, such as the high  incarceration rates for African American males, by telling the story of what happened to fellow students in his 1978 third-grade class. For his award-winning Fellowship project,  “Cultivating a Community,” the narrative vessel was a community garden in 53206 that supports and mentors teen boys besieged by trauma and the constant threat of violence.

“The helicopter approach has been done so long in communities like this because the people I work with don’t live in these communities,” Causey said. “If you don’t live there, the only thing you hear is about pain struggle and violence.

For 11 weeks during the summer of 2018, Causey went regularly to the neighborhood garden, where he quickly found himself putting aside his notebook and getting involved, mentoring the boys and bearing witness to their heartbreaking stories of violence, lost friends and family and pervasive fear. The program, founded by 58-year-old Andre Lee Ellis, offers the boys a refuge from their lives, some basic discipline and guidance and $20 for four hours of honest work every Saturday morning, starting at 8 a.m. sharp. The garden’s “We Got This” program has been a transformative experience for boys like Maleak Taylor, known as “Lil Obama” around the garden.

The series Causey produced from his time in the garden has won half-dozen awards so far. The project has become a nonprofit, and more than $33,000 in community donations came in after the stories ran. Wisconsin’s governor pledged $25,000 to the garden in his budget, while the mayor pledged another $20,000. Causey collaborated with Journal Sentinel photojournalist Angela Peterson to create an art exhibit highlighting some of her photos documenting the garden, with a big kickoff event at Wisconsin’s Black Historical Society, in the neighborhood, which drew both dignitaries and local folks. “Honestly, it was the more diverse event we’ve had right there in 53206,” Causey said.

Causey’s reporting journeys through 53026 and other underserved communities deeply shape the way he approaches his craft as a reporter. He makes a point of eschewing old dogmas about reportorial distance and objectivity in order to build genuine connections and trust with the people he writes about. 

With that in mind, he shared seven tips for reporters covering underserved communities:

1) “The best way to understand a problem is to get close to it,” Causey said. “If it’s a community you don’t understand, if it’s an issue you want to understand, you got to get close to it. You can’t just rely on data to tell you the information that leads you there. Get close to it, touch it, feel it, get to know it, hug it, love it.”

2) “As journalists, we're often told to keep our emotions bottled up. Don’t show emotion. Get outta here with that! You gotta show emotion!”

When he first visited the community garden, he tried to cover the story as a dispassionate observer. He abandoned that approach after the first week. 

“These kids needed to trust me. They needed to know who I was. They needed a mentor, and I had to mentor them as well. There were times where I was frustrated at them. There were times I yelled and raised my voice at them. There were times where I put my arm around them and hugged them.”

That approach allowed Causey to build the trust and bonds with these boys that he needed to share their deeper stories.

3) “Know that in most cases that you’re dealing with people who don’t trust the media and have very little contact with the media,” he said. As a result, he likes to share information about himself, making conversations a two-way street. “Honestly, that’s how trust is built.”

4) Preview sensitive material: “I read sensitive passages from my pieces back to people,” he said. “I think you owe that to them.” You might not do this for a media-savvy politician, but for people unaccustomed to dealing with reporters, Causey views it as basic decency. 

5) “Protect people from themselves.” Every reporter with a season’s experience knows people will often unwittingly share things they would never want published. It can mean passing on nuggets or details that would make for an incredible story, but ultimately Causey feels obligated to use restraint when talking to regular folks who may have never talked to a reporter before. “They got to live this life.  Some of this information they don't want out there,” he said.

6) “Put the notebook away,” he urged. “Observe, you’re a journalist. If you’re just taking notes and writing down and recording everything, you're missing stuff.”

7) “Take a big problem and try it to break down to something really small.” Whether it’s Causey’s third-grade class, a community garden in 53026, families in a Mumbai slum or a high school in a violence-torn neighborhood of Chicago, small bounded frames can move readers and listeners  into deeper understandings of some of the largest themes and problems imaginable.

Such stories ultimately have the power to seep past the psychic walls we tend to put up and open our eyes to overlooked communities and the otherwise unimaginable challenges they face.

In keeping with his aversion to stale formulations, Causey offered his own version of a long-held journalistic ideal. “‘Giving a voice to the voiceless’— I don’t like that term,” he said. “I like: ‘Giving people a chance to be heard.’”

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