Six strategies for creating journalism that engages communities that need it most

Published on
August 8, 2019

Engaged journalism is the key to sustainability and gaining trust in our communities — it’s not feel-good journalism, it’s necessary journalism, Ashley Alvarado, director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), recently told a room full of reporters at the 2019 National Fellowship.

Alvarado and ProPublica engagement editor and reporter Ariana Tobin relayed lessons from the field about how engagement helps you frame and source stories to center community needs and fill information gaps. They shared these tips about how to produce journalism that engages and gives back:

1) Start listening early. Become community literate.

“We talk so much about media literacy — how do we as journalists get community literate? I think a big part of it is just sitting down having conversations,” said Alvarado.

Sitting down and listening was key when KPCC set out to redesign their early education coverage. Instead of defining their audience as anyone who consumed KPCC stories, they narrowed their focus to parents and caregivers of young children in L.A. County. Alvarado’s team spent months getting to know parents of different age groups and ethnic backgrounds. They used design thinking, a process of understanding the needs of a community you’re trying to build solutions for, to learn about how caregivers were getting information. They asked questions like: As a parent, what keeps you up at night? Where do you go for information? They discovered lots of people got info about parenting from flyers at parks and libraries.

“What we’ve identified is a high-touch, low-tech approach to connect with parents,” Alvarado said. “We don’t need to build an app, we need to find a way to be in libraries. We need to find a way to be in parks.”

After months of deep listening, the outlet is now prototyping a flyering strategy, hanging them up around libraries and parks to deliver information where parents are already connecting and learning.

2) Ask your community for help investigating.

For many of the issues reporters cover, there’s a community of people who have spent lots of time and energy on the same issue. “Connecting with people who know this issue well and have first-hand experience with it — that’s a form of fact-checking,” said Tobin. “It’s a form of sourcing. It’s a form of strengthening all your stories. At the same time, it’s trust-building.”

ProPublica is well-known for inviting people to participate in the reporting process to help fill information gaps.

Tobin pointed to ProPublia’s reporting on Vietnam War veterans exposed to agent orange. Back in 2015, reporters were hearing from lots of veterans and children of veterans who felt their illnesses were tied to exposure. But the Department of Veteran Affairs was brushing off the comments. ProPublica had some data but needed more information to bring to the VA. So they asked veterans to help them investigate. In the end, they received over 5,000 responses. Through crowdsourcing, they were able to deliver a big collection of anecdotes to the VA and ask, “Why aren’t you collecting this data set that would help us find answers to our questions?” The reporting pushed the VA to conduct its first-nationwide survey of Vietnam veterans in over three decades, studying the health effects of agent orange on the children and grandchildren of veterans.

But to crowdsource intentionally, Tobin said you have to recognize that the impacted community you’re trying to reach might not get their information from your news source. It’s on you to do the work of connecting with them where they are. 

3) Meet people where they’re already talking.

ProPublica used an elaborate outreach process to reach veterans and their children, finding Facebook groups where veterans were already talking about agent orange. They shared call-outs and research with Facebook group moderators, who allowed the reporters to collect thousands of responses they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to obtain.

4) Find your community’s trusted messengers.

KPCC spent months studying how to cover the 2020 census and reach people at risk of being undercounted. Alvarado’s team found that one of the largest barriers to participation was a lack of knowledge about the census itself. They realized that to reach the hardest-to-count Angelenos with the information they need most, they’d have to partner with community and ethnic media organizations in L.A. County — the journalists already serving as the trusted messengers to their communities.

In May, KPCC hosted 30 journalists who publish and broadcast in 10 different languages to discuss how they could design census coverage together. They talked about sharing stories among outlets and co-reporting stories. Alvarado’s team is now offering trainings on census data after hearing from reporters that they needed more experience.

“The haunting reality was we weren’t the right newsroom or journalist to go into these specific communities and get them to trust us,” Alvarado said. “But we were the right newsroom to support collaboration that would enable reporters who were the trusted messengers to continue the conversation.”

5) Distribute information outside traditional channels.

After KPCC reporter and 2018 California Fellow Priska Neely spent a year investigating the black infant mortality crisis in L.A. County, KPCC decided to hold an event focused on racism and its effect on the health of black infants. But the community Neely most needed to reach — African-American women in their early childbearing years — was largely outside of KPCC’s traditional radio audience.

Alvarado thought it was the perfect chance to try distributing information through paper flyers and postcards, which they had identified as a strategy when redesigning early childhood education coverage. KPCC distributed nearly 6,000 informational postcards with the U.S. Postal Service’s Every Door Direct Mail, sending them to residents in predominantly black neighborhoods with high rates of infant mortality. Printed flyers were also hung up at a public library near the event venue.

Around 200 people attended the event — twice their original goal. And around half of the people who RSVP’d said they’d heard of the event in a way outside of KPCC’s traditional outreach model. Alvarado said they heard over and over again from people who thanked them for identifying an unserved need in the community.

6) Always circle back.

Alvarado and Neely have done a lot of thinking about how to continue and deepen the relationship with the people who discovered KPCC through the event and Neely’s reporting. They’ve been doing a weekly text message with some of the moms they’ve met to hear what they’re experiencing and to share back reporting.

“If you’re going to do the work to develop a new audience or new community, you have to think about ways you continue that work. Or you have to have a plan for how you hand off that work,” Alvarado said.

That’s because successful engagement is ultimately not just about building reciprocal relationships between communities and journalists. It’s about sustaining them.