Engaging with communities is a vital part of providing news

by | Mar 26, 2018 | Blog

(Editor’s note: Newsroom change leader Michele McLellan headed up the News Co/Lab’s reporting on Best Practices. In this, the second of four posts, Michele discusses the role of engagement in advancing news awareness and increasing journalism credibility.)

Transparency — being open about how news is produced — is essential to helping people better understand how news works in the digital age. But how do you know what people want you to be open about? It’s hard to provide answers without knowing the questions.

Enter engagement, the art of conversation, of listening before talking. It’s just as essential as the act of being open; in some ways, transparency and engagement are two sides of the same coin.

“Readers respond with their time, their trust, and their money to news organizations who listen best to them,” says Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that is developing new models for sustaining journalism.

Photo of Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan

Lenfest recently launched the Community Listening and Engagement Fund to subsidize newsroom experiments with Hearken and GroundSource, two innovative platforms that help organizations solicit and respond to questions and suggestions.

Former Oakland Tribune owner and future-facing journalist Robert C. Maynard once said a good newspaper was “an instrument of community understanding.” That can take many forms, from the old community advisory boards to a new collaboration idea for reporters to ask community members to  “join the beat.”

Over time, the best newsrooms have learned they can’t engage their communities unless they reflect them, understand their issues and use the technology they use. Newspeople who wanted to improve journalism pushed for newsroom diversity, civic journalism techniques and the digital transformation of the the field — all forms of engagement.

From our work to recognize best practices, here are some  promising ways for information providers to engage communities:

  • Verify Road Trip.” WFAA, a Tegna television station in Dallas, asks community members to pose questions they want answered and takes a question-asker along on a quest for answers. This not only engages and responds to WFAA viewers — it shows them the process of discovering and vetting information.
  • Spaceship Media  brings together citizens with opposing views for discussion then asks journalists to report on questions that surface from the discussions. The news organization makes critical information available when the citizens are ready — news that responds to a conversation rather than trying to cause a conversation, a reshaping of the reporting process.
  • Trusting News, a Reynolds Journalism Institute project headed by engagement evangelist Joy Mayer, also offers promise. Based on consumer research (8,728 user questionnaires and 81 in-depth interviews) and ongoing testing in 30 newsrooms, Trusting News is identifying engagement practices that help journalists and their organizations stand out as trustworthy in the eyes of their communities.

Trust, like communication itself, has more than a few moving parts. People need to be able to reach a newsroom. They need to have open, authentic interactions. They want to know about everything from how news is reported, to how you can keep it fair, who pays for it, and a newsroom’s overall ethics policy.

Joy Mayer of Reynolds says news organizations are doing many things news consumers say makes them more trusting. Doing more to point out those practices will help journalists establish that they are different from the distrusted stereotype, “the media.”   “Anywhere they can communicate with their audience, there’s a chance to earn trust,” Mayer says.

Molly de Aguiar, managing director of the News Integrity Initiative (a News Co/Lab funder), believes today’s conversations should become tomorrow’s collaborations.

“If journalism is to thrive, it must pair trustworthy facts with trust-building practices. This means moving beyond the often extractive ‘community engagement’ practices and toward ‘community collaboration’ that helps create more inclusive and relevant stories that reflect the information needs of the community,” de Aguiar said.

Understanding, conversation, engagement, collaboration — these all are two-way streets. In the end, newsrooms hoping to help their communities understand news won’t succeed unless they really understand their communities.

This is the second of four posts. Next: What’s the role of education?