Building relationships with communities that have not been historically prioritized by most of the journalism industry is not simply a decision on the part of newsrooms to begin to show up, but a process of reconciliation, repair, service and inclusion. Having a healthy relationship with any community is a never-ending process that is both work and privilege.
The work of inclusion isn’t just about acquiring new audiences, building a pool of members or expanding a subscriber base. Equitable inclusion is a moral imperative, an acknowledgement that the truest story of our world can only be written when we all participate and the best chance that we truly have to address problems, from the wicked, world-shaping challenges to the daily situations that we all grapple with.
The framework in this post is intended to be a pathway toward genuine and equitable inclusion in the work that is journalism. This path brings together a number of the different efforts we are seeing in different spaces across the industry and is intended to create a roadmap for organizations and individual practitioners who seek to build from one step to the next.
Community Service → Demonstrated Respect → Mutual Trust → Active Inclusion → Meaningful Participation → Shared Power
Under this framework, we can do the work to develop and maintain inclusive, equitable relationships between newsrooms and those we serve. It’s very much the intention for this framework to continue to adapt and evolve under feedback.
This post is formatted to touch on each section, questions we can be actively pursuing, some examples of who’s doing it well and then some of the resources that capture some of the thinking in each space. At the end is a section dedicated to expanding our frame of reference to other fields that are embracing different models of approaching their work from which we can learn.
Before we ask, we must serve.
Acknowledging the Past, Addressing the Present
Before the process of relationship repair or building can take place, many newsrooms have to contend with their historical actions or absence in many communities and among many populations.
This history, particularly in the lives of people experiencing economic hardship, is marked with misrepresentation that, in the eyes of scholars and experts, has actively prevented the political and social capital needed to create change. Media representations of poverty have contributed to problematic narratives that have impeded efforts to address the underlying factors.
The reminder that before we ask anything of our communities, journalism must be of service to our communities and our audiences came up frequently in research for the Membership Puzzle Project last fall. It’s not enough to show up now, it’s necessary to reckon with the impacts of previous interactions or the absence of coverage.
Coming back from this history starts with demonstrating genuine intentions through service of the community’s true needs and stories before any ask of attention, support or participation can be made.
Where communities have experienced harm or marginalization because of news coverage or the lack of, acknowledgement of that history is necessary for a future relationship.
This process entails:
- Identifying Local News Needs (Ecosystem Mapping)
- Shifting the lens for news coverage (Moving from outdated definitions of newsworthy to serving local needs and covering the reality of a community in ways that are commensurate with reality i.e. not just covering crime or hardship)
- Engaged journalism cycle where audience input/feedback is prioritized
- Accessible engagement and publishing methods and platforms
Fortunately, and this has changed rapidly in the past couple of years, we’re starting to see more and more newsrooms engaging with communities to center coverage on the real needs of people.
We have multiple opportunities for further discussions around what our newsrooms can be doing to best commit to reporting that serves the needs of its audiences.
- What kind of resources or playbooks exist or could be created for determining effective news delivery options for disengaged or disconnected audiences?
- What mechanisms are possible to make a local news needs assessment a living document that can evolve alongside a community with equitable input?
- What can newsrooms learn from reconciliation and mediation processes that can inform how we repair damaged dynamics?
- What issues in a community are disproportionately impacting different groups?
- What is the impact of systems and processes on people experiencing hardship?
- Which systems and processes disproportionately affect people experiencing hardship?
- What are the problems we can help people experiencing hardship better navigate through reporting?
- What do we need to be doing as organizations and individual practitioners to serve people in our audiences when they are experiencing some kind of informational need as a result of events in their lives? And along with that, what do we need to be doing for people to know that they can come to us when they are experiencing a time of need?
- Before communities can invest in news, newsrooms must invest in communities (1/2) — Membership Puzzle Project
- How working with communities helps make journalism that is worth paying for (2/2) — Membership Puzzle Project
- Is Your Journalism a Luxury or Necessity? — City Bureau
- “Known but not discussed”: Low-income people aren’t getting quality news and information. What can the industry do about it? — Nieman Journalism Lab
- Literature Review: Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public — FCC
- Mapping Information Ecosystems to Serve Local News Needs — Michelle Ferrier & Fiona Morgan
- The Keys to Powerful Solutions Journalism — Center for Media Engagement
- Want to make your journalism more memberful? Find a range of proven practices, including revenue-generating routines — Membership Puzzle Project
- 102 Story Ideas to Serve Your Community — Heather Bryant
Where agency is limited, respect is essential.
Despite all of the challenges that newsrooms and the profession are going through, for the vast majority of people we encounter, we are the ones with the most power in that exchange. Where agency is limited, respect is essential.
Respect encompasses acknowledging the agency people do and do not have within the reporting process. Barring those with power and influence, people do not get to choose their journalist. Who shows up to do a story is who is there to do a story. This creates an inherent power imbalance from the beginning.
Our audiences must be respected as participants in the editorial process, experts on their own lived experiences and valuable sources across multiple aspects of their lives and the various issues that affect them.
Respecting the diversity of audiences and communities is a mandate for news organizations to resist repeating patterns of sourcing certain perspectives for only the most negative or stereotyped aspects of a person’s life. A person is more than just the most tragic facet of their lives. If the work of journalism is to play a role in showing people how we are connected to each other and to tell the truth of the multiform ways our lives intersect, it cannot objectify and reduce people to mere avatars whose existence beyond providing the perfect quote or anecdote are disregarded. Quality reporting explores and elevates complexity and such work cannot happen without respect.
As we think about this as a specific space, more conversations around the different types of implicit bias are essential to the work that we do.
- How can newsrooms confront and address inherent biases around class and poverty?
- What actions can help newsrooms and reporters seek a broad and more diverse source pool for commentary and input on stories?
- What opportunities exist or can be created for expanding access to different community segments?
- What is the nature of our opportunities for participation and feedback when they aren’t initiated (and controlled) by our organizations?
- How do we treat people when they contact us in manners that reflect their circumstances as opposed to when they contact us by channels we’ve clearly defined but that can also be a barrier to entry? (A submission form on a website as opposed to a text message are different levels of access with internet access a potential barrier to entry.)
- Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right — Journalists Resource
- SRCCON Power: Bootstrap Bias — Jean Friedman-Rudovsky & Heather Bryant
- In collaborations, who gets paid? — Angilee Shah
- “An enormous change in the news agenda”: How trauma-informed reporting is transforming journalism — CBC
- Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
- Complicating the Narratives — Solutions Journalism Network
A constant effort and exchange.
The least powerful are usually granted the least trust and not for any empirical or logical reason. Whether you ascribe that to a fairly strong American moral projection of goodness onto those with wealth, success and power and judgement of those without or some other origin, the impact of that distrust must be considered when we think about inclusion.
As institutions oriented around the acquisition and verification of facts, newsrooms are already positioned for trusting relationships. However, it is often the editorial decisions around those facts that create tension and opportunity for missteps.
Trust for newsrooms is most commonly spoken about in terms of what newsrooms need to be doing so that they can earn audience trust, but the other part of that conversation is trusting people in their communities to be experts and voices about what is happening in their community or in their lives.
One thing I’ve found interesting in this space, and it’s come up in a number of conversations about people in communities participating in reporting, is that the trust from journalists often only goes so far. In that, sure, people should be able to help, but only up to a point and that complete trust is reserved. There is still a persistent concern that people cannot be unbiased or follow reporting practices unless they are a capital J-journalist, which ignores the reality that journalists are not excluded from being human beings who will make judgements based on their own experiences, frames of reference and implicit biases. Fear that someone is somehow less capable of participating in the process of journalism with good practices (which is a notion, in and of itself, that should be thoroughly interrogated) should not be more important than including a community that’s being underserved or harmed. It’s also worth noting that withholding trust is a mechanism for retaining control and power.
The trust conversation for journalism should encompass the reciprocation of trust.
- What practitioners can do to communicate our trustworthiness
- What practitioners can do to earn trust
- How much journalism practitioners are willing to trust people
That’s not to say we don’t fact-check or do our due diligence in what people say, but that we take seriously their urgency, their concerns and what they come to us with. How many investigations have we failed to do because the source wasn’t the “perfect source” (or the “perfect victim”)?
- What reflection process can be created for journalists so that a broader range of people are considered as partners in the process?
- How can newsrooms ensure that people understand the process they are participating in when they agree to be interviewed?
- How can newsrooms ensure that people fully understand the risks and possible outcomes of participating in reporting?
- What means can be employed to explain the process for reporting a story in advance, during and after publishing?
- Our new recipe for talking about “public trust” in media — Membership Puzzle Project
- “Trust cannot be repaired without truth”: Pew crunched the numbers on faltering trust in government, journalists, and more — Nieman Journalism Lab
- A journalist should ‘step correct:’ Building trust in local news — CJR
- What does transparency in journalism actually look like? — Trusting News
- Here are 6 reasons why newspapers have dropped their paywalls
- The Trust Project
- Trusting News Project
For + With > About
Re-examining the traditional editorial cycle and who is involved is an essential step toward equitable inclusion. We should always be asking ourselves who benefits from:
- An area of coverage (or a beat that’s not covered)
- A specific story
- Having access to content (subscription, membership, etc)
- Interacting with editors/reporters when a story is being reported
- Interacting with publishers/CEOs/editors/reporters outside of the context of a specific story
If we are going to reset the dynamic with audiences, communities and members we must prioritize thinking critically about who the work is for and who it is created with more than just what the reporting is about.
For + With > About
This about who gets to be active in the reporting process and who ends up being acted on by the reporting process. This becomes a question of agency and the roles that we have in the process of doing journalism.
In that journalism is inherently bound to power structures by nature of the work, each piece of reporting should be contemplated in terms of power and representation. Those with the least power and whom are affected by what the reporting is “About” should be part of “For” or “With.”
The hard part of this for many newsrooms, though we are in a cultural shift, is that traditional notions of who gets to do journalism or be involved in the process, is still a moving target in many cases and is often shaped by the same race, gender and class biases and obstacles that are holding newsrooms back from moving the needle on diversity.
- What cultural or procedural change has to happen for newsrooms to continue to evolve their willingness to include others in the editorial process?
- How can newsrooms create access to reporters and editors for a wider range of audiences? (Experiments around office hours, public newsrooms, etc.)
- How can newsrooms make their pipeline to reporting jobs transparent, accessible and inclusive so that a broader range of people make it into newsroom positions?
- How can the roles of the reporting process (at large and in specific projects) be more openly discussed and negotiated?
- How to report on — and hire for — journalism’s poverty problem — Nieman Journalism Lab
- By tapping a community’s knowledge, ‘Lunch & Listen’ events can make your journalism better — Current
- We listened to academics and practitioners talk about engaged journalism. Here’s what we learned — Tow Center
- It’s more common for white, older, more-educated Americans to have spoken with local journalists — Pew Research
Journalism as a Process.
When we consider what roles are inherent to the reporting process, and pare it down to the essential moment where there is an exchange between whomever the reporter is and the person providing some piece of information, there are two primary capacities.
There is the practitioner of journalism, who is most commonly the professional journalist.
For the person who’s most directly engaged with whatever is being reported on, there are three main roles for them to occupy: the object, the subject or the partner.
If you do a story about poverty and I am facing economic hardship, I am an object of your story.
If you do a story about poverty and I am facing economic hardship and you interview me, I am a subject and I now have some degree of a voice.
If you do a story about poverty and I participate in informing, framing and guiding the story, then I am a partner.
A partner is the form of participation with the most agency possible aside from the practitioner.
When the least empowered people are given the agency of partnership rather than the marginalization of being objects, the journalism produced is more likely to realize the goals of accountability for systems of power and the best opportunity for a more nuanced and accurate depiction of reality. There is an additional capacity worth noting explicitly, and that is the role of the audience. (Whether someone in the audience gets to see themselves represented as a partner, subject or object and the resulting impact is an entire area to dig into itself.)
These roles, and how they continue to evolve, reflect a different framing of journalism. This is a journalism as a process, rather than journalism as an institution or an identity. If journalism is a process, it’s accessible and equitable and it can evolve, if it’s viewed primarily or exclusively as an institution and identity, it will always be resistant to change and to making that identity available to a broader and more diverse group of people.
- What conversations do we need to have about journalism as a service/institution/community organization and what that means for dismissing or including people from communities as capable of covering their communities?
- How do we separate journalism as a process from journalism as specifically an institution and identity?
- Why your community members want to aid your reporting & 25 jobs you can ask them to do — Membership Puzzle Project
- What does it take to have “members” of a news organization rather than consumers of its products? — Membership Puzzle Project
Power Shared > Power Concentrated
Concentrated power is a black hole that distorts the experience of reality. The closer you are, the more you lose grasp on what exists beyond the event horizon. Journalism enables or exposes power structures. As such, we are vulnerable because of our measure of power and because of our proximity to greater levels of power.
The best of intentions and nobility of the mission of journalism, of working toward an informed society, does not absolve us of responsibility for the actual impact of our work, our presence or our absence.
The work of journalism, its presence and its absence, can have extensive ripple effects that touch many people and many areas and profound impact. It wouldn’t be protected by our constitution if it that wasn’t true. Most of us wouldn’t be here if it didn’t or couldn’t matter. Because it matters so much, the demand for continuously evolving and expanding our notions of how we do what we do, what that looks like and who gets to share in that power is crucial.
- Can we measure or assess the perception of a newsroom’s power from the perspective of our audiences and different communities and what might we change with that information?
- What is journalism when the partners/subjects/objects are on more equal footing with practitioners?
- What does it look like to equip and empower people in communities to do the process of journalism?
- How can we evaluate which aspects of journalism are biased toward concentrating power and which is oriented toward sharing power?
- Does opinion, editorial and commentary content perpetuate power imbalances? If so, how might we evolve in our process for providing the valuable service of thoughtful commentary while being mindful of how the power of that privileged role can impact audiences and communities?
- The first question for journalism — Newsgeist Lightning Talk
- Redistributing power in communities through involved journalism — Membership Puzzle Project
- We are responsible for how we use our power — Nieman Journalism Lab
- SRCCON POWER: More than Eyeballs — Emily Goligoski & Ashley Alvarado
- Stronger journalism through shared power — Engaged Journalism Accelerator
- Don’t Just Engage, Equip — City Bureau
Expanding Our Understanding by Looking Beyond Journalism
As we continue to adapt our work to what our audiences need, there is much to learn from other schools of thought and approaches to the dynamics and relationships between those with (or formerly with) power and those without.
Seeking to repair and improve relationships between people, communities and systems. (Areas to look to: justice, education)
- How do we address harm caused by news practices directly or indirectly?
Inclusion of people’s narratives as part of the healing and treatment process. (Areas to look to: health care)
- How can we make space for agency of people participating in the process of journalism?
The processes and approaches for repairing damaged relationships among members of a society (Areas to look to: conflict, politics, culture)
- How do we perform journalism that creates space for dialogue and understanding?
The return of cultural heritage and artifacts to their country or people of origin or their heirs. (Areas to look to: art, artifacts, historical objects, human remains)
- How can we return (or at least stop trying to maintain) control of narratives about underrepresented or marginalized communities to those communities?
Addressing gaps in achievement or meeting goals. (Areas to look to: education)
- How can we address the difference between our audience’s definitions of success for journalism and ours?
Fostering essential change while working to ensure no one is left behind by change (Areas to look to: climate, labor)
- How can journalism continue to involve and innovate while not leaving behind those with access, literacy, language or other barriers to keeping up?
There is much work to be done
This piece is the pursuit of a combination of goals: to capture some of the existing experimentation and leadership coming from across the spectrum of information, news and engagement; collecting some of the thinking that’s happening on these topics and hopefully creating a useful framework that can help organizations and individuals figure out where they are at in their relationships with people they intend to serve and to create a path to continue down toward a more equitable and inclusive practice. It is not an accounting of everything, and I’m eager to continue to add to it. Suffice it to say, I have a million questions and I’m keen to continue following these intersecting discussions.
This piece wouldn’t be possible without Membership Puzzle Project for ideological and financial support and the essential feedback of Emily Goligoski and Ariel Zirulnick. Much of the thinking here has been distilled from inarticulate questions, musing and rants to a more useful and cogent form thanks to hours of discussion and refinement with Shady Grove Oliver. If the conversation about roles, agency and cross-discipline analysis appeal to you, check out Hearts and Minds Project, where we are continuing down this path of questions.
You can find more of my work here on Medium, by following me on Twitter or checking out my website. When I’m not writing, I’m working on building the infrastructure and ecosystems of collaborative journalism on behalf of Project Facet and examining the intersection of journalism, class and poverty.