We listened to academics and practitioners talk about engaged journalism. Here’s what we learned

Tow Center
Jun 18 · 7 min read

By Andrea Wenzel and Jacob L. Nelson

A growing number of journalists have begun experimenting with ways of listening to and developing relationships with their audiences and broader communities in an attempt to build trust not just in their own organizations, but in news media writ large. This concept of “engaged journalism” comprises many definitions (though we find this one by Lindsay Green-Barber to be helpful), and, consequently, many practices. The term refers to everything from online audience “likes” and shares of journalistic content to deeper relationship-building and co-creation between journalists and community members (see Andrew DeVigal’s explanation of an engagement continuum here).

As journalists focus more of their efforts on pursuing engagement in one form or another, researchers have taken note. The topic of “engagement” has become increasingly popular within journalism scholarship, perhaps best illustrated by the recent establishment of UT Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and the University of Oregon’s Agora Center for Journalism. Yet, as two of the researchers in this space, we have realized that the same struggle journalists face when it comes to building trust and open communication between themselves and the communities they cover exists between this growing group of scholars and the journalists they hope to study. Both camps want their work to make journalism better — not just as an end in itself, but as a means to stronger communities, and societies. But often journalists and academics are not talking to each other, or the conversations are strained by a lack of trust or a lack of a shared language.

To address this, we turned to the very practices of engaged journalism that we have been researching. We hosted a meeting of more than 50 journalists and scholars on May 24th at our Engaged Journalism: Bridging research and practice preconference of the International Communication Association annual conference in Washington DC. The group was a nearly even split between journalism academics and practitioners, and participants had a range of experiences within each category. The academics comprised scholars who take a variety of approaches to their work — including those who observe and interview journalists, those who collaborate with journalists and communities, and those who consult for journalism organizations. The practitioners comprised journalists, as well as representatives from foundations and organizations that support them — a number of whom had worked with researchers in the past. The purpose of the event was to connect these groups so that those pursuing engaged journalism and those hoping to study their pursuits would have a better idea of how each side can work together and learn from one another.

The day included brief presentations of academic work focused on engaged journalism by scholars from around the world. These projects included examinations of news nonprofits

focused on communities of color in two U.S. cities (by Letrell Crittenden and Antonine Haywood), a California newspaper attempting “dialogue journalism” with the help of Spaceship Media (by Kristy Roschke, Gail Rhodes, and Celeste Sepessy), and Netherlands-based journalists experimenting with “public-powered” forms of news production (by Jan Boesman, Irene Costera Meijer, and Merel Kuipers). These and other papers can be accessed here.

In the spirit of building communication between researchers and practitioners, these presentations concluded with feedback provided by practitioners working in the very spaces from which the research stemmed. For instance, a number of projects drew on data that researchers collected from the audience engagement company Hearken, so the response to these projects was provided by Hearken Engagement Strategist Summer Fields. The result was an intentionally atypical conversation between those doing journalism research and those participating in it.

After these research presentations and discussions, the event’s focus shifted to improving relationships between journalism professionals and researchers in the first place. This portion of the event began with a panel moderated by Alicia Bell of Free Press News Voices that included two practitioners — Sandra Clark of WHYY and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky of Resolve Philadelphia, and two academics — Talia Stroud of the Center for Media Engagement and Andrea Wenzel of Temple University. Panelists shared examples of how they had collaborated on research and engagement interventions — for example researchers organizing “accountability discussions” where reporters got feedback on their stories from community members. Others offered tips for establishing clear lines of communication — for example by maintaining brief standing meetings to check in on progress. Panelists also discussed how researchers, like journalists, need to be mindful that their relationships with practitioners are not solely extractive — for example, researchers should consider offering the news organization they are studying assistance (where appropriate), and sharing findings in ways that are accessible not just to other scholars but to journalists and members of the public as well.

The panel also talked about how researchers should handle findings that are critical of the news organization they studied. They suggested that researchers be constructive rather than play “gotcha” with unflattering results. Stroud emphasized the need for communicating difficult results with care, something that is likely easier to accomplish when the relationship between the news organization and the researcher is one that has already been based on open and honest communication: “The trust you build with an organization over time is unbelievably important and represents a key part of the research process.”

Following this discussion, participants worked in small groups to brainstorm recommendations for how researchers and practitioners could more effectively work together. We covered the wall with post it notes offering recommendations for researchers and practitioners, as well as some questions to ponder. A number of common themes emerged, including:

  • Build trust. Agora Journalism Center Director Regina Lawrence described her small group’s suggestion that researchers start with an open-ended meeting for coffee. That way, the researcher and journalist(s) can get to know each other so that they can understand how to best develop a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Establish clear expectations. This may mean co-constructing ground rules or rules of engagement (partners may even want to consider developing a memorandum of understanding document to outline shared goals and responsibilities). As Andrew Losowsky from the Coral Project implored, “Academics, think about being less transactional and more relational.” This line drew laughter as it echoed the frequent call for engaged journalists to be less transactional with communities — but it underlined the need for researchers to be mindful to make their work mutually beneficial and not extractive.
  • Make findings accessible. There was considerable discussion about the need to supplement peer-reviewed academic publishing with freely-available, public-facing work that can be released more quickly than research articles. These public-facing pieces should be free of jargon, literature reviews, and detailed methods sections. Some shared ideas for how this work could be curated, and the opportunity for funders to support such efforts.
  • Keep communication channels open — even after projects finish. Find a way to debrief and talk through findings, even when they are difficult or unflattering. There was a call for practitioners to let academics know if they use their work in some way. Likewise, both researchers and practitioners should make sure they communicate research with relevant communities. Funders may wish to support non-traditional ways to share findings with communities.
  • Researchers should follow their hearts, not their opportunities. Sometimes researchers get access to data sets, communities, mediums, or engagement tools and platforms that may not actually be focused on subjects they’re interested in studying. While this research has value, it comes with an opportunity cost. Participants described the importance of including parts of the news industry that have been less visible in the engaged journalism conversation, including for-profit newspapers and television outlets.

In addition to these themes we appreciate the take-aways shared by other participants (including tips shared by Jessica Mahone of the Democracy Fund.). Looking ahead, we plan to host this gathering again — building on the valuable feedback and ideas participants shared. For example, we hope to include more journalists from different sectors including local television. We also would love to reach out to community members to participate, and to develop ways for more hands-on workshopping of strategies like presenting findings in accessible formats.

While our half-day workshop unsurprisingly left important questions around academic-industry collaboration unresolved, we are happy with the connections it sparked between researchers and journalists, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.

Tow Center

Written by

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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