Six Lessons From a Semester of Reporting With — Rather Than On — Communities

For reporters, editors, newsroom managers, journalism professors and students

Digital transformation has given us many ways to turn passive news consumers into active contributors to journalism.

However, due to the culture of traditional newsroom operations, opportunities for user-assisted journalism are often overlooked. As a result, important issues, valuable viewpoints and compelling stories are left undiscovered.

So when Jay Rosen, who coined the term The People Formerly Known as the Audience, asked me to teach the first-semester reporting class of his Studio 20 program at NYU, we quickly agreed that it should focus on how to report with, rather than on, a community.

As opposed to anonymous audiences, measured by page views and clicks, communities can be defined by a common interest, such as where they live or a topic they care about. As their collective knowledge, personal stories and experiences can be incredibly valuable, they should be involved in the reporting process from the very beginning, before starting with a story even.

In this course, we took a design-thinking approach to reporting. The students learned about human-centered design and user research as well as the tools, formats and techniques required for newsgathering and fostering meaningful engagement. We also looked at engaged journalism case studies and received hands-on lessons from guest lecturers.

Introduction to design thinking.

At the core of this class were the students’ very own community reporting projects. In collaboration with Documented, a non-profit news site covering immigration policy and its repercussions in New York, they reported with six communities: Little Liberia, Chinatown, undocumented Latinx, non-citizens in the U.S. military, Arabs in Bay Ridge and corporate immigration lawyers.

As you might imagine, none of these are easy to cover and there’s no blueprint for doing so. Still, the students did a great job, as they took innovative and empathetic approaches to engage with these communities and shine a light on under-reported issues and unheard voices.

Here are six lessons we learned that you’ll hopefully find useful when you plan for your next engaged-journalism project.

Allow enough time, more than you think you’ll need.

Many reporters and editors are used to very quick turnarounds. Once a pitch is approved, the story should basically have been delivered yesterday. This is not how it works with when you want to report with, rather than on, communities.

It takes time to build trust. I’m stating the obvious here, but this has often been lost in our industry due to the proliferation of 24/7 news channels and the steady stream of breaking news and push alerts. And while you may already know this and try to plan for it, you may still underestimate how much patience will be needed to build trust.

One group of students — whose project focused on loneliness and mental health issues among the elderly population in Chinatown, a neighborhood that’s notoriously difficult to cover — had almost given up. It’s common in Chinese culture for people to not want to lose face. “At the beginning, we found it difficult to report with them. The seniors were bragging about how happy they were,” said Manyu Jiang, who worked on this project. But, over time, the group added, they gained trust.

People are unlikely to open up when they first meet you. Naturally, they also want to know more about you, your organization, your mission and motivation. Also, the earlier you start the conversation, the more time you have to try different approaches, formats and tools.

Do your research. Know what you’re talking about and who you’re speaking to. Use their language and ways of communication.

When the students were first assigned their communities, I started them off with a community mapping exercise. They were tasked to research and brainstorm the answers to questions such as: What is the community talking about? How do they prefer to communicate? Where do they get together (on- and offline)? Who are the important players and influencers? Who should you be talking to tolearn more about the community and its information needs?

Hold plenty of sticky notes ready.

To most students, as for many journalists, community mapping was a fairly new concept. According to their responses to a pre-semester survey, 13 out of 15 students had little to no experience with it.

I’ve found exercises like these, including building a stakeholder wheel around a topic/issue at the center of the community/story, extremely helpful in gaining a quick and comprehensive overview. Together, with a growing database of contacts, such practices help to structure outreach and identify any gaps.

Find out where community members talk to one another, whether that’s in a Facebook group, in a cafe or at a conference, and learn about trending topics. Pay attention to the language they use. The Chinatown group, for instance, learned that it was much easier to talk to elderly residents when they used the term “challenges in life” instead of “mental health issues.”

If a community of experts discusses complex, technical issues, more in-depth research may be required. Not surprisingly, the student group that covered corporate immigration lawyers said a lot of background reading was needed.

Reach out to more people than you think you need — and ask for referrals.

“Cast a wider net.” That was probably the most common takeaway the students discussed as they were wrapping up their projects. Some had struggled with getting answers from people they had reached out to, especially those with very busy jobs such as lawyers and doctors. While this might not be true for every community, usually the more people you reach out to, the more likely it is that you’re going to get responses.

Besides, “reaching out to as many people as possible is also an excellent way to get them to spread the word,” said Nicolás Ríos, who covered undocumented Latinx communities. ”Try to get close to community leaders. They know each other and can introduce you,” he added. Nico and his teammates helped Documented launch a Spanish language newsletter published to a WhatsApp broadcast list and used their contacts within the community to distribute the sign-up link.

Several groups of students said they were seen as more trustworthy when they had been introduced by a community influencer or organization. Referrals are key in most, if not all, communities. So make sure to ask for one before you wrap up the conversation.

Empathize. And think about what motivation community members may have to contribute.

Listen, listen, listen.

Community-centered journalism is about putting people first, not a story idea or even a journalist’s ego. It takes a design thinking approach to newsgathering and distribution. Empathy should be the driving force.

Think about why people would want to get involved in the journalism process — or would not. What’s in it for them? What is it that could hold them back from contributing — e.g. they don’t have time, face personal risks/consequences, feel ashamed, have little trust in journalists — and what you could offer in response to this. Would it be easier for them to fill out a form, talk to you in person or on the phone? What can you do to make them feel safe about sharing their story?

The students generally received positive feedback when they asked for their communities’ input and support, especially when they spent some time and effort explaining their approaches. Most people they connected with wanted to help for a variety of reasons. They wanted to: shine a light on an issue the community faces; elevate underrepresented voices; set the record straight; help find and propagate solutions to overlooked problems.

It wasn’t so easy for a group of students that covered a Liberian community in Staten Island, many of whom were losing their residency rights or had already lost their documents to remain in the U.S. The community was shaken up; out of fear of deportation, some of its members were planning to go underground. Understandably, they were wary of talking to journalists. But, by staying present, the students were able to eventually talk to a number of people in the community (more on that in point 6).

Some tools and platforms are better suited to your community than others. But it’s worth keeping your options open.

There are plenty of platforms and tools available to public-powered journalism. Not all of them, or even any of them, might be right for the community you’re covering. But it’s always worth examining the options you have and how you could combine them to test, observe and adapt. Your findings from the mapping exercise should come in very handy here.

If the community communicates via WhatsApp, so should you. Can you get hold of phone numbers or set up and distribute your own, for example via GroundSource, to get in touch with people? Is there perhaps a subreddit discussing a topic of interest? Are there any groups on Facebook or LinkedIn you could join? If so, try making friends with the group administrators.

A group of students covering non-citizens in the U.S. military had some luck when they were added to a Facebook group, after politely asking the admins. They then spent several weeks listening and having conversations with the group’s members, and went on to share a Google Form in the discussion. It turned out to be immensely helpful, with 64 responses received in just a few days.

“We didn’t think so many people would have these overwhelming responses,” said Dania Curvy, who worked on the project. She added that open-ended questions worked especially well for them: “Some people wrote a novel; some just a word.”

Stay present — online and in person.

This is when the magic happens.

Too often journalists tend to only drop in for a story, grab some quotes, anecdotes, statistics — whatever they need to pretty up their pieces. The outcome can still be informative, journalistically sound stories, but some may also be shallow, misleading and incomplete. Journalism operations and workflows that are optimized for speed and reach often overlook marginalized and unheard voices and perspectives, which are crucial to understanding complex issues.

Affinity diagramming.

If you report with a community, it’s imperative to keep in touch. In the manner of beat reporters, maintain contact, listen, check in, share updates on your work, close the loop and don’t be an askhole. Of course, this should be wherever the community gets together — online and in person.

The students shared some unexpected successes they had just by being present. “The most important interview I had was on the subway,” said Manyu Jiang, who accompanied a senior from Chinatown in Manhattan on a trip to Flushing, the Chinatown of Queens. If you’re in video and documentary journalism, you know how important and valuable it is to “keep rolling.”

The group covering corporate immigration lawyers ran into a high-profile attorney at an event they were attending. They had been chasing this individual for weeks.

Even the group reporting in Little Liberia, a community rattled by the looming fear of deportation of a significant number of its members, made progress by showing up time and again. “After seeing my face however many times, they finally talked to me,” said Sahina Shrestha. She kept on turning up at a neighborhood church, where many community members would get together on Sundays. One day a Liberian immigrant whose papers had expired approached her and said: “You’ve been here before … I’d like to tell you something.”

To sum it up, when practicing community-centered journalism keep in mind:

  1. Allow enough time
  2. Research and map your community early on in the process
  3. Cast a wide net and ask for referrals
  4. Empathize
  5. Try as many platforms and tools as needed
  6. Stay present

Many thanks to Anjali Khosla, Jay Rosen, Max Siegelbaum, Mazin Sidahmed, Allen Arthur, Felipe De La Hoz, Lindsay Abrams, Jenna Amatulli, Feli Sanchez, Shamar Walters, Emmanuelle Saliba, Lilah Raptopoulos, Annemarie Dooling, Rubina Madan Fillion, Lauren Katz, Simon Galperin, Erin Brown, Cole Goins, Terry Parris and, of course, the Studio 20 class of 2019.