Deep Listening to Map a Community’s Information Needs
How El Tímpano asked a local community about the information they want, and what we learned in the process
This is the second in a series documenting our efforts to map the information needs of Oakland’s Latino immigrants. Click here for the first post on the climate of fear, misinformation and mistrust in media that we found in initial conversations with community leaders.
At first glance, Oakland may be seen as a city with a thriving Spanish-language media scene. There are as many as four bilingual newspapers distributed in certain parts of town. Turn the radio dial and you will hear Spanish on several AM and FM stations, and there is nightly news on both Univisión and Telemundo. As one San Francisco-based ethnic media specialist told me, “when I think of news deserts, I don’t think of Oakland.”
But speak with the audiences of those outlets and you find much to be desired. For all of the Spanish-language newspapers, many residents don’t even know they exist, and several of those papers have no timely, local news. Tune into talk radio, and more likely than not, you’ll hear an infomercial for a weight loss pill rather than independent reporting. As for the nightly TV news, many people are tuning out. As residents told me, “es pura mentira,” “no es muy útil,” and “las noticias da información que causa pánico” (“it’s pure lies,” “it is not very useful,” and “the news gives information that causes panic”).
For nine months, with the support of the Listening Post Collective along with several local organizations and collaborators, I met with non-English-speaking Latino immigrant residents in Oakland, and people who work with this community. The goal was to understand what issues are important to them, what tools and sources they use for reliable information, and what challenges they face in getting information that helps them make decisions and take action in their neighborhood and city.
This process allowed us to develop relationships with local organizations and develop key insights about the information needs of this community. In future posts, I’ll share more on what we heard and what we plan to do about it. But first, this is what our process entailed:
Conversations with Community Connectors
We began by meeting with leaders of Oakland’s Latino immigrant community — people who directly serve this community and are familiar with how they get information. One person referred me to another, and so on. This included interfaith community organizers, directors of health clinics and economic development organizations, and legal advocates. I also met with librarians, church pastors, teachers and parent outreach coordinators — individuals who serve as key connectors between residents and the resources and information they need. At meetings in churches, coffee shops, and cramped offices, they explained the challenges that exist in informing monolingual Spanish- and Mam-speaking immigrants, and the need for more ways for immigrants to be both informed and heard. Their observations of the inadequacy of local media convinced us to expand our research, and so we opened up our conversation to the wider community.
Throughout any city or town, active residents congregate in church basements, school classrooms, and community centers to discuss issues important to them and their community, whether through formal structures or informal meet-ups. So rather than inviting people to a new space and to one more meeting, we partnered with community groups that host regular meetings and came to them to facilitate a discussion about local news and information. For 30 minutes to an hour, using a series of focused activities and conversations, we surfaced what issues are on their minds, where they get information, and what they would like to see differently in the local news and information ecosystem.
While small group listening sessions provided us insight from the most engaged residents, we also wanted to hear from those who may be too busy to attend meetings or simply have other priorities. So we invited residents to share their thoughts through quick surveys.
We took our survey to libraries, food banks, schools, and churches, thanks to the collaboration of local institutions. In each of those places, we set up a colorful display of greeting card-size surveys that take just a minute to fill out. Our setup included a set of chairs to welcome people to sit down and take their time. In most cases, we didn’t need to approach individuals — they approached us, excited about the opportunity to share their thoughts on local news and information. To our delight, many respondents not only filled out the survey, but sat down to engage in a longer conversation, offering suggestions on what a local news outlet could look like, and volunteering to work with us to get it started.
The Payoffs of Deep Listening
In all, we spoke with two dozen community connectors, facilitated five listening sessions, and gathered surveys from more than 250 people.
We could have gathered data more quickly by using an online survey or farming out this process to a third party. But taking the time — and it does take time — to meet residents where they are and create opportunities for conversation resulted in much more than quantifiable data. It formed the foundation of trust with this community, by indicating that we valued their voices, thoughts, questions, and collaboration. Aside from a wealth of data, these are a few of the outcomes of this deep listening process:
- Personal relationships: As I met with community connectors, I got to know them, their work, and their ideas. As I facilitated workshops and conducted surveys, often accompanied and assisted by other local journalists and community organizers, we got to know residents face to face, and they got to know us. If they had questions about the survey and what it would be used for, we could answer. If they had ideas of other places to take surveys to, we welcomed their suggestions. In fact, one resident I met early on in the survey process was so enthusiastic about the project that he joined our small team, providing support and contacts that enabled us to reach many more people.
- Institutional relationships: Setting up a table in a library lobby, or facilitating a workshop at a women’s group were the outgrowth of many months of relationship building. These partners offered not only space but invaluable insight to help us reach residents effectively. For example, the branch manager of the César Chávez Library — someone who thinks constantly about how to effectively engage with diverse residents — provided feedback to our initial survey that resulted in a design that was easier to take, more transparent about our goals, and not so intrusive about personal information. The director of a community health clinic suggested ways to design activities for our listening sessions that would be inclusive of residents with low literacy. We developed relationships with schools, food banks, churches, and community organizations, all of whom are eager to welcome us back and partner in other ways.
- Insights from Immersion: Never underestimate what you may learn by sitting at a table in a public area for three hours. At the library, we noticed that many patrons spend several minutes in the lobby scanning the community bulletin board, which is covered in fliers about local resources. We encountered many of the city’s Mam residents from Guatemala, and witnessed that while many do not speak English or Spanish, their children often play the role of interpreters between English and Spanish and their parents’ native Mam Mayan language. Several times, while conducting workshops and surveys, we assisted those who could not read or write, providing us with a sense of relatively high illiteracy rates — one more barrier to information access for many in this community.
- Community’s Insight & Ideas: Our surveys were an invitation to a conversation, and many people offered up their own thoughts about the local news media and how they would change it. We heard story ideas — there was the neighborhood park that has become too dangerous to play in, or the family members in detention who haven’t been able to make a phone call out. Other respondents shared models of journalism they would like to see in Oakland, like the Facebook page a woman follows with news from her hometown in Mexico. We were all ears.
When we finish compiling our data, we’ll share what we learned, and how we plan to continue to work with this community to strengthen local journalism that serves Latino immigrants. In the meantime, if you want to plan an information needs assessment in your own community, here are a few of the resources we used in designing the process:
- Listening Post Toolkit: This online guide makes the process of listening to a community easy and accessible. It provides both detailed resources, such as examples of survey questions, but also open-ended guidance to empower you to modify the process for your particular needs.
- Design Research for Media Development: At 125 pages, it’s hefty, but taken in chunks, this is a valuable, detailed guide that can provide ideas for research design and implementation. It goes step by step through Internews’ process of researching the information needs in Pakistan.
- A Short Guide to Community-Based Participatory Action Research (pdf): While our primary goal was to research information needs of Oakland’s Latino immigrant community, we also sought to develop relationships with this community by involving residents and community leaders in the research process. This framework, outlining a spectrum of community engagement, helped us strategize how to do that.
Madeleine Bair is a journalist, human rights documentarian, and civic media innovator. A former Program Manager at WITNESS, she focuses on the participation of marginalized communities in news media production.