Power to the people

Activists participated in the Philadelphia Women’s March in January. (Photo by Melissa DiPento)

Journalism 101 dictates that you should avoid using questions in stories at all costs. But I have a burning one. And I like to break the rules (sometimes).

Why do journalists expect their audience to read their stories when the public has had little to no say in them?

I think it’s because many of us were trained to think that if we didn’t have all of the answers we could just dig deeper and find them. We don’t always rely on community members because (maybe) we think we know more than them. We use sources for background or colorful quotes because that’s what the profession dictates we do. We use community members voices if we can find a way to tell the story through the lens of their experiences.

But we often don’t get the public involved in a meaningful way. I know I didn’t.

I think back to my first reporting job in 2008. I was 22. I had just graduated from Temple University with a degree in print (LOL) journalism. I thought I was hot shit.

Thankfully, I worked for a small weekly newspaper in southern New Jersey. If I messed up, not that many people noticed. I thought I got to know the communities I covered fairly well, but in retrospect, I think there was a lot more I could have done.

I had my stable of community sources — the mayors, the school district superintendents, the one university expert everyone in the region used, the head of the environmental committee, the Boy Scouts leader, Gov. Chris Christie’s press person — but did I really force myself to branch out?

When I’d have a slow week, I’d simply check in with some of these reliable sources to see what was new in their world. While that can be a good journalistic practice, it doesn’t always yield relatable and meaningful stories to the communities you serve. The pages of the newspaper were colored with the same, tired voices, never giving room to the people and stories that might better serve the geographic communities I was covering.

I realize all of this now after diving deeper into what it means to be a journalist today. It starts with listening. But it’s not just about us listening to the people we choose to interview better. It means listening and engaging the community as a whole.

Jennifer Brandel created Hearken as a way to shake up how news is created and delivered. She believes news organizations need to engage the public from the time the story develops from a pitch through its publication.

Prior to Hearken, she created Curious City, which gave the public the chance to decide which stories WBEZ Chicago would report on. The team would come up with questions they thought would make for compelling content, she said, and the audience would vote on which idea they’d like to see pursued.

“I believe journalists and editors do have a developed sense for knowing what can be worthwhile to pursue. But I also know we’re not always right. The fact remains: we don’t know exactly what our audiences’ information gaps, needs and desires are, so by creating a way to find out, we get more diverse perspectives and input to make better decisions,” Brandel said in a Medium Post.

A flaw in my early reporting was that I failed to rely on everyday members of the community. Sure, I’d talk to community members if they approached me with a story about the neighborhood kids raising money for a good cause. Or I’d interview the WWII vet who helped liberate prisoners from Concentration Camps in Poland (that was a really interesting person to talk to, BTW).

But I wasn’t asking these community members specifically about what they’d like to see covered in their community. I didn’t actually know what they cared about. I was interviewing them about what *I thought* their story was.

This is a standalone photo I took in Palmyra, NJ in July, 2013. I wish I worried less about getting a cover image and more about what issues this family cared about in their community. (Photo by Melissa DiPento)

Brandel said understanding and engaging the community in the process is truly the key to producing content with integrity and relatability.

“A neat byproduct of public involvement was how it made our journalism more relatable. By featuring everyday people as protagonists in stories, the rest of our audience had someone more like them to cheer for and to feel connected to,” she said.

Now more than ever, it’s critical to value diverse voices from the communities we serve. We won’t succeed without their input.