Reporting on communities that aren’t your own

In my past life as a print journalist, I would ask questions and shape my stories based on what I heard at events or meetings. The closest thing I did to “Social Journalism” was ask sources “So, is there anything else you want to add to the story?”

But that’s not enough. I was shaping the story. I’d ask questions and I’d receive responses, but the story was shaped based on my perspective. I had the control.

I don’t want to do journalism like that anymore. I’m here to listen.

And I’m in CUNY’s Social Journalism program to learn how to do this better. This week, we heard from Allen Arthur, a 2016 graduate of the Social J program. Arthur spent his year in the program serving a specific community — the formerly incarcerated in New York City.

Arthur explained how he went to community events to listen. He detailed how he gained trust from the community. He showed us pictures of him with members of his community at art shows and at neighborhood celebrations.

I was struck by his ability to make genuine connections with members of the community. So I asked him how he did it. And I asked him if he ever felt uncomfortable or unequipped to serve this community since he, himself could not specifically identify with it.

“Of course it was challenging,” he said.

One of the reasons I think Arthur was able to serve this community well (and continues to do so) is because he learned to get out of the way. Even now, he’s creating a magazine for those currently incarcerated. It is his idea, but the art, the stories and so on are gifts for others — the formerly incarcerated — to give.

“I am also trying to relinquish any sense of control. What if they took their own pictures? What if the poem she wrote makes the point instead of me? And while these seem simple, I am further pushing myself to discover, understand, or create ways to let them tell it,” Arthur said.

His story got me thinking about how we cover communities that don’t look like our own. The first step is to engage with people not just as a reporter, but as a person. Easy enough, right?

This week, my classmate Viki Münch and I attended an intimate gathering in Bushwick for a grassroots organization called Million Hoodies, a Black/Brown membership organization engaged in justice for the most marginalized.

We didn’t go thinking we’d write a story. We just went to listen.

It was refreshing to go to an event with the intent of just listening. I wasn’t beholden to writing notes in Google Docs, although I did jot down names and a few details in a notebook. After the event ended, we introduced ourselves and spoke briefly to a few of the organizers. We tried to make connections as people interested in learning more about the mission instead of as reporters digging for a story.

Another way we can equip ourselves to cover diverse communities is to identify our preconceived notions. This is not inherently easy. But it’s necessary.

In covering the formerly incarcerated community, Arthur recognized that he looked different and had opposite experiences from many of the people he was listening to.

We can’t change how we look or what our past was like, but what we can do is value others through listening.

“Well, first we have to actually value them,” Arthur said. “Second, we have to engage them in unique ways that incentivize their participation, break down the wall between journalists and communities, and restructure how we listen in a very earnest way.”