Closing the gap between journalists and community

Journalists and community members gather for a weekend of innovative thinking and engagement.

I had the opportunity to attend a conference in October hosted by the Agora Journalism Center and Journalism That Matters at the George S. Turnbull Portland Center. Read about my experience here:

I am a videographer. Visual storytelling is my passion. I spent 10 weeks on a story and didn’t bring in a camera until the sixth week. Why? Because often journalists forget that we journalists are humans. We cannot build a human connection through our tools, whether that is through the lens of a camera or words on a paper. A simple fact I was reminded of in October and has since resonated in my work.

In October, I attended a conference, or “un-conference” as it was called, that changed my journalistic approach. As I collaborated with over 100 people, journalists and non-journalists alike, gathered for a weekend of Experience Engagement, I realized the mistakes that I have been making as a journalist.

Too often, I forget to live in the moment and fail to see the stories in front of me. A journalist’s best tool is to listen. We never know the story beforehand, so we can’t go in with preconceptions and a story in mind. I am not there to create a story. I am there to tell someone’s story, and I do not feel comfortable telling someone’s story until they are comfortable with me.

Sticky notes and illustrations of ideas covered the walls. The same walls that echoed the voices of community members and journalists pinpointing the mistakes we need to fix as journalists. A voluntary, four-day “un-conference” hosted by Journalism That Matters and the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) that built upon the question: How can journalists and the public engage to support communities to thrive?

As I actively kept up with the live Twitter feed of the “un-conference’s” hashtag #pdxEngage15, someone tweeted an African proverb that captured the core of the mistake that journalists are making.

The proverb said, “Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.”

Everyone has a story, and as a journalist, we need to realize that the voice is there; we are not his or her voice. The marginalized have a voice but journalists need to connect with and provide them a platform to be heard. People know the stories about the hunter and not about the lion, because no one has taken time to know the lion. The lion is the unheard.

As technology has pushed journalism into new horizons, it has added to the growing disconnect between media and its consumers. Experience Engagement was a first step in the University of Oregon’s efforts to discover ways to re-building this trust by providing a place for journalists and community members to come together and discuss the next steps and what we need to do.

This “un-conference” was a place where we were encouraged to talk to strangers, because these were the strangers that care about things that would put your family and friends to sleep. Multiple times throughout, we’d find ourselves in a world café style discussion, shuffling among each other to sit together and brainstorm new approaches to engagement. Or we’d be sorted into breakout sessions. Squeezing in icebreakers in between. It wouldn’t be a “un-conference” about engagement without actual engagement. We needed to be transparent and know each other in order to start acknowledging the issues at large.

Speak truth to empower

This first-of-its-kind event brought upon a lot of themes that captured the importance of listening that resonated with my journalistic work.

With the public trust at an all-time low, Todd Milbourn, a University of Oregon journalism professor, redefines the role of the modern journalist with, “Speak truth to empower, not to power.” Give the community a reason to trust you with their stories.

Andrew DeVigal, Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement of the Agora Journalism Center and former New York Times multimedia editor says, “It really challenges the definitions of what we’ve been traditionally have trained to be a journalist for.”

The goal is to create new ways to build stronger communities through journalism. Even though we work for our professors and editors, our stories are about and for the people who watch, read, and listen. We speak the truth to the power, but the value lies in the empowerment of the stories we tell.

“It’s not mutually exclusive,” says DeVigal.“It’s not like we’re losing one or the other. I think we need to find an intersection to both.”

Journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel mention in their book The Elements of Truth the idea of the “journalistic truth.” It is about process of understanding and verifying facts and accuracy through conversation. Gathering stories is the exchange of a truth.

Right now, I do speak truth, but only to those already with the power. I should be speaking truth to empower the marginalized. If I am able to do both, I will be taking my job one step further as a journalist.

Nothing about us without us

An answer to the overarching question that resonated the theme of the weekend was, “Nothing about us without us.”

According to DeVigal, this statement approaches engagement from the perspective of the community. Often times, I forget I am a part of the community. How do I represent a community and tell its story if I am on the outside looking in when I don’t need to be? This creates a divide between journalists and the public. To close this gap is to acknowledge that we are mutually inclusive.

I did a story where I indulged audiences with a heartwarming tale of a therapy llama named Rojo. After weeks of developing a relationship with this llama and its owner, I discovered the underlying story of friendship and the compassion that this llama brings — going beyond a story of a therapy-certified llama. No one knows a story beforehand, so why did I approach a story with the single goal of proving a hypothesis?

There is a difference in approaching stories with an idea and a hypothesis. The role of the journalist is not to take what we know about something and gather the evidence through reporting to prove we’re right. It is to come in with context and background and take it further by learning the details of the how and the why. There’s too much assumption, when there needs to be listening.

Providing a platform for the marginalized

There will be a continuously growing gap between the community and the journalists if journalists are producing news and stories about the marginalized without the marginalized.

As I pitch stories in the future, I will map out all the communities that I need to actively engage with. This will require stepping outside of the box, as opposed to thinking outside of the box. To be able to differentiate between passive and active journalism will require redefining the relationship between the community and the journalists. This is the step I will take to do that.

As a follow-up to the “un-conference” the University of Oregon’s Flux Magazine hosted a discussion on race as an open forum for students, faculty and community members to come together to discuss issues that journalist don’t touch upon. An event the staff of Flux referred to as “story seeding.” I attended the event feeling motivated to meet with community members firsthand following the “un-conference.”

Reflecting upon the event, Andy Tsubasa, a writer for Flux, said, “I am overjoyed that students found this discussion to be a safe space for them although it was filled with reporters.”

The idea that this event had to be considered a safe space shows that disconnect between the media and the public. It reaffirms this idea that journalists threaten the public.

“Too often people become “misrepresented” in articles when reporters drop in at an event and do ‘parachute journalism’,” says Tsubasa.

The term parachute journalism referring to the act of a journalist attending an event to gather quotes to write an article with actually being there. Journalists hold the power to represent our subjects and his or her stories in the wrong light if we misinterpret or fail to gather enough information.

A first step of engaging the community: including the community perspective by involving the community in the process of finding stories. Tsubasa hopes his piece for the magazine will bring a call-to-action for all students, marginalized or not, to engage in and be comfortable about the topics of race and be able to take steps to resolve conflicts. The idea of listening to the voices that are unheard, and providing the platform (i.e. open discussion) for these marginalized people to be heard.

New idea of engagement

If you asked me what engagement meant before, I probably would have said something broad along the lines of two groups interacting with one another. In terms of journalism, I would have included the use of social media. I will tell you now that engagement goes beyond that.

This “un-conference” brought upon new ways for me to understand this word, or this action. Engagement is listening — establishing a human connection and transparent understanding through listening.

By applying this newly redefined idea of engagement to my work, I have seen differences in my approach to storytelling. It goes beyond cold-calling people, showing interest, setting up an interview and then publishing. Too often I forgot my role as a journalist and my approach became formulaic.

Taking the time to further explore the context around a story, listening and establishing a human connection before using my tools makes all the difference. It took me six weeks to finally bring in my equipment, because if I am given the time, I don’t want to force a story to come to fruition. By building connections, I have added depth, texture and further context to my stories.

Stories will come naturally as long as we remember we are human beings before we are journalists. I have learned that authenticity will be leveraged from human connection. People have a voice. As a journalist, I want to provide a platform for those voices to be heard.


This “un-conference” was a place where innovation meets the innovative.

Journalists are leaders in that we hold the ability to provide direction and inspire others. With the growing distrust in journalists, we cannot continue as leaders until we regain the public’s trust. As I learned of speaking truth to empower, “nothing about us without us,” providing platforms and re-exploring the idea of engagement, this “un-conference” provided me with principles to guide and remind me of my roles as a journalist. Being a journalist– and ultimately a leader — it is upon me to follow through and continue implement these takeaways into my work.

Here’s an article and a video about the experience:

Experience Engagement was a working conference from October 1–4, 2015 in Portland, OR that explored the question: What is possible when the public and journalists engage to support communities to thrive? Our intent is to illuminate, inform, and support community information health that contributes to thriving, inclusive communities by learning about processes that grow it, creating products that support it, catalyzing a community of practice dedicated to it, and identifying actions to amplify it. Every activity during the conference models a practice that can be used for community engagement. Additionally, we’ll be employing an evaluation practice called Developmental Evaluation, which supports innovation, adaptation, and systems change. We see it as a promising approach to understand the impact of community engagement work.

Originally published at on March 21, 2016.