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Can civic science and journalism address community issues and find solutions?

Takeaways from our civic science journalism collaboration report

Civic science seeks to bring civic engagement and science together to further research that ultimately can solve societal issues. Last year, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University launched a project to see what adding media and journalism into that equation could do.

Can civic science paired with journalism be an effective way to solve common problems and community issues? And what are some best practices for projects in the space to abide by?

These are exactly the questions the Center and its partner, Rita Allen Foundation, sought to answer with the 2023 cross-field civic science and journalism collaborations grant program. Rita Allen Foundation is a leader in the funding and support of civic science across the United States.

The two organizations worked in partnership to facilitate 12 grants of $15,000 each that supported civic science and journalism collaborations. The grants were distributed to a diverse range of science-focused organizations and newsrooms and covered a wide range of subject focus — from climate change to flooding to water management policy — and project design.

For example, Cicero Independiente, a local bilingual news organization, in collaboration with MuckRock and Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, measured Cicero’s air quality while simultaneously engaging journalists and community members in new ways.

Meanwhile, WITF, a public media organization, and its news collaborators in the Climate Solutions/StateImpact Pennsylvania project partnered with the Sankofa African American Theater Company to produce a play of journalism-inspired fiction, “Not-So-Tall Tale About Climate Change.”

The Center studied the grantee’s projects to assess their impact and glean actionable takeaways to educate and improve future civic science projects.

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Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Know your audience. Participants faced a notable challenge in reaching a consensus on the definition and operational framework of civic science. This issue was particularly pronounced among news organizations, which traditionally rely on science organizations as sources rather than engaging them as genuine civic science collaborators. All stakeholders need to engage in discussions, achieve a shared understanding, and agree on the civic science and engagement elements crucial to the project’s success.
  2. Take your time. Recruiting, training, and collaborating with the public is a time-intensive endeavor that, if hurried, can result in mistrust and flawed outcomes. Consequently, five of the 12 grant recipients found it necessary to extend their projects beyond the initial six-month period. This sense of urgency can be particularly challenging for science organizations accustomed to longer timelines for research, with many grantees expressing that the six-month timeframe felt rushed.
  3. Foster relationships. Getting to know your partner and their strengths is an integral part of civic science collaborations — especially if the partners have never worked together before. The organizations that already had some kind of previous partnership or relationship had smoother projects.
  4. Clearly define roles and responsibilities. Many pilot participants noted the importance of aligning values and expectations between partners, as well as clearly defining responsibilities among journalists and scientists. Both journalists and scientists adhere to stringent ethical codes, and openly discussing standards and boundaries at the outset can avert tension and miscommunication down the line.
  5. A little coaching goes a long way. Although the Center offered training upon request, our analysis revealed that intentional coaching was much more valuable than most traditional training sessions. A more hands-on approach would have helped several projects, especially where both sides were still navigating building a new relationship.
  6. Civic science collaborations can make a difference. From educating Utah students on how public policy impacts statewide water usage to offering in-depth training for eighteen early-career science journalists to develop beat-specific expertise, all of our grantees made waves in their fields, and we’re excited to watch their projects grow and evolve.

Applications for the 2024 grant program will open in the fall.

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Catherine Devine is the Civic Science Fellow at the Center for Cooperative Media. She can be reached via email at devinec@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism and support an informed society in New Jersey and beyond. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, the Independence Public Media Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.

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