How can journalists better support underserved communities?

Three considerations from newsrooms in the Pacific Northwest

Damian Radcliffe
Jul 9, 2020 · 5 min read
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Pamplin Media executive editor John Schrag (center) during the Local Journalism Roundtable in Portland. Next to him, Carl Segerstrom (L), Jaycie Schenon and Holly Dillemuth (R). Image via Erika Berardi

This is an extract from “Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow: Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest” (2019), by Damian Radcliffe, Destiny Alvarez, Alex K Powers and Jaycie Schenone, published by the University of Oregon / Agora Journalism Center. Read the Executive Summary, a list of five emerging themes covered in the report and tips for managing resources.

Representation in journalism — both in terms of newsroom personnel and in the breadth of reporting — remains a critical issue that many media organizations are facing. In the Pacific Northwest, participants in our roundtable said their papers often struggle to access, reach and engage with Latino audiences in Oregon; an issue they are all keen to remedy.

John Schrag, the executive editor of Pamplin Media Group (Portland, Oregon), argued traditional ways of reporting on these communities need to change. “Publications often miss the mark when they try and create separate coverage in Latino communities,” Schrag said. “They’re people, they live in the same community, and they want to know about the same things.”

For newsrooms, several key questions need to be addressed, including:

In tackling these questions, newsrooms are not just thinking about personnel, but also their whole approach to newsgathering and community engagement.

1. Genuinely engage with communities

Journalists should take the time to step out of their traditional reporting habits and identify opportunities to engage with underrepresented parts of their communities.

To do this, journalists need to ask: What isn’t being covered? And how can we, as journalists, better cover the lives and support their information needs?

“[We need to be] reflective and honest about those communities and give them the same things we are giving the privileged,” said Malheur Enterprise’s Les Zaitz.

Getting to know leaders within underrepresented community groups, and attending group-hosted events, is one way to develop these relationships and unearth these stories.

Alongside this, newsrooms also need to consider the balance of their coverage, avoiding traditional narratives and offering a more balanced view (e.g. through the deployment of solutions journalism and by using some of the techniques encouraged by engagement journalism) about the realities of life in these communities.

However, editors (and journalists) need to recognize that doing this means avoiding “parachute journalism.” Cultivating genuine, and meaningful, relationships takes time.

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KUOW Public Radio reporter and host Deborah Wang during the Local Journalism Roundtable

Auditing, and systematically reflecting who you are talking to, is also a good habit to get into. During summer 2019, ABC News in Australia launched the 50:50 Project to achieve equal representation of women and men in their content by the end of next year. Similarly, The Financial Times is actively rebranding its opinion section to include and appeal to more female voices. Many other organizations are doing something similar.

Local organizations can replicate these efforts. At KUOW Public Radio (Seattle, Washington), reporter and host Deborah Wang said her organization uses a form/checklist to gauge source demographics, in order to create an accurate representation of the community in their work.

2. Take a look at your own attitudes

Accurately reporting on underrepresented communities requires journalists to actively engage with these groups. That means seeking out their views, and their guidance, with both sourcing and fact-checking stories.

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher for the Malheur Enterprise stated that engaging with underserved communities is increasingly important. “As journalists, we need to remove as many barriers as we can,” Zaitz said. “It’s a fundamental responsibility of us all.”

Kevin Max, the founder and chief content officer for Statehood Media (Bend, Oregon), highlighted the importance of figuring out how to engage. “We hire local photographers and writers in those communities,” Max said. “We were never going to come in and say ‘this is how we’re doing [i.e. covering] your community.’”

OPB’s Morgan Holm argued that there’s also a business imperative to addressing this issue. “By shifting our perspective, it gives us a competitive advantage,” he said.

Underserved audiences can be a source for new, fresh, stories, as well as a means to ensure journalistic narratives better reflect the complexities of the world around us. Engaging with these groups, in turn, should ensure that coverage is distinctive as well as fair, accurate and multi-faceted.

3. Ask: “Whose story is it anyway?”

Journalists do not have to be a part of a community to represent, and report, on them accurately. However, having a reporter on the ground that understands, is trusted by — and often comes from — that community can help to reduce coverage gaps and bring to light stories that matter.

As Venice Buhain, editorial director for The Seattle Globalist, (Seattle, Washington), reminded us, there are many people who do not see their reality in the media. Given this, it’s not surprising that some audiences have low levels of trust in journalism, or that large numbers simply choose to ignore the news media altogether.

One way to remedy this, Buhain suggested, is to hear from people impacted by events and developments, rather than simply recapping what has (or might) happened. It also means reporting positive stories, and not just covering “crisis all the time” she suggested.

The group also discussed giving people in underrepresented communities power over how they are covered.

Carl Segerstrom, a contributing editor for High Country News, talked about “centering voices” and noted their experience creating a dedicated Indigenous affairs desk led by three editors, two of whom, Tristan Ahtone and Graham Lee Brewer, are native journalists.

Stories produced by the desk in recent months include features exploring missing and murdered indigenous women, problems with furthering stereotypical media portrayals, and the challenges that indigenous immigrants face at the border.

Segerstrom said putting native voices at the center of their coverage, and in positions of editorial power, had been very effective for their reporting. “A big thing we talked about [is] not reporting about a community, but for and from that community,” he said.

“We want a reporter from that community putting the affected voices at the center of the story, rather than reporting [on it] from outside the community.”

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High Country News Indigenous Affairs Home Page. Image via High Country News

Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow: Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest (2019), by Damian Radcliffe, Destiny Alvarez, Alex K Powers and Jaycie Schenone. It is published by the University of Oregon / Agora Journalism Center. Download from the University of Oregon Scholar’s Bank, or via Scribd, SlideShare, ResearchGate and Academia.edu.

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Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic…

Damian Radcliffe

Written by

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app

Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic output by the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon

Damian Radcliffe

Written by

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app

Damian Radcliffe

Research, analysis, teaching materials and journalistic output by the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon

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