KPCC studied how to cover the 2020 census so you don’t have to
A playbook for reporters interested in reaching people at risk of being undercounted
The 2020 census is a year away, but chances are you’ve already heard about it. The census is making headlines because several states are suing the Trump administration over its plans to include a citizenship question. But much of the news glosses over why the census is important and how it affects everyone’s lives. Congressional representation is at stake, along with $800 billion in federal funds that will get disbursed for state, county, and community programs over the next decade.
KPCC is based in Los Angeles County, which is described by experts as the hardest county to count. You can read my explainer on why it’s a big deal for L.A. County. Our newsroom knows this is a big story for us, but before we assigned a reporter, we wanted to better understand how our journalism could be distinctive and impactful. The goal: Make sure that residents across Southern California know about the importance of the U.S. census and the implications of an undercount.
With other media organizations (including NPR) already covering the six lawsuits concerning the citizenship question, we wanted to focus our attention in other places. We began to ask ourselves: What do people around greater Los Angeles want to know about the census? What do they not know or understand about the census? How we can meet the information needs of people at risk of being undercounted in the census? We also wanted to understand how we can reach people outside of KPCC’s traditional distribution channels (on-air, online, and in-person events).
We learned a lot about how to reach people where they are, with the information they need. Every region is different, but here are some top-line takeaways that could inform how your newsroom covers the census.
- The census is not sexy. It is not inherently interesting, so think creatively. (OK, we kind of already knew that, but let’s just say it was confirmed.)
- Don’t assume educated news consumers know the stakes or the mechanics of the census. There was a very low level of census knowledge among the people we interviewed, including current NPR listeners.
- People’s sense of personal identity does not match up to the boxes on the census form. The form is regarded as clinical, bureaucratic, and not “speaking” to many of the people we interviewed.
- Many people associated the census with the controversy over citizenship—and nothing else. One person referred to the “undocumented question,” while others said “the damage is done.” This made us wonder whether we should lead our stories with the stakes, versus the political battle.
- Where you live is not necessarily what you consider your community. One interviewee described his residence as being where he is “stuck.”
- If you want to connect with your audience on census issues, frame your stories carefully.
To understand how we arrived at these conclusions, keep reading.
Inspired by our recent work redesigning KPCC’s early childhood education coverage, we started our research with a design thinking framework. Hearken CEO and cofounder Jennifer Brandel describes human-centered design as “a way of understanding the needs of the people you’re building a solution for and testing that solution with them before creating it.”
We launched a six-step process:
- Landscape analysis
- Development of stakeholder map and target characteristics
- Stakeholder interviews
- Development of potential prototypes
Step One: Landscape Analysis
Dozens of advocacy organizations have mobilized to ensure at risk communities are counted (think people who are here illegally, homeless, seniors, etc). It was important to understand what their messages are and who they are trying to reach. I interviewed dozens of people ranging from government officials, foundations, and advocacy groups to better understand the information landscape that our journalism would be in. Many of these organizations are national and have regional offices in other parts of the country.
Step Two: Develop our stakeholder map
How do you define your target audience when the topic you’re reporting on affects everyone? We had to make choices so we looked for places we thought our journalism would be of most service: people who may be at-risk of an undercount, people working on census outreach, and people at risk of complacency (not remembering to participate). We interviewed people who fit into these three buckets (undocumented immigrants, intergenerational households, African American seniors and 20–30 year olds, etc.) If you want to develop a stakeholder list for your newsroom, you can crib ours here.
Step Three: Stakeholder Interviews
As journalists, we’re used to conducting interviews on tight deadlines. We often know the exact answers we need to report our stories.
We went into our stakeholder interviews very differently. First, we asked to meet our interviewees in locations that were familiar to them. Instead of asking narrowly focused questions about the census, we opted for a broader approach: “How do you learn about what’s going on in your community?” and “What’s important for you to know? What do you pay the most attention to?” We also observed body language and how they interacted in their setting. The goal was to understand not just what they were saying, but what they actually were feeling. We distinguished this as explicit and implicit needs. For example, when Luz, an undocumented immigrant who participated in the interviews told us about changing her children’s school over fears of legal fears, she was demonstrating how she redirects her life based on fear of being deported.
We interviewed 16 people over the course of a couple of months. The quantity was less important than the quality of the interview. So if you’re going to try this approach, try to find a handful of people who represent different points on the spectrum.
Step Four: The Synthesis
After all the interviews were completed, we reviewed them en masse. Even though the stakeholders represent a range of experiences (civically engaged versus not civically engaged, younger versus older, English-speaking versus non-English speaking, etc.), there were common patterns, themes, and insights that surfaced during the interviews.
We identified three key barriers to participation in the census: access, vulnerability and knowledge.
Access: There are dozens of organizations working on the ground in Los Angeles that are better positioned to address this barrier (digital access) than we are.
Vulnerability: There is nothing we can do as a news organization to really shift people’s vulnerability—real or perceived.
Knowledge: BINGO. This is where KPCC can play a role. We can help people better understand what the census is, why it’s important and how it relates to their lived experiences.
From our 16 interviewees, we identified that there is a spectrum of knowledge of the census:
- High knowledge: People who have a keen understanding about the U.S. census through work, being civically active, or having official/unofficial roles in their communities. This group is not at risk of being undercounted.
- Low knowledge: This was a majority of our interviewees. People had a general idea that the census is about counting and representation, but they still have huge knowledge gaps about why it’s important. Within this group are educated information seekers (KPCC news consumers and other well-read news consumers) and those fearful to share information (undocumented immigrants, permanent residents, naturalized citizens, seniors, etc.).
- No Knowledge: The youngest people we interviewed fell here. It also includes some permanent residents and undocumented immigrants from the group above. This group is characterized by low or limited information-seeking behavior.
Other Key Insights
- Issues of identity: Personal identity was a strong theme that appeared throughout our interviews. Some specific insights we picked up were “Where I live is not necessarily who I am,” “Let me define me,” and “Everyone should be counted.”
- Leverage points: During the interviews, people said different versions of “I care about other people more than myself” and “Schools are trusted in the community.” This was an important insight because it gave us ideas as to how we might frame our journalism (i.e., through the lens of why the census matters to your employees, your community, your children).
Step Five: Brainstorm!
KPCC journalists gathered to brainstorm potential news services and
distribution models that could reach our target audience and strengthen our journalism.
We organized around questions inspired by the key insights — questions
like “How might we incorporate census information and context into the
news educated information seekers are already consuming with KPCC?”
and “How might we show legal residents and naturalized immigrants the
tangible benefits of participating in the census?”
As journalists, we are not going to advocate for census participation, but
we can play a role in showing why the census matters, communicate what’s
at stake, and activate audiences to seek out and engage more deeply with
Step Six: Prototype
We learned a lot during this process and can immediately apply these lessons to the work we do: We will reframe current census coverage, produce explanatory reporting that connects to everyday life, and increase the the newsroom’s current coverage of the census.
We’re also exploring ways we could pursue more ambitious projects, like building new tools to help connect people’s sense of self to the census, providing a real-time fact-checking service to fight misinformation, or leading a collaborative journalism project that would allow several newsrooms to maximize their work across communities.
Read more about our process and prototypes in “Outside the Box: What design thinking taught KPCC about the 2020 census and opportunities for public service journalism.” And let us know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org.