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Traditional Journalism Isn’t Enough For Meaningful Census Coverage

Ashley Alvarado, Southern California Public Radio

The 2020 census will be unlike any before it, and that’s not just because of the White House’s push to include a citizenship question on the constitutionally mandated decennial count of every person living in the United States.

The 2020 census will be the first ever conducted primarily online, a move that has raised major privacy concerns. While respondents can still reply by phone or request paper copies, the Census Bureau’s push will be for digital participation. The stakes are as high as ever: The count determines the distribution of more than $800 billion as well as Congressional representation. It has also inspired KPCC, a public media organization in Southern California, to think more critically and creatively about how we reach and serve specific audiences.

Rather than reporting simply what people should know, we wanted to provide information that would help residents understand a complicated but critical component of our democratic process.

With or without the citizenship question, there are a litany of barriers to achieving a complete and accurate count in Los Angeles County, where KPCC is based. In fact, L.A. County is known as the hardest-to-count county in the United States thanks, in large part, to its size and diversity. There are 42 states in the United States whose entire populations are smaller than that of L.A. County. More than 200 languages are spoken here, although online census materials will be available in only 13 languages (other informational guides will be available in 59 languages). There are also high numbers of renters, immigrants, young children, “crowded” households, and people experiencing homelessness; these communities are among those considered hardest to count.

KPCC is one of many newsrooms that, over the last 10 years, has made a shift away from traditional journalism — reporters telling people what they should know — to embrace a focus on audience curiosity and information needs (and, increasingly, habits). What does this mean? In practice, it means moving away from editors deciding what’s important for the general audience to, instead, involving community members in the process of determining the newsroom’s focus (through research, community engagement, surveys, and other methods). Additionally, it means spending time learning the ways in which target audiences consume information. While KPCC reaches hundreds of thousands of people each week, there are many more Angelenos not listening. If the newsroom is committed to reaching them, we must figure out how to play a role in their daily lives.

Our newsroom knows the census is a big story for our community, but before we assigned a single reporter, we wanted to better understand how our journalism could be most impactful. Rather than reporting simply what people should know, we wanted to provide information that would help Southern California residents understand a complicated but critical component of our democratic process, including the implications of an undercount. It’s important to note that as a newsroom, we’re not advocating for people to participate in the census but instead aiming to activate them to seek out more information.

This is journalism designed to meet the information needs of audiences as opposed to simply telling them what’s important.

We employed a human-centered design framework in our research, a way of understanding the needs of people and testing solutions with them before creating it. We interviewed stakeholders (people who may be at-risk of being undercounted, people working on census outreach, and people at risk of complacency) as well as dozens of people ranging from government officials, foundations, and advocacy groups focused on census outreach. Some findings were more unexpected than others:

  • We can’t assume educated news consumers know what the census is about. There was a very low level of census knowledge among the people we interviewed, including current NPR listeners. In past census years, major news outlets dedicated very little time to covering the count. This year, there’s been an overwhelming amount of coverage — though most has focused almost exclusively on the citizenship question.
  • 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.”
  • We also heard that people’s sense of personal identity does not match up to the boxes on the census form. The decision to not include “Middle Eastern or North African” in the 2020 census, for example, has left many community members unsure which box to check.

The learning continued as we started to share our research findings with other journalists at KPCC and beyond. Many reporters didn’t know about the ways census data affects their beats; others didn’t know about its move to a digital format.

We shared our ideas for how to reframe coverage to share what’s at stake with a census undercount earlier in stories, design an interactive experience that would help Angelenos draw connections between the census and what matters most to them, and launch a collaboration with other newsrooms that would allow census stories to reach more people.

This is journalism designed to meet the information needs of audiences as opposed to simply telling them what’s important.

The more we talked about plans for a collaboration, though, the more we saw the need for a different kind of approach. To reach the hardest-to-count Angelenos with the information they need and to squash misinformation earlier in its life cycle, we would need to partner with community, ethnic, and in-language media — the journalists who already serve as trusted messengers — and to leverage KPCC’s experience with community engagement. This is a fundamental shift from the way we’ve worked in the past. Stories will be co-reported, journalists from these news outlets will appear on KPCC shows, and newsrooms will be sharing engagement mechanisms with consumers — the tools we use to surface questions, insights, and the rumors they’re hearing online and via SMS.

This collaboration is still in its initial stages. In May, we held a convening with about 30 journalists — speaking 10 languages — to codesign the collaboration and what we hope to get out of it. We’ve begun adjusting legal language in contracts to facilitate the sharing of stories, and we’re establishing a network of translators to support the multilingual distribution of stories. What will success look like? The active sharing of information between newsrooms — and our respective audience — and the reach of stories. We believe there is great potential for this sort of approach to work beyond the census, and we’ve already started employing aspects of it to other coverage areas in the newsroom.

As we continue the work, we invite you to follow along. Stories will be published at and heard on 89.3 FM KPCC in Los Angeles, as well as on the partner sites.

Ashley Alvarado is director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio (KPCC + LAist), where she works with leadership to develop strategies and opportunities to engage new and existing audiences. That includes coproducing the community-centered storytelling series “Unheard LA.” She also serves as Journalism That Matters’ president and on Gather’s steering committee.

This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.



Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection

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