Initially, community engagement had little meaning to me. It seemed like one of those mundane terms from one of my statistics classes. But after taking this course, I have realized that community engagement is an increasingly important part of journalism. My print stories have improved over the last two years, but I’ve always wondered if people actually read them. Will they ever know of the countless, sleepless hours that I poured into the piece? Will they ever care?
When I read about Noam Chomsky’s theories on agenda setting and the media, a couple of years ago, it struck me that journalists have a huge responsibility to society. Whatever story that we decide to cut from the front page won’t receive as much attention. Whatever pitch that we ignore — or shoot down — means that its stakeholders will be ignored. Journalists have a dangerously important job and I’ve realized that community engagement is vital to this.
In short, community engagement is diving into a story and working from the ground up. But even before the dive, one has to interact and listen to the community. It’s quite arbitrary to walk up to a group of people and ask for quotes simply because you’ve decided that an issue — that you may know nothing about — needs to be reported on. So we must start from there. Then, we must build upwards and see if our reporting will actually make a difference in the community.
The key takeaway from my interaction assignments was that the future of journalism lies in the non-traditional realm. I learned that chatbots and personalized facts are much more appealing than a clean-cut anchor or an inverted pyramid lede. I learned that companies are taking news delivery very seriously. Some readers prefer to consume content in their inboxes while others opt for a more interactive experience. Our attention spans are shortening and constantly scanning the internet for fresh content. There is no more time for slow, long reads or boring broadcasts. An avid news consumer in today’s world needs to have their news shouted, slapped or thrown at them.
I quite enjoyed reading the engagement manifesto because it highlighted a variety of faults in today’s journalism. I found the audience’s perspective to be the most useful because, as said before, we’re forgetting about who we’re writing these stories for. This particular quote should be printed in bold and pasted along the walls of every newsroom, “You are often either too busy trying to get a scoop or trying to get clicks that you sacrifice stories that would make a meaningful difference in our lives.” This will definitely go into my thought process when I pick up a new story to work on.
We arrived at the project idea simply because housing has always been an issue at Stony Brook University. Freshmen often complain about being ‘tripled’ into a room meant for two. Older students haven’t really been able to fully navigate the room selection process for satisfying results. Then there are issues with the actual residence spaces because they obviously face wear-and-tear from ragged college student use. Stony Brook is also primarily a school for commuters. There is only a select group of students that actually enjoys living in a dorm building on campus. We figured that if the vast majority of students commute to school, then they must have a lot to say about their experiences.
This was interesting to me because I live on campus and often miss out on the daily struggles that commuter students face. I will never know the struggle of parking in a distant lot. I won’t be exposed to bad landlords or long commutes. This project opened my eyes to many of these issues.
I was one of the researchers and writers for the team. My tasks consisted of looking through the university publications’ clips to find relevant information to our project. I also verified the information that the reporters brought back. Lastly, I wrote most of the final piece and made sure it was structured and flowed well.
The first week consisted of mostly research and brainstorming. I found quite a few previous articles on housing and one current ongoing issue — many empty rooms in the campus’ newest dormitories. I also took part in our team’s brainstorming sessions. Initially we weren’t sure on how to creatively present our project. But our reporters and social media manager came up with the idea to showcase commuters on an Instagram account.
The second week consisted of handing out the survey that we had crafted. Some of the feedback said that it was too long. So we decided to cut it down to three questions. The responses were much better all around.
The third week consisted of contacting authoritative sources for the final piece. I emailed Alan Devries, who’s in charge of the residences. But, unfortunately, he turned down an interview. However, I managed to find relevant information from previous clips and notified the others of this.
The fourth week consisted of mainly putting the story together. Our reporters had come back with some great quotes. I structured the piece and added context to it. We talked about modifying the top at length. We eventually concluded that rather than having the piece read as a traditional story, it would make more sense to present all the data at the top and the profiles at the bottom.
We could’ve improved on many things. I don’t think that we fully engaged with our community members. Our approach was more blanket-like. In other words, we didn’t really find the crux of the off-campus renters’ problems. Maybe this could’ve been solved with more time to conduct the survey and update our Instagram page.
This experience has taught me that community journalism should be an essential part to every newsroom. If reporters don’t do some sort of investigation as to what is really happening in the community, then the stories they produce will be pointless. As said before, journalism should matter to people as it is mostly about people. If we don’t get to know our sources, then our stories will never be read. It is a symbiotic relationship that needs to be caressed.