Engagement Reflection: Renting Community at Stony Brook University

My definition of community engagement would be connecting a group of people with a similar characteristic with journalists to build relationships that can help with gathering information and developing story ideas. The goal would be to bring attention to issues or topics that may not easily be identifiable within the community that a journalist is trying to reach. It is also trying to identify effective ways in which you can share these stories and to whom you can share these stories to.

At the beginning of this project my definition of community engagement was more narrow. I thought that it was just a group of people who have similar characteristics that you would like to talk to as sources, but this is only half of what community engagement really is.

An interesting engagement tool that I reviewed for my interaction assignments was the City Bureau Public Newsroom. Once a week their office would be open for journalists and the public to gather and discuss local issues, share resources, knowledge and learn to report and investigate stories. There would be guest speakers and workshops they would host and it serves both journalists of all levels and the public because they are able to share what they think is important and play a role in the community’s news in the media. I think that if this was more widespread, it would build more trust between journalists and the public and allow under-covered stories and communities to have a voice in the media. I think it would also help the media because when people have an impact in the stories they see or read, you get more people who will watch or read those stories.

Of all the readings we have done in class, the one that I was most interested in was “Tell us your story. We’re listening” written by Melissa DiPento about social journalism. This article touches on something that all the other articles touch on in one way or another, but in this article it is done more deliberately. It says that we as journalists always start with an assumption that we know the story and we report based on the preconceived conclusions about the community we are trying to tell the story about. In a way I think our engagement project has also taught me this. Although it was done subconsciously, I realized that we made assumptions about the community we were trying to tell a story about that skewed the way we looked at things and how we thought of the questions to ask. This quote from the article spoke to me the most because it is when I realized how much I have done this as a reporter, but also how many times I was wrong when I truly stopped to listen to community members. They are the ones who really know.

“For me to truly, humbly listen to what my community wanted, I had to strip away the greatest barrier between us: my ego. It meant surrendering to the reality that I knew nothing, but not in a deflated way.” -Jennifer Deseo

We arrived at our project idea of engaging with the community of Stony Brook University students who rent off campus housing because of the vacancies in the newly built buildings on campus and issues with housing being over capacity over the past couple of years. This was personally interesting to me because I live in one of these new buildings-Chavez Hall- and this semester, Spring 2017, I have noticed that many of the suites are empty or under capacity. The Residence Hall Director even had meetings with us encouraging us to tell people to move into the new buildings. The 8 semester rule that has been enforced for a long time has also be suspended until further notice so that students who have been attending school here past 8 semesters can now live on campus.

I was one of the reporters on the team for this project. We discussed ideas as a group and our findings, but my main job was to find the people we needed and talk to them about issues that related to the findings in our survey as well as any other issues the individuals were willing to discuss about their experience renting off campus. I also had to come back and report to the team any difficulties there were or any improvements I felt our survey questions needed or clarifications that we could make when reporting or continuing in our project.

The first week we discussed as a group our initial plan of action and divided the work and responsibilities as organized as possible. The reporters and the team made a draft of survey questions based on our research, previously reported stories about this community and anecdotes we have heard from people within this community. From there we edited the questions and they were placed into a survey to be distributed. I shared the survey on Stony Brook student pages and my personal page on Facebook in order to try to extend the reach of the survey and get more responses.

The next few weeks we took the feedback we received in class about how we can improve and narrowed down our survey questions to three overarching questions that we received a lot of similar feedback about in our first survey. I shared the survey with a few of the people I knew who rented off campus to get an idea of how they felt about our phrasing of questions or anything we could improve on. They said that the questions were a little scattered and the survey itself was too long and personal so with that feedback we narrowed the survey down to three multiple choice questions.

In class we decided on the execution of our final project. We wanted to create an Instagram page in the style of Humans of New York containing a quote about the individual’s experience living off campus and the difficulties they have. The questions were tailored to cover the basis of our survey so that the project as a whole would be as cohesive as possible. As a reporter, I tried to find people who were willing to tell their story and also allow me to photograph them or provide a photograph of themselves along with one of their living space. Many people were hesitant because of personal issues like they didn’t look good that day or they didn’t like photographs, but some were willing to talk to me and send a picture or two. We tried to resolve that issue in class by asking them to send a picture of an object in their home if they were not comfortable sharing a photo of themselves or their living space. The final week I found a few more people with more in depth stories that we are using as the main characters of our final piece.

While reporting, I noticed that we underestimated the size of our community. There are many students who live off campus and commute, but they may not necessarily be renting. Many of the people we encountered when reporting were commuters who lived at home with their parents or family without paying rent. This made it hard for us when reaching out to groups or going to places where they convene to report because we had to be very specific in telling them who we were looking for to get the most accurate representation of the community we are trying to connect with. I think that we could have improved by spending more time on finding more effective ways to narrow down how we could find the people we needed for this project.

The skills I see that are needed in the newsroom for a reporter based on the experience that I had with this project, is the long term training of a reporter to realize quickly and to be conscious of the assumptions they may be making before reporting in the story. This is more of a developed intuitive skill, but is definitely necessary in a newsroom. In terms of technical skills, I think it would help to get training in finding tools that we can use to narrow down the community of people we are trying to reach in terms of sourcing and training to learn how to break down or analyze data in effective ways. This actually made me realize that data journalism can play a large role in reporting about communities. You can use data to find hidden stories sometimes or narrow down specific people you may need to tell the story more effectively.

Thank you to Raghava Lakshminarayana for editing.