How do we know engaging community matters?

By Bill Densmore

NewsTools: when journalism and technology intersect, Silicon Valley 2008

When journalists engage the public at the beginning of the reporting process, it helps elevate stories and issues of underrepresented audiences, a report by Journalism That Matters (JTM) concludes.

The project that produced the report was designed to give JTM insight into whether engagement matters, and in the process, pilot Outcome Harvesting for assessing the impact of an organization’s engagement work. JTM conducted in-depth interviews with conference participants to identify changes in behavior.

Journalism that matters for the 21st century, Kalamazoo 2005

Also among a half-dozen conclusions in the just-released report completed for the Seattle-based nonprofit: Engaging the public early on helps shift agenda-setting power to the public and illuminates new civic ideas.

Journalism That Matters brings together diverse stakeholders to imagine and build inclusive civic communications systems that foster vibrant democracy and thriving communities. It brings journalists out of their professional “silo” for networking with technologists, librarians, citizen journalists, media-literacy educators, researchers, and other policymakers.

Working in collaboration with the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, JTM’s most recent conference gatherings have focused on helping journalists to engage more deeply with diverse audiences. The new report is based on interviews with alumni of one or more of 21 JTM gatherings held nationwide since 2001.

The report focuses on detailed comments of six respondents, quoting and analyzing answers to a set of questions designed to understand how ideas spawned or taught at JTM events influence newsrooms and reporters.

Create or Die, Detroit 2010

“Some of our reporters now produce stories using new and different sources than they had used before,” one respondent wrote. The broadcast newsroom hosted lunch-and-conversation sessions among its reporters and the public. The result: more diverse voices. Adding the respondent: “The perspectives that are being shared in these reporters’ stories are broader, nuanced and unexpected.”

Other observations in the JTM “Outcome Harvest Report,” authored by Yve Susskind, Ph.D., of Praxis Associates, a developmental evaluator:

  • Journalism faculty who participated in the JTM events began incorporating community-engagement skills into teaching and projects.
  • Public engagement by reporters early in the reporting process redraws the geographic and racial boundaries of national conversations and helps with telling stories of underrepresented audiences in sensitive, accurate ways.
  • Citizen journalists who are part of the engagement process practice at a more professional level and are better able to engage complex and controversial issues.
  • Community groups engaged with journalists tend to focus less on grievances and more on communication and community-supporting action.

One of the people who helped prepare the report, JTM cofounder Stephen Silha, a former journalist and foundation executive, said research for the report and participation in multiple JTM events document these changes among participants:

  • Philosophical and theoretical shifts in their approach to reporting
  • Acknowledgement of the importance of including unheard voices, including youth and people of color
  • More encouraging of innovation and experimentation
  • A willingness to attempt deeper community engagement and practice
  • Less fear of tackling “gnarly problems”
  • Commitment to transparency in the news-storytelling process
  • A connection between journalism and community vision.

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Bill Densmore is a board member of Journalism That Matters and executive director of the Information Trust Exchange Governing Association (itega.org).