Akilah Johnson
May 2 · 5 min read

How might we improve access and credibility in historically underserved communities: Diversity, audience engagement, and impact?

From “Unbowed: A generation of black youth in America struggle with Obama’s legacy and their future,” written and reported by Akilah Johnson, with Jan Ransom for the Boston Globe. (Photo by Keith Bedford.)

EAST PALO ALTO, CA — Ten voices. All telling the story of a city — their city, a place whose very incorporation was an act of resistance. This is a place that has seen hard times, sees them still, and yet sees success and triumph daily too.

Teens and adults. Black, white, Latinx, and Arab, their voices tell a love story full of the nuance and texture of life in East Palo Alto, a city that saw decades of demographic change — and accompanying tension — long before Facebook, Google, and Amazon became neighbors. Still, these voices have yet to break through the cacophony of news coverage telling, and reinforcing, another story about East Palo Alto, one about poverty, crime, and gentrification.

I revisited these voices this winter quarter as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, seeking to understand how news organizations can better reach communities like East Palo Alto. And the more I listened, the more I’ve become convinced that the disconnect between newsrooms and historically-underserved communities is not, at its heart, a news delivery problem that needs a technology solution. It’s also not as simple as a lack of coverage. Plenty of news organizations, from the Washington Post to the local Palo Alto papers, have done stories about East Palo Alto. The problem is parachute-in, narrow coverage that reinforces distorted narratives about traditionally-underserved communities.

Newsrooms must address a more fundamental problem: their lack of engagement with, and understanding of, communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, rural areas — or any other population historically-omitted from mainstream policy decisions and discourse.

Inspired by my conversations in East Palo Alto, I’m now focused on two questions:

How might news organizations reimagine audience engagement strategies to bring more marginalized voices into the conversation and build relationships with readers, viewers, and listeners in real life as well as online?

How might journalists find ways to measure the impact of their work that go beyond analytics and take into account the effect of story selection, framing, and phrasing?

The People

Regina Wallace-Jones told me she “left traditional news and never looked back” years ago — until she ran for public office in East Palo Alto and became a subject of news coverage. She began to notice how narrow coverage of the city was and to think about the impact news stories have on a community’s perception.

Wallace-Jones, who is now vice mayor, said she’s had interviews that felt like conversations, where the reporter was trying to build a relationship. Others were more transactional and superficial, or, as she put it, “lazy.”

East Palo Alto was incorporated in 1983 to give residents the power to determine how their community should be governed. It was a predominantly black community surrounded by richer, mostly white suburbs.

According to the state and federal figures, the city’s black population began shrinking in the 1980s, and by 2000, it was down to 23 percent while the Latinx population had grown to 59 percent. Today, about 11 percent of the city’s roughly 30,000 residents are black and 63 percent are Latinx.

Where, residents ask, are the watchdog or investigative stories about East Palo Alto? Stories about landlords and overseas buyers who allegedly prospect for homes because of the city’s proximity to big tech? Profiles of young, tech gentrifiers of color laden with student loan debt and priced out of Bay Area living too? Analysis of the residual effects of trauma on a community once deemed the “Murder Capital?”

There are two community news outlets in East Palo Alto. One is a bi-weekly newspaper, East Palo Alto Today, founded in 2006. The other, El Ravenswood, is a monthly magazine founded in 2015. Both essentially are one-person operations with minuscule budgets and little online presence, and limited resources handicaps the breadth and depth of their work.

“That’s the dilemma,” said Meda O. Okelo, who publishes El Ravenswood, which he said prints the “kind of information that never gets stale” because he can’t publish with the frequency news requires.

Still, Wallace-Jones and other residents interviewed, like Abed Rabah, said EPA’s hyperlocal news organizations are trusted sources of information because of the attention given to how stories are framed.

Rabah, who has owned commercial real estate in the city since 1986, decided several years ago to voice his concerns about development, or what he sees as a lack thereof, in East Palo Alto. And he turned to El Ravenswood, writing an opinion column in the magazine where “we get news.”

The Project

These conversations were part of a Stanford class project I was part of last fall that joined journalism and computer science students to diversify journalists’ source-lists. Our premise: Too often in the news, a regular — and limited — set of sources speak for a community instead of people in the community speaking for themselves.

Combining shoe-leather reporting and computational skills, we discovered 81 sources from diverse professions who live and/or work in East Palo Alto.

To gut check our process: We created an automated pipeline search that scrapped four local news websites that sometimes cover East Palo Alto, not including EPA Today and El Ravenswood, in early November and counted who was quoted in 50 of the most recent articles tagged EPA. Thirteen sources, most of whom were from outside the city and worked in government, nonprofits, or tech were identified.

The snapshot of who is quoted by the media, revealed two instances when someone was both quoted by the media and identified by the community as a source of information — EPA’s former mayor and an official from a neighboring city.

So the process worked, showing it’s possible to diversify reporters’ sources. But it also revealed a disconnect between the sources a community trusts and the people the news media quotes.

So, how do you create more overlap between the people in journalists’ source lists and those the community recognizes and trusts as sources of news?

First thought: Hire more journalists from these communities because, really, it’s 2019 and diversity matters. Period.

Second thought: (See questions in italics above).

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Akilah Johnson

Written by

Reporter who loves telling untold stories (read: under-reported issues & underserved communities). @JSKStanford Journalism Fellow ’19 | @BostonGlobe

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

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