How journalism can be more collaborative

Sarah Shourd
Jun 3 · 5 min read
Sarah Shourd and Mike Schaff on the former plantation he grew up on in Louisiana.

A year ago I boarded a plane to rural Louisiana looking for a story, and I ended up finding an audience.

Or, I guess I should say, a new approach to audience. I was flying to meet a man named Mike Schaff, who sometimes goes by the nickname Swampy Dog. Mike’s an environmentalist who doesn’t believe in climate change, a belief-system combination I previously didn’t know existed. In fact, before I spent three days driving around with Mike in his small town and drinking beer on his couch, my story about those who reject mainstream climate science could be summed up with two words, “ignorant” and “wrong.” Mike was neither.

Let me explain. Mike’s an oilman. He worked his way out of poverty only to have his dream life destroyed when his town was partly swallowed up by a gigantic sinkhole. A company called Texas Brine used a cavern under Bayou Corne to mix and store a thick salt paste used in the oil refining process. When one of the cavern’s walls collapsed — authorities suspect from over drilling — a sinkhole opened up, swallowing acres of water and trees and releasing toxic fumes into the community. Mike’s town was evacuated and the Environmental Protection Agency did almost nothing to help. Still a climate doubter skeptical of big government, Mike was now a converted, committed environmentalist.

I came to interview Mike for an episode of my podcast, “Of Two Minds,” which puts two people in conversation with very different views on a subject to try to understand the nature of their difference. In a sense I came wanting to write an episode about Mike, but I left wanting to write to him.

Or at least understand him. I’m not saying the only people I wanted to reach now were Libertarian, tree-hugging fishermen — that would be a pretty small audience. I’m saying I left Bayou Corne wanting to know my audience, well, before putting pen to paper (or voice to tape). Instead of finding an interesting story, pursuing it relentlessly, and hoping the right audience would come, I wanted to start with the people I was trying to reach and work backwards. In a nutshell, I wanted my journalism to become collaborative.

I’ve heard a lot of journalists say that when they think of their audience they try to imagine someone they know. It could be a friend from high school or the guy that works at Trader Joe’s, someone they can easily conjure up, someone they think they “get.” The problem with this habit is that it largely keeps the stories we tell limited to the bubbles we live in and the frames we’re used to. We write stories about climate change to people who are already alarmed — often to the point of paralysis — about climate change. The people who read these articles and repost them might not know a single person who isn’t worried about climate change, and if they do, they have already given up on talking to them about it.

Since my trip to Louisiana, I’ve had a year at Stanford as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow to explore this new approach to audience, and hash out what it might look like in practice. I’ve come up with three steps.

First, in order to reach an audience from a very different social, economic, cultural and ideological bubble than our own, you have to start with yourself. In order to see outside your own limited frame you have to know who you are. You have to know how you think, your own blindspots and biases, as well as the intersecting events, experiences and ideas that have shaped your worldview. To get there, you have to have done a ton of self-scrutiny and have received a ton of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of contexts.

I’ve had a life of constantly pushing myself (and being pushed) outside my frame. It doesn’t hurt that I grew up being taught to question everything and to question myself. This has left me with the ability to drop my own perspective, or frame, pretty quickly, to try on another one. It’s made me a storyteller.

Next, after scrutinizing yourself, you interview your audience, extensively. At the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, the d.school, they call this “starting with the user.” For me, as a journalist, this means starting at the finish line, with the people you’re trying to reach, and working backwards. You don’t just imagine your audience, you get to know them very, very, well. Who needs this story the most? How do they explain what’s going on? What words, ideas and information do they use to frame it?

Third, and last, once you have a strong grasp of both your audience’s frame and your own, you’re ready to leave them both behind. Now that you’ve become fluent in multiple frames, you look for a way to tell the story that weaves them together into a complex narrative, one that builds on and transcends the frames you’ve taken such pains to identify.

In Mike’s case, I quickly learned that even the mention of “climate change” put him on the defense. For him, the phrase evokes the condescension he’s felt his entire life from politicians, liberals and environmentalists, and maybe even taps into some underlying feelings of shame left over from growing up poor. Mike shared a story, for example, about being spit on by leftist protestors after he came back from the Vietnam War — not a great association.

After the sinkhole that destroyed Bayou Corne opened up, Mike might have been immediately labeled a “traitor” by his neighbors if he started framing the problems his community was facing — pollution and an alarmingly high cancer rate — as contributing to or in any way being connected to climate change. Those words, that frame, were unproductive and actually harmful for advancing his cause. Mike wanted to improve people’s lives and reduce suffering by forcing companies to adhere to strict environmental regulations. Instead of focusing on climate change, Mike and I started talking about the solutions he saw available in his context, not mine.

I approached my conversations with Mike by being very open about my background and my reasons for being there, and it soon became clear that Mike wasn’t so much my subject as he was a collaborator. The way to win his trust was to show him respect, and to convince him that my intentions were solid, that my exploration of his life and community would not only benefit me, or the people who would listen to my podcast, but that it would benefit his community as well.

By building on what’s already there, journalism can give people the stories and information that they need to make the most informed choices, not just a cookie-cutter, one-size-sits-all version of truth. We contribute to creating, strengthening and sustaining communities of action, not by telling people how to solve their own problems but by looking at their problems through as many lenses as possible.

Once we know our audience well — and have honed the ability to recognize our own limited perspectives — there’s nothing stopping us from telling stories that destabilize both our audience’s blindspots and assumptions, and our own. But before we decide what the story is, we need to know the people we’re telling it to. We need to be able to articulate their frame before we can challenge it, and create a new one.

JSK Class of 2019

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

Sarah Shourd

Written by

Multi-media, narrative-focused journalist using the tools of fiction to humanize and bring facts to life. Currently a @JSKstanford fellow. Sshourd@stanford.edu.

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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