Listening is a Revolutionary Act: Part 1
Applying the methods of international media development to the local news crisis in the United States
This is part 1 of a two-part series on building deeply local community media. Go to part 2.
In 2002, about six years into my reporting career, I was hired to teach journalism to high school students as part of a public radio diversity initiative. For two years I went a couple of Fridays a month to Queen of Peace, a Catholic girls school on the outer reaches of Chicago’s Western side that was a mixture of students from working class black, hispanic, and white neighborhoods. My project was inserted into their regular Biology class, and my job was to get them to document environmental issues in their neighborhoods. I sent them off with microphones, and questions, expecting to hear about things like water pollution, greenspace, and bird migration. What came back at me was an insightful window into their communities and a much broader interpretation of environment than I think the project creators had intended. Gang violence, noise pollution (from nearby Midway airport), step-parents, and public transit all came back at me under the “environment” umbrella.
I had a front-row seat for what it was like to live in their neighborhoods, places that, as a journalist, I might normally spend a day or two covering, and then move on. I realized I wanted to do more than just drop in on a community, do an interview, and leave. I wanted to engage communities in a longer term, more meaningful way, not just as subjects, but also as diverse, unique audiences.
While this concept was catching on in smaller ways in the US, I discovered it was a full-blown industry abroad, known as international media development, driven mostly by non-profits, dedicated to creating information pathways for communities isolated by poverty, war, and natural disasters. I jumped on-board this trend and headed to work in Peru, then Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and a host of other places around the world.
Information as Humanitarian Aid:
Sri Lanka is where I really began to see why community engagement and information access are such essential elements to good media practice. I arrived in late December, 2007, when the island’s decades old civil war had just restarted. Thousands of Tamil families in the North and East of the island were on the run, searching for safety as government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels battled. Many Tamils, around 20% of the population, felt like second-class citizens in their own country, regardless of their stance on the war. Now many of them were homeless, and in need of basic resources, including information.
I was hired by Internews, an international non-profit media development organization, to help recruit and train a team of Sri Lankan reporters. We responded to the needs of the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) by creating a humanitarian newswire. Lifeline was a weekly radio show and newspaper that did two things: document the needs and experiences of people caught between government and rebel forces, and share highly relevant “news-you-can-use” (such as where to find food, shelter, how to get a job, how to stay safe, how to keep kids healthy) with that same group of people and try to answer their most urgent questions.
Through Lifeline we were getting information from our target audience, and then giving information back to them that reflected their needs, creating what media developers like to call a “two-way conversation.” Even more importantly, at a very basic level, we were listening to our audience, literally driving up to 12 hours to their communities to sit, record, and hear people tell their stories. And we repeated this every few weeks, so that we became familiar, trusted faces.
Developing Media in the US
After more than a year in Sri Lanka, I was back in the United States, and with a grant from Stanford University started a tour of some of the more than 50 tribal radio stations in the country. They are the information “lifelines” for some of the most isolated and underdeveloped communities in the US. While visiting KIDE, the radio station run by the Hoopa Valley tribe in Northern California, I was telling station manager Joe Orozco about my work in Sri Lanka. He wanted to know why I was developing media halfway across the world when communities like his would benefit from similar work. He was right.
“He wanted to know why I was developing media halfway across the world when communities like his would benefit from similar work. He was right.”
It might sound a bit strange to deploy humanitarian information strategies generally reserved for regions prone to war, extreme poverty, and humanitarian disasters, here in the US, but the reality is, we sorely need those strategies.
There are millions of Americans who lack access to basic resources, including information that might improve their situations. The West is also seeing an explosion of diversity and a growing income gap. A lot of people are connected, even arguably over-connected to information networks, but many communities are still left out of the conversation.
Meeting People Where They Are
Go to your public library on any given weekday and head to the computer lab — chances are it will be full. According to census data, most households with an income less than $20,000 don’t have internet access at home. Local newspapers around the country have cutting newsroom staff and rely on counting clicks to justify their coverage. Public radio is great content, but traditionally reaches a very specific and narrow audience: white, upper middle class, and highly educated listeners. And thanks to mass consolidation and job cuts at the most traditional information outposts, media deserts have popped up, leaving communities with diminished coverage of schools, employment, housing, local politics and more. On the flip-side, thanks in part to a government subsidized program, most people have cell-phones, and a certain amount of freedom to send text messages and even get online.
So there’s a need for some new, innovative thinking on how to make sure communities get the basic information needed to participate in society. The kind of innovative thinking that’s traditionally thought of as being a hallmark of international media development work, like the kind Internews does in more than 40 countries.
Building Lifelines to Crucial Community Information
In the interest of creating a kind of Lifeline in the US, a version of the humanitarian news project I worked on in Sri Lanka, I headed to New Orleans, a city that can relate, more than most, to some of the struggles of the developing world.
In this majority-black city, black males have some of the highest incarceration rates and unemployment rates in the country. Post-Katrina development has been epic, but uneven in terms of who benefits from it. Tourism is high in this historic city, but so is crime.
I spent a few weeks in New Orleans as a reporter in 2011, covering the topic of blight and Katrina recovery for Time.com. What I saw as I interviewed people squatting in rotting homes was humbling, and it reminded me of things I’d seen more of abroad. I felt like I needed to adjust my human lens to see my own country a little more clearly.
With some seed funding and support from Internews, I headed to New Orleans in July, 2013, and started the Listening Post, a media community engagement project. My goal was to take some of what I’d learned abroad, and apply it here, in the United States, and see what kind of impact the humanitarian information model might have.
Jesse Hardman is a reporter and community media developer based in New Orleans. He’s worked on projects for Internews since 2007 in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Chile, and Tunisia.