Lessons and hopes six years post-launch of the first MA in engagement journalism

The pace of change in newsrooms is slow, but our students and alumni are getting more creative and radical to meet the moment and involve communities in their work

Members of the class of 2019 at Hearken’s Engagement Innovation Summit.

In January 2015, a brave group of about a dozen students joined our first engagement journalism cohort at the Newmark J-School at CUNY.

We were full of conviction that journalists must put the needs of the communities it serves at the center of its work if we want a sustainable and equitable future for news, but we were, and still are, figuring out how a graduate program can best prepare students for this challenging fight for industry transformation.

We’ve learned a lot since then, especially from our own students, who have done so many creative engagement projects, from “prison food diaries” crowdsourced from incarcerated people and adapted for both Instagram and a ‘zine, to a interactive theatrical performance for/with immigrant women impacted by domestic violence. And from our alumni, who are doing important and meaningful work at places like Reuters, Resolve Philly, NBC News, THE CITY, Solutions Journalism Network, The Intercept, and more.

Six very fast-moving years later, we are introducing a new name for our program, once known as social journalism. We believe that engagement is now a better recognized term in the industry today, and this change will avoid a common misconception that we *only* teach social media. Here are a few of the things we have learned thus far.

The Class of 2019’s Mekdela Maskal shares her work on food apartheid in Brooklyn.

Putting the community’s needs at the center of your work will mean addressing injustice and the failings of objectivity in journalism

While this wasn’t a surprise, we were quickly affirmed of the importance of this aspect of the work, and pushed by our students to grapple more directly and fiercely with inequities in journalism.

From the outset of our program, we have spent a lot of time talking about the failures and complexities of “objectivity” as traditionally practiced in journalism. As many others have written, an insistence that a journalist can remain free of all forms of bias has served to thinly obscure editorial agendas that are primarily white and male, and fuels a tendency to “both sides” every issue regardless of larger truths. Centering the needs of people affected by issues like police violence or incarceration isn’t necessarily advocacy, it’s just putting a different set of interests at the forefront — although advocacy committed with transparency in journalism is also not a bad thing.

The publication of key works, which are now required reading in our program, helped us to better understand and have informed discussions of these issues; I highly recommend The View From Somewhere by Lewis Raven Wallace and A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists by Wesley Lowery to any journalism student.

Thanks to our students, we learned to pay even more attention to the diversity of our speakers, and they also helped me to realize that we had drifted a little too far into focusing on skills and away from the kinds of deeper discussions we needed to have to help them interrogate how their own assumptions could affect their work; we adjusted syllabi as a result.

The Class of 2021 learns from guest speaker Carla Murphy during Community Engagement class over Zoom.

As engagement journalism continues to grow and evolve in newsrooms, we’ve seen awareness of this imperative for journalists to center the perspectives of communities directly affected by injustice gain force. Leading the way are movement journalists, led by Press On, a Southern media collective. In this overdue moment of reckoning over racial inequities in journalism, this work is clearly needed. We are hopeful that it continues to make inroads and that many of our students will be among those helping.

Engagement Journalism Can be Hard to Define. Maybe That Is Okay?

Journalists hate “buzzwords” and strive for clear, concise, easily understandable definitions. This is a good thing. But now and then a concept will arise that is important but also…complex. Engagement is, unfortunately, one of those things. It can mean things to different people who have different goals or backgrounds. And although it represents a challenge to traditional journalism, it isn’t always in complete opposition to every single aspect of how journalism has always been practiced.

One of my favorite definitions comes from Lindsay Green-Barber:

Engaged journalism is an inclusive practice that prioritizes the information needs and wants of the community members it serves, creates collaborative space for the audience in all aspects of the journalistic process, and is dedicated to building and preserving trusting relationships between journalists and the public.

If I could dictate consensus on a definition I would probably choose that or something close to it. But I can’t; engagement exists in kind of a continuum in our industry today. This continuum can sometimes act as a kind of funnel, in which journalists gradually move through stages that bring them closer to the people they serve.

Social media was particularly important to most newsrooms’ early engagement efforts because for the first time, it was relatively easy for audiences to talk back to us. Reporters and editors who rarely had to even consider whether anyone outside of their own sources and power brokers were actually reading their stories suddenly were increasingly confronted with this awareness. Although efforts to empower the public to inform editorial agendas predates the Internet, the advent of digital media and its upending of business models forced a greater attentiveness to the audience.

For some in the industry today, the term “engagement” is still mostly about audience growth. It requires a sophisticated understanding of metrics and crafting headlines for SEO and producing shareable social media content. It is very attuned to understanding audience attitudes and behaviors. And it is important to the financial sustainability of many news organizations.

Engagement also goes much further than this, however. It can also mean “engagement reporting” in which news organizations crowdsource information from the public through carefully crafted callouts and conduct information needs assessments or host public forums to help drive their editorial priorities. Engagement journalists also go beyond storytelling to ensure information reaches the people that need it, sending text messages or postcards or developing fliers or even comedy shows. And some innovators like City Bureau in Chicago go even further to actively involve community members in the process of reporting on government meetings and discussing coverage and plans.

A challenge for an academic program, then, is how do you prepare students for a field that is constantly changing and in which job descriptions with “engagement” in the title can vary widely?

The answer, for us, has been trying to give students a range of skills that will allow them to function effectively across this continuum. We teach social media skills and metrics strategies, but also courses that ask them to experiment with a variety of listening strategies and ways of distributing information to produce impact. And of course, we try to be sure they understand the core skills of reporting, writing and multimedia production, because those are still a key value add for journalists. Doing all of this is challenging, and especially fitting it all in to a reasonable degree time frame.

But what we are finding is that our alumni are well-positioned to enter the field in a variety of roles and different kinds of organizations, depending on what fits their interests, and then once-hired, continue to push the organization to think even more boldly and creatively about engagement.

Engagement Journalism Alum John Philip seen live on CNN speaking about his work on gun control.

In general, then, being flexible or nuanced about how engagement is defined can allow young journalists greater entry points or opportunities to grow in their careers. Some students may also ultimately work at the intersections of editorial, product, and business, thanks to their deep knowledge of community interests; this is why we also teach courses in entrepreneurship and product development.

As someone who wrote a Master’s thesis (gulp) 20 years ago about the civic journalism movement, which similarly sought to involve people as participants instead of spectators in the democratic process, advocating for change in journalism can feel like a Sisyphean task. But I see encouraging signs that this time of crisis is catalyzing the growth of the kinds of newsrooms we need, like City Bureau, Oaklandside, Resolve Philly, Outlier Media, News 414, and more….and even a job posting for a “public square editor” at the New York Times.

While there is still plenty of resistance to engagement journalism work, and some who will accept nothing less than elusive “proof” that it will solve all of journalism’s problems before it becomes a worthwhile endeavor, I see signs that even some of the most stalwart defenders of the status quo are starting to recognize that if we continue down the current path we might lose democracy itself.

It’s not an easy time to be a journalist in this country. But this work has never been more important, and I hope that our students will continue to build the kinds of journalism we need.

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MA students building new ways to engage communities at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY

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Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

Engagement journalism director at Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in NYC.

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