Lessons in Community Engagement

What I learned during my first semester in the CUNY Social Journalism program

Now that my first semester of the CUNY #SocialJ program is over, I want to take a minute to reflect on my experience in one class in particular: Community Engagement. First, I’ll go over the idea of community engagement in general. Then I’ll talk briefly about journalistic objectivity. Finally, I’ll discuss how I’ve tried to tie community engagement into my work at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Everytime I hear someone say things like “community engagement,” “media ecosystem,” or “in this space,” my eyes immediately start to roll. To me, phrases like “community engagement” sound more like reincarnations of “synergy” than legitimate strategies for doing good journalism. After all, what’s the point of subjecting ourselves to journalism school if we’re just going to turn around and ask Average Joe how he thinks we should do the news?

That was the old me.

The new me asks a slightly different question: What’s the point of subjecting ourselves to journalism school if we’re just going to turn our backs and ignore the people and the voices who need us the most?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a time and a place for community engagement. Not every situation lends itself to the idea of crowdsourced storytelling. Sometimes the situation calls for a crusty asshole armed with nothing but a notebook and way too much time on their hands to find and tell the stories nobody’s even thinking about yet — the unknown unknowns, if you’ll pardon my Rumsfeld.

Other times, those crusty assholes get so wrapped up in their own world of words that they forget why they got into the game in the first place — service. After all, journalism is, at it’s core, a public service. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t doing journalism.

And what better way to serve the public then to start by listening to what they have to say. Instead of involving them at the end, buried in the comments section at the bottom of the page under heaps of filth, why not bring them into the game at the beginning? Which brings me to the second item I want to discuss today: bias and the myth of objectivity.

MEDIA BIAS & OBJECTIVE JOURNALISM

How can you expect someone to objectively report on a community when they begin every story by asking that community what they should cover and how they should cover it? Isn’t that the definition of biased journalism?

The answer is, obviously, yes. Of course it is. But the real question is whether journalists were ever unbiased and objective in the first place, and whether or not bias and objectivity are really as important as they’re made out to be.

Every time a reporter chooses to cover one story instead another, to use one word instead of another, or to speak to one source instead of another, they are engaging in a form of journalistic bias. When you decided that you wanted to go into journalism to uncover truth instead of going into, say, public relations in order to obscure truth, you engaged in a form of bias.

Bias is woven into the very fabric of the job itself.

So why do we care so much about one type of bias and so little about others? The answer to that question is, unfortunately, another discussion for another time. The important point here, and the one that was made by a number of my classmates in my community engagement class, is that the myths about so-called objective and unbiased journalism are no longer relevant.

Just because something is biased doesn’t mean people can’t identify that bias and account for it accordingly. It happens all the time in countries with state-run media and oppressive governments. The people learned to read the signaling in between the lines. Now that the media has become so atomized and fragmented, people are getting their news from an increasingly diverse and vast selection of sources and Outlets. The bias or perceived slant of anyone publication in particular doesn’t matter nearly as much as it might during a time when there were only six or so voices to choose from.

I think it’s much more important and useful to simply be authentic and transparent than it is to be preoccupied with maintaining some false air of evenhandedness. Tell good stories, show your work, don’t shit on people who don’t deserve it, and use oxford commas — that’s pretty much it.

GOING FORWARD

Since I’m now an expert on community engagement and authenticity — I have taken an entire class, after all — I’ve begun to implement some of the ideas we discussed in class in my work at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

The Center is primarily focused on improving the financial and professional conditions for a growing community of digital publishers in New Jersey. It’s actually a lot more complicated than it sounds. The Center helps entrepreneurial journalists and independent publishers come to terms with the violent disruptions that occurred in the media and publishing industries over the last two decades. At the same time, we are constantly looking over the horizon to see what might be coming next — and trying to figure how to survive it.

This is where the community engagement really comes in handy. Like any community, it’s hard to really know what they’re going through without at least talking to them. As a fledgling digital publisher and journalist myself, I can probably get a pretty good sense of some of the major issues the rest of the community might be facing just by looking at my own situation. But there’s no way to know whether or not my experiences are more than just my own without actually going out there and talking to people.

Right now we have a newsletter that goes out to more than 1,400 people every morning, a growing network of more than 150 media and publishing partners across the state, and an entire university full of smart people thinking about these issues, and we still don’t have all the answers. Shit, we don’t even have most of the answers — maybe we never will.

But we are collecting more questions and having better conversations by using community engagement methods.

Our Hearken module has already pulled in more than twenty questions about key issues from all corners of the state. Our Facebook group now has 122 members and is growing every day. We’re in the middle of the first and second collaborative reporting projects in the history of the Garden State. Instead of just pushing out reports and think-pieces, we’re trying to work more directly with the people we serve in order to understand and help solve the real issues they’re facing.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not applicable in every situation. But a little community engagement with your media ecosystem can go a long way, especially in this space.

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