Listening Starter Pack for New Social Journalists

Some community exercises for journalism students

Many journalism professors increasingly realize that they need to teach more than just traditional reporting skills. Yes, it’s important to learn how to do your research, ask tough questions, mine documents and data, and develop expert sources. But as we teach in the social journalism program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, students need to learn how to listen to and understand a community’s needs early in their education.

My colleague Miguel Paz teaches data journalism courses here at CUNY, and he asked me to put together a kind of “starter pack” for community listening exercises for students to begin with. Here are some simple ideas, and here is a place to go for more resources.

  1. Begin by going to events in your community NOT to report on them, but to start meeting people. Observe, and as appropriate, introduce yourself. Borrow from our anthropology friends and pretend you are there to do an ethnography rather than a specific story. Don’t bring a list of questions, just a notebook. Notice how people interact with each other. Pay attention to body language and physical details. Once you’ve been there for a while, ask people why there are there, what is on their mind, and/or what is bothering them. You can tailor what you ask and how you approach this depending on the community, but the point is to throw out your assumptions and begin to learn what your community cares about.
  2. Set up a listening post. Public media journalist Jesse Hardman outlines exactly how he did this in New Orleans in this piece. In brief: Choose a place where people in your community or beat gather and may have some extra time on their hands — it may take some research and legwork before you find a good spot. Perhaps near a park, library or church on the weekends, for example. Stake out a spot and/or set up a table, and put up a sign with simple but compelling prompt, and invite people to come talk to you about something they feel passionate about.
  3. Listening via social media. Find out what social network(s) are most popular with your community, if any, and develop some lists of people/organizations. Then, get in the habit of simply checking in and following the feeds of these people/orgs for around 10 minutes each day or a similar routine. You don’t have a specific agenda in doing this, but you are looking for influencers, better understanding group norms, and developing your knowledge of problems or frustrations people have. Don’t just think of this in terms of story ideas that you know will impress your editors and get lots of clicks, although you can find those. Look for underlying problems.
  4. Organize a small event with around four to six people either in the newsroom or at a local coffee shop or similar spot. You can focus on a specific issue, but keep the early questions broad. People don’t always think about the issues that affect their lives in the same way as politicians and journalists do; for example, neighborhoods with a crime problem may be more interested in after-school programs that keep youth productively occupied than increased law enforcement. Remember that what is important to you as a journalist might not be what’s important to the community. Suspending (though not eliminating) our ideas about what needs to be covered and what a community’s goals may be is important.
  5. Solicit questions rather than answers in your community. When you get a good one, involve the person that asked it in some way in your reporting process. There is a great tool, Hearken, you can use to do this, but you can get started just by asking people.