Kevin Loker
Apr 24, 2018 · 4 min read

The Tennessean’s work to listen to alienated and neglected audiences shows how to start

Printers Alley in Nashville, TN, where the American Press Institute began its summit on listening in news

The Knight Commission is holding a public meeting in Nashville, Tennessee on Friday, April 27. Details here: http://as.pn/knightnashville. Ask the Knight Commission a question via Hearken: https://kng.ht/2HWch3Y

At the American Press Institute, we think an important element in re-building trust — or building it for the first time — is to start by listening. We need to hear the real-life concerns and criticisms of our communities, especially those who may feel alienated or neglected.

That was the foundation for a Thought Leader Summit we held in Nashville, TN at the end of March. Our goals were two-fold:

1) Gather approximately 50 journalists who are pioneering ways to help news organizations better listen to the needs and criticisms of their communities (and in some cases, facilitating dialogue across divides).

2) Help participants — and eventually the wider industry — learn how they might build more of news organizations’ work upon active listening.

We chose Nashville for our venue out of admiration for the evolving listening work at The Tennessean, including its opinion and engagement director, David Plazas.

David wrote about The Tennessean’s work to listen to alienated and neglected audiences as part an essay collection on listening and trust that API published earlier this year. We’re excerpting it below and encourage the Knight Trust Commission to consider its themes as it meets in Nashville this week as well:

Brave civil rights activists, black and white, defied Jim Crow in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s by sitting at whites-only lunch counters.

They knew they would encounter hostile workers and patrons. Many of the protesters were arrested. However, their efforts eventually led to end legalized segregation.

Today that legacy is commemorated in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, overlooking a downtown intersection near where segregation protests took place. On the wall of that room is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

It was a perfect setting for some of our modern-day Tennessean staff to gather and wrestle with issues of diversity and inclusion that still affect our staffing and coverage today.

Our top editor Michael A. Anastasi tasked me with the responsibility of forming and leading a new Diversity and Inclusion Task Force just a few weeks before.

He wanted to send a strong message to staff and the community that we would be intentional about and committed to discussions on racial, ethnic and ideological diversity in our coverage and our newsroom staffing that would welcome all our journalists and yield tangible results. We not only had support from the top, but direct access to Michael as well as to Brent Jones, who was USA TODAY’s standards editor.

Over the next several months we met with very different community groups — young American Muslims and older gun owners — created a nationally recognized series on affordable housing and its impact, especially on working class African Americans; and tackled some tough discussions, such as, how we cover white supremacists in the post-Charlottesville era.

The task force met for the first time in 2018 on Jan. 11 and discussed programming for the year, including reaching out to veterans, disabled residents, Evangelicals, the transgender community and disenfranchised voters.

David goes on to describe benefits that came from setting aside time to listen to both Muslims and gun owners in Nashville. In addition to gaining new and deeper connections to those populations, the newsroom heard important feedback to to help improve its journalism. Local Muslims want to be seen not just in stories about Islam or terrorism, but for their roles in local education, transportation and more. Gun owners have more nuanced views about carrying weapons than they believe are regularly characterized in the press.

The Tennessean’s small group discussions with gun owners in Nashville. (David Plazas / The Tennessean)

These are the kinds of conversations newsrooms can have with communities that distrust media. The first step in any good relationship is hearing one another — and it can help improve our craft, too.

Read David Plazas’ essay in full here. Our Nashville summit was organized with the help of Cole Goins, a community engagement consultant and former director of community engagement at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and we are currently in process of distilling takeaways into a resource for newsrooms that want to base more of their work on listening.

The American Press Institute helps transform news organizations for an audience-focused future. Read more about our mission here, or sign up for our Need to Know newsletter, a daily curation of fresh insights for journalists working to create more innovative and sustainable journalism. Addressing issues around trust in journalism is an important element of API’s work, and in the coming months we will be publishing more on how news organizations and journalists can take active roles in improving their ties with the people they want to serve.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Kevin Loker

Written by

Journalism research and partnerships @AmPress.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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