Uncertainty and civic curiosity: How 6 newsrooms are using Hearken to serve their audiences in Trump’s America

Journalists are tackling the public’s questions about immigration, refugees, “the wall,” regional political divides, state legislatures, and simply how government works.

Julia Haslanger
Feb 3, 2017 · 6 min read

From coast to coast (and even across the pond), we’ve seen our partner newsrooms step into the political uncertainty of the past weeks to help audience members get answers to their questions. Based on what we’re seeing and hearing for newsrooms, the supply of questions far outweighs the answers easily available to the public.

This is an important time for journalists to step up. Here’s how six newsrooms are helping their audiences make sense of the confusion and uncertainty around the issues they care most about, by simply listening and responding to audience questions.

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1A: Collecting and answering questions around Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees

1A, a new national show from WAMU and NPR, began collecting questions about President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration after seeing the protests sprout up at airports across the U.S. The order was signed on Friday, and 1A started collecting questions on Saturday morning. Questions started pouring in, and the protests were continuing to attract attention throughout Saturday. 1A then broadcast answers to those questions in a special Sunday show carried by many NPR stations — even though 1A’s usual time slot is on weekday mornings.

“When developments are happening so quickly, and when there is confusion around them, it’s good to find out what people are wondering about,” senior producer Gabe Bullard says. “We have our own questions but knowing where our audience’s curiosity is is valuable. It’s a good way of gauging how we can steer the conversation to be most informative.”

For the producers of the show, gathering the questions in advance also helped calm one worry they had about doing a special weekend broadcast — it gave them questions to address even if no one called in live. That didn’t end up being the case (lots of callers), but the submitted questions helped focus the show’s direction, and several did get read and addressed on-air. The questions that came in were a mix of big questions (is this executive order legal?), more pointed questions (does this order conflict with this other law, or affect this specific group of people?), and then personal stories.

When asked whether 1A would consider doing a similar special broadcast again in the face of mass confusion (and thus curiosity) about a news topic, Gabe said: “Short answer: yes. We need to be adaptable and ready.”

New Hampshire Public Radio’s new Civics 101 podcast takes listener questions about government

The crew at NHPR launched a new podcast, Civics 101, on inauguration day. The show aims to be a “straightforward guide to understanding our complicated democracy.” As the host explains in the latest episode, the idea for the show “came about because we wanted to own up to a sad but maybe relatable truth: that democracy is complicated and while we recognize the terminology, we may not really understand it.”

The producers chose to use Hearken to invite their audience into the process, to hear what questions they had about government, and see how those questions can guide the topics they cover in future episodes.

The original idea was to produce one episode per week in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. But something exciting happened. First, the podcast really made a national splash and started moving up the charts in iTunes. Then listeners started sending in great questions. So, in the third episode (which came out on Tuesday), host Virginia Prescott announced that in order to respond to this outpouring of curiosity, they’re going to start producing episodes more frequently! (And, in proof of that, they released another new episode on Thursday.)

The response to Civics 101 tells us that curiosity is at a remarkably high level across the country as people seek to be more active participants in civic life. People are hungry for this kind of accessible, non-wonky information about how government operates. As the host said at the end of yesterday’s episode: “Nothing lights the fire for learning like a sudden shakeup of tradition.”

BBC answers reader questions about Trump’s promised wall between Mexico and the U.S.

In Trump’s first week as president, he signed an executive order about creating a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border. On the stories the BBC wrote that day about the executive order, it asked its audience: “What do you want to know about President Trump’s plans to construct a wall between the United States and Mexico?” Within a day, the BBC’s Washington correspondent answered a dozen of those questions.

KCRW hosted an event about “the uncertain future of immigrants in Southern California”

Ahead of an event called “Undocumented Under Trump,” KCRW asked its Santa Barbara audience “What question do you have about the future of undocumented immigrants under Trump?

On Jan. 25, the station convened a panel with an immigration attorney, an undocumented immigrant, the local sheriff, and an agricultural law attorney.

You can listen to how that conversation played out here.

KUNC’s “Divided Colorado” project aims to create bridges of understanding

After the election, KUNC says it took a look at how people voted county-by-county and concluded “Colorado is a complex, diverse place. We want to do a better job of representing it.” The station launched “Divided Colorado,” a project where they’ll take questions from one side of a political issue to someone on the other side of that issue, in an effort to “help both sides of the issue reach an understanding, even if they don’t agree.”

KUT invites Texans to shape how they cover the Texas Legislature

During the campaign last fall, KUT partnered with five other stations to collect and answer questions about voting and politics in Texas. That project, Texas Decides, was such a hit that the newsrooms decided to re-launch it again in 2017 as a way to make sure they’re continuing to hear from their audience. This time, rather than focusing on candidates, campaigns and elections, the focus is on the state Capitol, because as KUT admits, “lawmaking in Texas is pretty complicated.”

Just like we saw with New Hampshire Public Radio’s Civics 101 podcast, people have an appetite for answers to their questions about how the government operates. Journalists are recognizing and using their unique position to be sense-makers in these confusing times.

Thanks to these newsrooms and all our newsrooms for inspiring us (and inspiring each other).

If you’re interested in learning about how to become a Hearken partner newsroom, let us know.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Julia Haslanger

Written by

Journalism nerd exploring audience engagement, analytics and newsrooms. My path so far: WI ▹ Mizzou ▹ CO ▹ DC ▹ NYC ▹ Chicago. Engagement consultant at Hearken.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/