Don’t be an Askhole: Toward an ethical framework for engagement

How might newsrooms create an ethical framework around their engagement work, similar to a code of conduct for staff relationships? “Engagement” is becoming more central to newsroom revenue models, and with it comes a lot of thorny issues that start with the question: “why exactly are you trying to engage the public?” If the answer doesn’t include “to learn and in-turn create more useful content for the public” than it’s worth interrogating the purpose of that work and the forces at play calling for something else. The following is the beginning of a draft of such a framework, drawn from a SRCCON 2018 workshop led by Jennifer Brandel of Hearken and Andrew Haeg of GroundSource. This piece is co-authored.

Session notes & resources | Live transcript

We commonly think of being ethical as not doing bad things. “Don’t be evil” might be the mantra of a defensive, passive form of ethical behavior. But really, ethics are more kinetic than that — ethics are an active guide for helping us determine what behavior is good for individuals and for society, vs simply being not bad.

It’s a code of conduct meant to guide daily behavior, not a line in the sand we shouldn’t cross.

Ethics are especially important when the norms or practice in a space are changing fast. We need guideposts, a string that we can hold onto as we grope in the darkness for new ways of doing things and new ways of relating to each other.

And so it is with journalism, where many professionals around the world are reorienting their work from a one-way broadcast to a two-way exchange. “Engagement” is the word we use to describe this new way of doing things.

But whereas we have long-held standards for sourcing journalism, strict guidelines for what is on the record and off, codes of conduct around attribution, plagiarism, and more — we have no such codes for developing and maintaining relationships with the public we serve.

What promises are we making to communities when we tell them we’re listening? How do we live up to our commitments to stay engaged over time? Who are we leaving out when we seek to reach out to communities? How do we know if we’re providing a fair trade for their valuable contributions?

Ethics begin with how we treat each other as individuals, so as part of our SRCCON workshop exploring this framework, we started by exploring answers to the questions: “What makes a good relationship? What are the actions people take in good relationships?” Participants jotted down those actions of their friends, colleagues, family members and more. Actions includes things like: always responding to text messages, listening without judgment, being there for them in a crisis.

Then, we distilled those actions down to the qualities exhibited.

  • Supportive (far and away the top quality listed)
  • Generous
  • Sharing
  • Honest
  • Trustworthy
  • Not judgmental (reserves judgment)
  • Listens
  • Responsive
  • Checks in, just because they care (not because they need something)

No arguments there.

But then we asked: “do any of your newsrooms embody these qualities in your relationships with your audiences?

Silence.

After a moment, one participant noted her newsroom displayed honesty, in that they only took on stories they had the resources and capacity to report well. But beyond that, there was a moment of recognition: there’s a lot of work to do toward cultivating good relationships with the people we serve.

The truth is that journalism has for time immemorial been in the business of mass dissemination and publishing. Engagement, such as we think about it now, has historically consisted mainly of letters to the editor. Codes of conduct related to who to publish, how much to edit, ensuring balance, etc. had to be developed and routinized as a result.

Then came blogging, comments, and social media, and each time newsrooms needed to develop policies to adjust. Now with the advent of engagement we need to develop codes to guide our work in community and with community.

If we don’t have a code of ethics, so what?

You may be wondering what’s at stake if we don’t have these codes and abide by them? A lot. At the very least, we annoy and alienate people when we treat them poorly. At worst, we endanger them by putting their contributions in front of massive audiences in ways they didn’t intend or didn’t agree to. We open them up to getting harassed, trolled, doxxed.

Too often, when it comes to engaging communities, we act like askholes. We ask for their story, we extract their experiences and concerns, and then we package and polish them up to share with audiences for our own financial gain. We don’t follow up. We don’t thank them. We don’t ask what they need. We just ask for what we need from them.

We might have great intentions organizing a community convening. But we don’t spend the time and care to make sure the right people were invited in to speak, leaving key communities and perspectives out of the conversation, effectively silencing them.

We can believe that we’re doing people a favor, “giving voice to the voiceless” as some like to say, but in reality we often hear what we want to hear, quote what we want to quote, and don’t do the hard work to understand what they’re saying — or what they’re trying to say — when we invite them to share.

So, if we agree we need an ethical framework for engagement, we should probably start by defining what it needs to include, mixing together the qualities of strong interpersonal relationships and learning from examples where engagement has gone off the rails.

Ethical engagement:

  • Is supportive, helpful and generous
  • Is designed to benefit the public first, newsroom second
  • Builds trust
  • Is honest and forthright
  • Starts from a place of non-judgment
  • Actively listens
  • Is inclusive and strives to be representative of the communities it engages or serves
  • Protects the identity of those engaging unless explicitly getting their consent

So what might these values look like, in practice? We next split the group into teams and gave them one of several prompts drawn from actual newsroom examples, each including an editorial mandate and an impact goal.

  1. Your editorial mandate: Homelessness is growing in your community. Your newsroom got a grant to create a 6 month project on homelessness. Your challenge: develop an ethical engagement strategy for both covering and serving this population. 
    Your impact goal: grow your audience / subscriber base, and attract more funding from the foundation.
  2. Your editorial mandate: The Parkland shooting has people around the country talking about gun violence. Your newsroom wants to create a newsletter for youth in your community around this topic and drive coverage around the midterm election. 
    Your impact goal: Convert young people (24 and under) to newsletter subscribers. If you’re successful, you will get two new full-time positions in your newsroom to cover youth topics.
  3. Your editorial mandate: Your newsroom has historically served white residents and not served the African American residents. Develop a plan for serving this community, which has very low awareness of your brand and service. 
    Your impact goal: You need to develop a monetizable editorial product by serving this community.
  4. Your editorial mandate: Your newsroom is in a community experiencing the effects of the opioid crisis. You need to get people directly affected by the crisis to be involved in your coverage in a sustained way. 
    Your impact goal: Get the local government to pay more attention to this crisis. Bonus points if you’re able to affect policy.
  5. Your editorial mandate: Create a sustained way to receive actionable insight from communities your newsroom is currently not well-serving. 
    Your impact goal: Cultivate insights and relationships that lead to more representative coverage.
  6. Your editorial mandate: Your newsroom serves an urban population and your readers / viewers want to better understand the experiences and perspectives of your state’s rural residents. 
    Your impact goal: Is to help your audience develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues shaping voter sentiment in the run up to the midterms.

Each of these scenarios presented teams with an opportunity to drive compelling editorial content, and to build new audiences; and each also contained great challenges, including reaching across racial and class divides, sustaining engagement over time, drawing audience and community members out on intensely personal issues, and building and growing audience without treating communities as pit mines from which we extract precious stories and insights.

To help them navigate the ethical minefield, we provided each team with the following questions to consider as they developed their plan:

  1. What are you asking from participants?
  2. What are you giving back to participants?
  3. What are the incentives for the participants to participate?
  4. Where can they see their participation mattering?
  5. How do you acknowledge their contribution?
  6. What are the barriers to ethical engagement you’re encountering given the constraints?

(These questions are based on trainings that both Hearken and GroundSource provide their newsroom partners as they develop plans for using these models and platforms to engage communities.)

Teams grappled with each scenario and came up with the beginnings of a plan to meet their editorial and impact goals, while practicing ethical engagement.

As they did some themes began to emerge:

  • To engage people in communities (especially those traditionally underserved by media), we need to be hiring from those communities
  • To serve communities outside of our traditional audience base, we should partner with organizations that have already built trust and capacity in those communities — and help support their work
  • We should practice a “do no harm” approach to engaging people on sensitive topics
  • We need to focus on creating lasting investments in community vs. one-off, time-bounded projects
  • We should use surveying and listening tools and frameworks to discern the needs of communities before we seek to engage them
  • We should ask how news and information fits into their lives
  • We should be transparent about our interests in engaging communities — e.g. If we’re for-profit or non-profit we disclose that
  • We should provide communities with information not readily available to them before we ask anything from them to create reciprocity
  • Where possible, we should let communities in on the editorial process — develop different levels of contribution and editing to give the community ownership over the stories that are theirs to tell

This is what a group of caring people working in journalism came up with over the course of 75 minutes together. We named the title of our session, “Toward an ethical framework for engagement” because we know it’s asking too much to create something airtight without further consideration, conversation, practice, reflection and of course — contributions from others.

So what is missing here? What might an ethical framework for engagement also include? Feel free to comment on this story, or share your suggestion using this form.

Additional reading and resources: