Want to be good for democracy? Be better at democracy.
Ellen Mayer and Julia Haslanger contributed writing and graphic design to this piece.
If journalism plays a critical role in maintaining a functioning democracy, and that democracy is no longer functioning in the way we’ve come to recognize, now what?
For those of us who work in or with the news media, we’ve been losing sleep trying to answer this momentous, weighty question.
I have an idea. Actually, I’m closing in on 1,000 stories produced around the world based on this idea and have been testing it since 2012. So instead, I’ll say I have proof of concept.
To sum it up: if newsrooms want to be good for democracy, they need to become better at democracy.
What does that mean?
The processes by which most journalism is created are not nearly as democratic as they could (and now need to) be.
What would you call a system that works like this: a tiny group of people, who look a lot like each other and come from similar backgrounds, make vital decisions that affect a ton of people including you, your friends, your neighbors, everyone. But all of those decisions, by their design, happen behind closed doors. So you are left at the mercy of whatever they decide.
You probably would not call that system a democracy. What would you call this system instead? Authoritarianism? Maybe an aristocracy?
You could call it those things, or you could call it … a newsroom.
Newsrooms provide vital public services to the public and that description is essentially how they work.
No one is happy with the press or how it’s functioning right now, not even the press. In that sense, newsrooms have a public mandate to make significant changes.
I’m not advocating that journalists be elected, or for a particular flavor of democracy (and there are a lot, as I learned thanks to Wikipedia). What I am advocating is that journalism should adopt some of the shared principles of democratic systems. A democratic process is participatory and representative of its constituents. In a democratic system, authority flows from the people, based on their consent. A democratic system works for and serves the (full diversity of) the public it represents.
What would more democracy in news look like?
As a starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the inner-workings of a newsroom: journalism comes in tremendous variety, but every story follows a basic process no matter if it appears as a newspaper article, podcast, TV segment or VR experience.
The current, traditional process for making stories:
- People within a newsroom come up with ideas for what to cover (the pitch phase)
- People within a newsroom then decide what ideas will get assigned and become stories (the assignment phase)
- People within a newsroom report the final story (the reporting phase)
- The final package of information they create is then delivered to the public (publishing and distribution)
Now to examine step by step the current process and its consequences against a new process I’ve developed that’s democratically-driven.
1. Pitch Phase: Who is in the room and at the table?
There’s an adage that the “news is what happens to the editor on the way to work.” In other words, ideas for stories are born from the experiences of those within the newsroom: what information they consume, where they live, what they are personally curious about, etc. The people sitting in newsrooms, setting the news agenda, often look a lot like one another, have similar education and class backgrounds. There is a long way to go for this space to be what in a democracy would be called “representative” of the public the newsroom aims/claims to serve. So it stands to reason that if there is a non-representative input of ideas, it’s impossible to have a representative output of ideas.
And as any reporter knows: if you’re not sitting at the table during a pitch meeting, there’s a good chance your story idea wasn’t fully heard, understood, or considered. Same holds true for the public — if you aren’t at the editorial table (or have the ear or interest of someone at the table), you have no shot at having your voice heard.
A key role citizens must take on in a democracy is to participate in public life. Since journalism is part of public life, what can citizen participation look like during the pitch phase?
What we do: The format we’ve landed upon at Hearken, after much testing, is to create an opportunity for the public to ask questions (questions are like the atomic unit of all journalism). The public is invited to participate by asking questions to which professional reporters can supply fact-checked answers. Questions represent an information need. They are a way for the audience to tell a newsroom, “Here’s what I don’t know, and you can meet my needs by providing an answer.”
Outcomes for the newsroom: By soliciting public questions, newsrooms gain access to a wider breadth of perspectives and truly actionable feedback that more closely represents the diversity of their audience. (If you doubt the public’s ability to ask good questions with journalistic value, read this.)
Outcomes for the public: The public has a voice at the editorial table, a platform to express their needs, and are treated as contributors with valuable input.
Before recommending other things newsrooms can do to democratize the pitch process, it must be said that an absolutely critical component to creating more representation around the editorial table is to hire better. Hire people who have experiences that no one else in the room has. Hire people who look or sound or think or speak differently than those already at your editorial table. But when you hire them, please don’t expect them to be the sole representative for the cross-section of the public with whom they share similarities.
Opening, clearing and protecting a pathway for non-newsroom staff to have their ideas, concerns and questions represented at the table remains essential no matter what the composition of your newsroom.
What else you could try:
- When covering something of interest to a particular community or group of people, reach out before you decide the angle of reporting. Ask if the story idea is pertinent, get additional feedback and reshape your pitch.
- Create a Community Advisory Board.
- Hold regular gatherings out in your community, such as informal meetups at coffee shops or watering holes.
- Invite members of the public into your newsroom — to see how a newsroom works, learn skills, use equipment, share ideas and give feedback.
- Live stream your pitch meetings and invite outsiders to bring forward ideas.
2. Assignment Phase: How newsrooms decide what to make for the public
The assignment phase comes on the heels of the pitch process, often in the same meeting. Editors make the call about which pitches should be assigned and become stories based on their interest level and on journalistic conventions: Is this story timely? Does it fit into a beat? Is it newsworthy?
In the current process, the public misses out on a huge diversity of stories they may find important, because those stories aren’t relevant or feel important enough to the narrow group of decision-makers.
In an alternate, more democratic system, audiences get the opportunity to weigh in about what’s important to them. The public represents their own interests rather than hoping their surrogate (the editor) will or even can represent those interests for them.
What we do: Voting. In our model, newsrooms curate the questions from the public that they believe have journalistic value and then the audience votes for the question they find most interesting or important. So editorial judgment is very much involved, but the audience gets the final say. In other words, a system with checks and balances!
Ultimately, authority flows not just from an editor’s judgment but from public mandate.
Outcomes for the newsroom: The newsroom gets assurance that their audience is interested in a story before they report and hit publish. And because the public has their backs, they get license to pursue more differentiated stories that might be outside the typical editorial filters. (If you doubt the public could know what stories they “want” or what they “need” read this.)
Outcomes for the public: Audience members are empowered with agency to make the final decision and thereby shape the newsrooms’ output. Like voting on ballot measures in democracy, the institution and their professionals remain responsible for getting the job done that’s been selected. This opportunity means the public is more invested in the final story and the newsroom.
What else you could try:
- Voting via social media or other generic polling tools.
- Voting IRL, analogue-style. Head to a public place, give people stickers and choices and let them vote.
- Contact people knowledgeable about the topics you’re considering and ask them which of the questions they are most interested in and why.
- Give your website users the opportunity to indicate after they’ve consumed a story that they’d like more, less or something different on that topic.
- Invite members of the public into your newsroom and give them the opportunity to play guest editor.
- (Note: we are not advocating using analytics and metrics on stories already created as a proxy vote for more stories of that type. That methodology is inherently limiting and very problematic.)
3. Reporting Phase: How the information reporters collect gets shared
Most often, journalists do the work of reporting behind closed doors. There are a few reasons that they might not want be transparent during the reporting process. If their newsroom is optimized for speed over trust, they fear of competition and getting scooped. Reporters may also fear of tipping off the wrong people, or have concerns about sharing information before it’s fully vetted. But another reason is just pure inertia: it’s not done because it’s not called for in the traditional story process.
When reporters keep an embargo on their work until they hit publish, newsrooms then get valuable public feedback too late. Reporters hear that they should have interviewed someone else, or they missed a crucial angle, or are straight up questioned as to why they did the story at all. This puts newsrooms constantly on the defensive with their audience.
How could newsrooms create a window and view into what actions they’re taking? A hallmark of democracy is taking action with public consent, which requires some degree of transparency. In government this can be done through public meetings, minutes, accounting, records, etc. So what does that look like for journalism?
What we do: In our model we promote something that might seem a touch radical: we encourage reporters to invite the person whose question they’re answering along for the ride. This could be a literal ride-along, allowing a member of the public to join you in the field or to co-interview your sources. Or it can be simpler: just interviewing the question-asker, using their input to shape reporting, and including their voice in the final story.
(We’ll be launching a new tool called the Hearken Open Notebook™ in 2017 which will allow journalists to show their thought process and reporting work to a broader public. But more on that another day. Let us know if you’d like to test it.)
Outcomes for the newsroom: Newsrooms essentially get to user-test their products before they put them into the marketplace (a common practice for pretty much every industry except journalism). Reporters get helpful tips and feedback and are able to shape stories into something that truly serves their public’s information needs and desires. And both reporters and the public benefit from getting to know each other (“the audience” and “the media”) as comprised of nuanced, three-dimensional individuals, not as an abstracted set of demographic data or some giant homogenous industry.
Outcomes for the public: Participants shape decision-making, and get to see themselves and their peers well-represented in the news (without needing to have done something extraordinary or terrible). News consumers in turn find these stories more relatable because they feature more relatable people. Embedded within the process is also the powerful message that anyone consuming the content can also be engaged participants. With this new opportunity, the public can offer perspectives, leads, sources and their expertise. This satisfies the basic and critical human need of being heard, understood and valued. Goodwill toward the media can only be earned back by if the public feels heard and respected by the media.
Another crucial outcome to showing reporting work is that the public gets to witness first-hand its complexity and value. This level of transparency can help dissolve the dangerous and disorienting feelings that there is just no way to know what information can be trusted, and that simple answers exist to multivariate problems.
What else you could try:
- Collect input from your audience about stories you’re covering or considering covering. Use social media or SMS. (GroundSource enables newsrooms to chat back and forth with their communities and audiences via SMS, Messenger and other messaging apps.)
- Find a deeper set of sources with specific experience via a tool like the Public Insight Network or The Coral Project.
- Invite your audience to help with research like ProPublica has done with their Agent Orange or Electionland coverage, or Medium’s Ghost Boat project.
- Tweet your stories as you’re making them like the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold did with reporting on the Trump Foundation.
- Show your thinking and reporting progress like how the New York Times is covering the aftermath of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire.
- Train your audience to contribute to acts of reporting like WYSO’s Community Voices or City Bureau in Chicago.
The answer to what newsrooms should do to meet the needs of this unprecedented moment in democracy and American history: they need to double down on serving the public interest. Directly.
While I would not give our current moment in US democracy an A+, there is tremendous value in borrowing from the best of shared democratic ideals including participation, representation and consent.
Perhaps it sounds far-fetched, but what if journalism could do a better job at democracy than government? What if it had to?
If the government won’t answer to the American people, journalism can. By answering the public’s questions, and when there aren’t answers, explaining why exactly not.
If the government won’t reveal how it’s making decisions and offer the opportunity for critique, journalism can. By adopting openness, transparency and feedback on its own practices.
And if the government won’t listen to or represent all Americans, journalism can. By making a space where all are welcomed to represent themselves.
No one said democracy wasn’t hard, and that quality journalism isn’t hard. We can’t afford to believe the effort and the public aren’t worth it.
If you’re interested in using the democratic model for journalism described above, let’s do this. Added benefit: stories produced through this model often outperform other stories on various measures of traffic, and the process of making them generates email leads for your newsletters and membership.
Ready to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.
For more writing on what we’ve learned testing the Hearken model, check out our previous posts on Medium.
An abbreviated version of this argument was presented at Newsgeist on December 8, 2016.