The case for (more) engaged journalism

Posted by on October 20, 2017 at 1:06 PM


By Kyle Bozentko & Annie Pottorff, Jefferson Center

There’s a dire need to rebuild relationships, restore trust, and strengthen the capacity of local news organizations.

If you’re a regular visitor to Medium, you likely recognize the power of accessible and democratic storytelling. Medium’s approach hints at a possible future for local journalism, a future where the divide between producer and consumer narrows, where newsrooms prioritize two-way relationships with their communities, and where local news serves the interests of the whole community, not just advertisers. In short, a future of where journalists and citizens are engaged together to create, collaborate, and improve their communities.

Looking at the state of our news, there’s a dire need to rebuild relationships, restore trust, and strengthen the capacity of local news organizations. In 2016, the Jefferson Center dove into the issues we’re experiencing daily (polarization, misinformation, clickbait, and attack ads, to name just a few) in our projects Your Vote Ohio and Informed Citizen Akron. Our expertise is in civic engagement — bringing community voices together to address shared problems and identify creative solutions. We tasked citizens with the question, “How can local news media shift their coverage to help voters better evaluate candidates and make more informed electoral decisions during the 2016 election?” Specifically, what voters wanted and needed to know, and what they weren’t getting from candidates and from national news outlets. The results were telling.

Whether we were asking about what issues mattered most during the RNC or DNC watch parties, what voters still wanted to know about Trump or Clinton after their debates, or what role citizens imagined for local news in the future as election day drew near, we began to hear similar responses. Regardless of political affiliation or ideology, one message rang loud and clear: Ohioans don’t see themselves represented in their local news, especially in political news.

Following the election results, we spoke with our local news partners to dig deeper into these trends. As a whole, Ohio election news projections were inaccurate because they only focused on a handful of polls, and didn’t ask what local citizens were actually experiencing and thinking. Instead of focusing on issues that mattered most to Ohio voters, many local news outlets focused on national media reports rather than the diversity of perspectives in their hometowns. These techniques created a huge disservice to audience and communities: their range of opinions weren’t represented at all. However, we — along with our media partners — saw an important opportunity: now is the time to respond proactively and embrace representative, issue based coverage that doesn’t focus solely on the Washington horse race.

We also recognized that this isn’t happening in a vacuum: while we focused our efforts in Ohio, these same trends are facing communities across the country. Moving forward from these 2016 projects, we are working on a solution: supporting an ecosystem of newsrooms who interact regularly, and genuinely, with their community members and with one another. By actively seeking and responding to the information needs of community members themselves, engaged journalism approaches can bridge the divide between the media as “them” and community members as “us”. Reporting and issues covered in local print, digital, and broadcast formats should actively incorporate the voices and stories of community members on issues of public concern.

Why Ohio?

While our organization is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, we find ourselves traveling around the world to help communities, organizations, and institutions listen to citizens and craft community-designed solutions. We embraced the opportunity to work in Ohio because citizens there have been hit hard by changes in manufacturing, trade, automation, and the changing service economy.

Current narratives around Ohio employment focus too narrowly on “what will replace” the steel and manufacturing jobs of the past. The problem is much more complex, as the state is not uniformly equipped to take advantage of new employment opportunities or promote growth in emerging industries. This can lead to disproportionate positive impacts in some regions, and continued decline in others.

Similarly, the opioid epidemic has affected the health, social, and economic welfare of every county in the state. Productive, community-oriented coverage of the opioid epidemic, however, can be difficult to find. One editor in our collaborative recounted a conversation in his newsroom:

“We’ve covered heroin enough, people don’t want more of this story.”

“But we had 30 overdoses last weekend.”

Traditional journalism is episodic in a way that community issues aren’t, prioritizing weekly overdose coverage or gripping individual stories, but not providing the information and consistent focus to help communities find and adopt solutions.

Our goal is to supply Ohioans with the information and resources they need to confront the opioid epidemic and their rapidly shifting economy, within their communities and across the state.

What’s happening now?

After Your Vote Ohio and Informed Citizen Akron, it was clear we had more work to do. We also wanted to partner with different nonprofits and newsrooms on new engagement strategies; there’s a lot of us out here doing similar work, but not learning enough from one another and sharing successes and failure. This led us to the next iteration of the project, Your Voice Ohio and Media Seeds. With our support, Media Seeds will be led by Journalism That Matters, who will be conducting a deep dive around community information needs and solutions in the media deserts of Southeast Ohio. We’re also excited to be connected with the folks at Gather, a platform to connect organizations experimenting with and embracing engaged journalism.

Our major goal in these efforts is to support journalists in identifying which approaches to community engagement and media innovation are most effective in building trust and delivering better, more responsive journalism. We also want to explore ways to grow local revenue and under what conditions, and understand the roles of local news outlets working together and with the national press to create a more robust news ecosystem. Ultimately, we aim to make engaged, responsive, collaborative journalism the path of least resistance.

How will the process work?

Our statewide news collaborative in Ohio — consisting of rural and urban partners across digital, print, radio, and television — will work on the project, share experiences, learnings, and resources. As a collaborative, we’ve come to a shared understanding that many current modes of operating are increasingly irrelevant or ineffective. The best chance for quality journalism and participatory democracy to survive and thrive is by sharing our collective knowledge and resources and focusing on the needs of communities first.

We will host community conversations is different parts of Ohio, specifically focused on the opioid epidemic and the future of the economy. Listening to citizens most impacted, we will ask: “How is the opioid epidemic affecting you, your family, and your neighborhood? What do you see as causes of the epidemic in your community? What steps might we take to combat the opioid epidemic?”

Thinking about the interests and capacities of our partners, we might help a partner create their own “Listening Posts,” or train community members to do their own reporting, or have citizens sit on diverse community advisory boards. Some partners are already doing this work, but disconnected from one another. We will work to scale engagement efforts by testing and refining different interventions in a few newsrooms first before expanding the most promising ones across the state. We’ll also host deep, multi-day deliberative events with Ohioans from across the state to evaluate the work of Your Voice Ohio and help set the agenda moving forward.

We aim to determine which techniques are most successful and in which contexts. We will not only share this information with our partner newsrooms across the state, but with other newsrooms, foundations, community organizations, and nonprofits also committed to building a stronger local news infrastructure. Your Voice Ohio and Media Seeds are supported by the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund.

Our news partners recognize they have to be bolder and more innovative if they’re to rebuild relationships with old and new audiences. Only once we rebuild these relationships can we truly make our local news more representative, and citizens may once again feel local news has a relevant place in their lives. As Democracy Fund states, journalism was once understood as a “product”. Now, local news is shifting to a community “service”. To strengthen this service approach, and to give communities the capacity to create, collaborate, and be represented by journalists that truly want to inform the community, we need to embrace engaged storytelling techniques.

If you’re interested in following our efforts, you can visit the Your Voice Ohio websiteFacebook page, and follow us on Twitter. We will also post our findings to Medium, to share with audiences interested in better engagement strategies, newsroom collaboration, and more. Or if you want to participate more directly in this project, send us an email and we’ll discuss ways we can support one another.