How to better cover community as a white reporter:
Rethinking relationships with “sources” to “citizens”
Sue Robinson, PhD
(With Meredith Metzler and Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Report Produced for Kettering Foundation, December 2016
The problem has been insidious and ugly, and at one point or another every reporter has had to write about it during his or her career. Persistent racial disparities between white people and people of almost all other colors tinge every beat or specialty from business to education to culture. Yet the community conversations around race have proven awkward at best and vicious at worst as people’s defensiveness awakens, their sense of “fairness” is questioned, perceptions of bias rear, and core identities and ideologies are challenged. Racist cultural tropes recycle vitriol and reports and proposals seem to evoke the same commentary year after year. Comments under stories become cesspools of humanity’s less noble side. Reporters must navigate these tricky discussions that often stem from singular controversies such as a new report on K-12 achievement gaps or a police shooting and find they have neither the time, the space, nor, sometimes, the cultural aptitude necessary to do the dialogues justice. Anyone writing about race faces charges of racism or ignorance and feels heavily the weight of responsibility around a “wicked” (or intractable) community problem. When the accusations fly that coverage is incomplete and inaccurate or full of unhelpful stereotypes and binaries, frustrations mount and the tendency can sometimes be to shortchange the dialogue in the hopes of not making things worse.
That, at least, is how many of the white reporters characterized the challenge of covering issues related to race in American right now. For the last five years this research has explored how white reporters can better cover communities that are becoming increasingly diverse. As the United States moves steadily to a demographic where white people are no longer a majority, mainstream newsrooms must take seriously challenges and complaints about race coverage with an eye to their bottom lines and their grand mission to tell the stories of all citizens. Yet journalism remains mostly white, with little headway in diversifying the newsroom over the last several decades. This major, multi-method study explored the obstacles to covering race as white reporters in order to suggest some recommendations toward more inclusive stories with this goal in mind. Data from five U.S. cities with significant achievement disparities, mostly white newsrooms, and small-to-mid-sized media outlets were analyzed. In all, this work entailed the analysis of nearly 4,000 pieces of content (news articles, comments, blogs, etc.) and more than 130 interviews with journalists, public officials, activists, and “regular” citizens as well as international experts on facilitating community conversations around issues of race.
With contracting newsrooms, journalists of all colors find themselves stretched thin in reporting on local communities such that all voices and perspectives can be represented. First, we interviewed journalists from across the country in mid-sized cities to understand the challenges innate in amplifying marginalized voices under tight deadlines. We heard an earful about shrinking resources and little management or audience support for such coverage as well as the importance of adhering to journalistic standards and codes that help ensure the longevity of the press’ authority in an age of intense competition and a fear of messing with those important tenets. Thus the task of covering our communities has been made more difficult as reporters feel under-trained or ill-equipped to fully investigate issues such as a race, lack the networks necessary to reach all parts of community, and have to move beats or to new jobs frequently because of internal financial strife, according to findings from our in-depth interviews with journalists.
We also talked to more than 100 community members – particularly people of color — to explore where connections with local media break down. This work has revealed what many reporters already knew: namely, that many in communities of color harbor intense distrust of mainstream journalists and of their broader cities, hampering the ability of reporters to understand and write about the issues facing people of color in a thorough way. This distrust manifested in many ways: Some community members told us they worried that if they talked to reporters using their name that teachers might take it out on their kids, that neighbors will talk, or that employers might hold it against them. Others doubted reporters wanted to hear their perspective, would get what they said wrong, or waste their time. When journalists brought in experts or cited reports, some citizens felt intimidated, as if they lacked strong enough “evidence” to have valuable participation. When reporters asked for sources, some people were reluctant to offer names and worried about ramifications and retribution. When citizens heard the same voices representing “their” perspective, they began to disengage completely. When they saw people of color only represented in mug shots or in race-related stories – and rarely portrayed as community movers and shakers – they felt ignored, even victimized. When news stories about issues such as racial disparities failed to mention systemic racism or long histories of institutional bias, citizens distrusted all the information. When activists invited reporters in and no one showed, the cynicism mounted. These attitudes and perceptions combined with reporters’ own challenges and dwindling newsroom resources to marginalize entire groups of people in our society in journalism.
Utilizing all of this data, this report provides a menu of offerings for journalists interested in covering all of their communities in more comprehensive ways in a manner that can help citizens solve public problems. The report draws from not only what did not work in the cities examined such as why distrust manifested, but also from successful examples that can shed light on a new path for reporters looking to try something different:
- In Ann Arbor, MI, M-Live reporters closely moderated article commenting sections, especially on stories about race: asking questions, re-directing conversation, and promoting “good” commentary besides deleting vitriolic missives. This served to make dialogues in these spaces much more on task, deliberative, and helpful to the community discussion.
- In Madison, WI, one local news organization co-sponsored community forums about issues involving race and also collaborated with community leaders, who wrote front-page columns about being black in the liberal city. These moves helped restore trust in the community among some groups as they demonstrated a real commitment on the part of the organization to those communities.
- In Evanston, IL, school board members participated in informal “listening sessions” where they attended community events and talked to constituents about concerns — without the microphones turned on. In other school districts, administrators “happened by” the pick-up soccer game that some in the local Hispanic community were known to have every Saturday and the laundromat on Wednesdays when Muslim women gathered in another city. Reporters might adapt such techniques to build networks for stories.
Key to these and other successful exemplars analyzed included: asking directly and explicitly for feedback in organic, authentic ways; building relationships with individuals (as opposed to audience members); and following through after the story ended. Furthermore, this work suggests that journalists strive to utilize social media networks and other online spaces to augment offline sourcing. Such offline-online relationship building can help anchor reporters as citizens themselves within their own communities.
Thus, this report asks reporters to recommit to foundational journalistic principles such as providing forum space for all communities to discuss the public affairs of the town and to share information in as balanced a manner as possible, transparent about any biases and as full an accounting as warrants. This involves rethinking traditional journalistic notions such as “critical distance” and re-conceptualizing established relationships to sources and audiences so that source networks expand. Rather than following rote routines or sticking to traditional formulas, this research posits that reporters engage deeply in communities of coverage and change up how the goals of fostering democracy could be met. In doing so, journalists will expand source networks, easily meet market pressures to diversify, inspire cross-group conversations and as a result bolster deliberative practice in their towns and cities. This would be a relationships-based journalism that reinvigorates citizens in community life through the press, shoring up its importance as a staple American institution in democracy. Renewing this commitment to communities in these kinds of ways means expanded markets for the media company, more opportunities for advertising, more eyeballs/clicks/shares, and ultimately better revenue opportunities.
What might this look like in practice? This report offers some suggestions, with the most important one in bold at the top of each section and a plethora of tips from which editors and reporters could pick and choose according to organizational needs. Each of these builds off the set that came before it, and all lead to the ultimate goal in inspiring “regular” citizens to come together in seeking solutions to community problems, particularly those involving issues around race, through a revived emphasis on communal relationships.
- First, re-examine relationship of reporters to their community.
Rationale: In this research, people of color distrusted media at high levels, and this resulted in refusal to be quoted and absence from public discussions about problems facing the community. Here it is suggested that reporters rethink what critical distance means exactly, embracing their role as within community, as actors with as much of a stake in what happens there as their sources. This research suggests people felt reporters didn’t understand the issues residents had been working through for years and that their insistence on certain protocols such as only using named sources or finding people to talk to only in institutional settings such as municipal meetings meant whole groups of people would not be included in public news accountings. For example, beyond the once-a-year diversity workshop some newsrooms provide, we suggest training on an on-going, individual basis so that each journalist is explicitly aware of the ways their own background might guide how, what and who they report as well as how they can reconnect to the community. This effort helps reporters understand how communities and issues have been structured historically and how institutional racism might explain present-day challenges.
- Provide social justice/privilege/cultural relevancy training for every reporter and editor in the newsroom, individually and/or as part of newsroom activities.
- Understand the history of your community, journalistic specialty or beat in terms of marginalized communities (e.g., the history of standardized testing or how policies such as the GI Bill and the National Housing Act of 1934 discriminated against black people); read deeply to understand how American institutions were structured to privilege white people.
- Be aware of the ways in which your routines inadvertently leave community members out (e.g., only finding sources at meetings or via public officials, always requiring named sources, accepting simplistic framing of wicked problems such as racial disparities). For example, the constant quest for “both sides” leads to binaries that can exacerbate polarization. Take steps to alleviate those constraints to inclusion.
- Engage in community. Volunteer with local newspaper clubs or join a tutoring program. Offer tours of the newsroom. Surround yourself with a diverse range of people in your private life. Experience other cultures.
- Relocate personal/social routines. Patronizing locally owned establishments in a different part of town. Attend a different church. Support business with owners of color or with people who are of a different orientation (sexual, religious, etc.).
- Go to an area where you are a minority, notice how your perceptions change.
- Become aware of when your own knee-jerk biases occur.
- Expand networks.
Rationale: This research shows most active citizens are highly networked both offline and via social media, but little communication occurs between groups so that a truly inclusive conversation can be had. Reporters’ contacts circulate in power realms – officials, experts, highly engaged individuals. Yet all of these sources also “bridge” other networks of people whom reporters can tap. For example, sources of color such as activists can serve as conduits to typically marginalized communities that reporters have had a hard time accessing. Using a combination of social media platforms and offline presence, reporters can engage with different parts of communities beyond officially sanctioned community members, translating into richer, more representative stories.
- Consider people such as activists or highly networked citizens as bridges rather than punctuation points or a singular quote in a story. For example, ask a source to co-sponsor a Facebook chat on important local issues, introduce you around a community event or neighborhood, or host a focus group with you and community members on troublesome issues. Such informants can help establish a basis of trust for citizens who might not otherwise feel comfortable speaking about their concerns in public spaces.
- Develop partnerships and collaborations with community members, ethnic media, community college journalism classes, churches, etc.
- Ask those you already know if there is a community event or dinner you might attend to network. Make an effort to go to gatherings in the name of trust building.
- Organize office community tours, where representatives of the neighborhoods can introduce you to people and help you build relationships organically.
- When reporting a story or building a beat, set up meetings with people of different backgrounds. Pick meeting locations where the sources will be comfortable. When citizens of color invite you to an event, go.
- Connect with new networks via online platforms: Have neighborhood or other niche Facebook pages dedicated to parts of the discussion that are then used as background for broader stories. “Friend” community leaders. Follow – and participate in – the discussions on local Facebook pages and hashtags. Tag people who open your story up to entire communities of people who might not otherwise see your story.
- To encourage broader participation, praise comments that are “good” and then share them with others, tagging community members you think would be interested in the comment.
- Make a concerted effort to include people of color as sources. For example, when looking for academic experts, reach out to sources from historically black universities and community colleges.
- Create an internal database of sources that can be helpful to providing continuity between the news organization and the community – and also help reporters on deadline avoid using the “usual suspects.” Use community listserves, ethnic media, and other sources to help broaden these databases.
- Bring more people of color into the newsroom in various capacities. Consider internship programs training young reporters of color and guest columnists, which simultaneously broaden perspectives on stories, help the news org reach communities not previously accessed, and ensure a pipeline of more diversity into the newsroom.
- Reconsider “typical” reporter protocols and routines
Rationale: Citizens reported feeling that media focus too much on negative happenings in their communities, such as crime. Meanwhile, many journalists understand objectivity in the negative such as: no agendas, no personal perspectives, no bias. Rather, journalists might consider defining ethical journalism as adopting practices that include all voices, proactively: listening, building relationships in all communities, being self-aware, embracing nuance and subjectivity so citizens can govern society in all of its complexity. Part of this might include seeking out stories that highlight micro-level problem solving. Working actively to create a communication environment in which every citizen feels empowered to participate in the community dialogue is a fundamental role for journalists.
- Account for power differences among your various sources. Consider reviewing stories with those sources you spoke with who are not used to speaking to the press. Create “safe places” for people to tell their stories, considering anonymous quotes, for example, to recognize vulnerabilities and risks.
- Leave time for a dialogue rather than an interview and explain reporting requirements carefully. Sources might find the interview format intimidating. In face-to-face sit-downs with sources take time to explicate the reporting process and promise follow-through.
- Rank anecdotes and experiences alongside research-based evidence and expert commentary. Ask directly for people’s stories. Academic language and statistic-heavy reports do not always connect with all citizens.
- Resist urge to look for experiences that match the data while ignoring others that don’t.
- Bring in active citizens such as “community correspondents” who are interested in writing the occasional column. Additional ways to engage these citizens include: asking that person to provide background on a local issue, offering input on stories, or publicizing articles within their networks to even co-authoring content. These active citizens might also serve as informants within communities.
- Use metrics, community connections to figure out which stories better resonate with which audiences (moving away from the instinct to produce for the sake of producing, just to get something up on the site).
- Involve community members at each stage of story development.
Rationale: The citizens we talked to felt ignored. They stated that reporters did not understand their life experience and were not a part of their community (not a single one was of color, for example; and indeed many journalists we talked to had only been in the town for a year or two and planned to move on quickly). Some citizens felt they rarely saw any positive effect of contributions to new stories. Some reported having no idea how to reach a reporter even if they wanted to. Those who had positive relationships with reporters spoke of the individual journalist as someone who listened, admitted ignorance, allowed the story to emerge organically and without a lot of manipulation, and followed up after stories were complete. My research suggests involving citizens throughout the reporting by thinking about the story as a process rather than a product, expanding the brand of the news organization – and the reporter – beyond the website, and propelling that process into the community. Such an approach has the added benefit of opening alternative revenue opportunities from sponsorships and enhancing the brand itself.
- Get out of the office but don’t just make the rounds at City Hall or schools. Hold “office hours” at a local hangout in a marginalized neighborhood to talk about your story topic or have staff meetings outside the office and around town. Encourage specific community members to join you and advertise your presence on various Facebook pages or via Twitter hashtags, tagging key influencers in these communities. Assume that people do not know how to reach you.
- Follow through with the communities you tapped for the story. This could be as simple as sending the story link to the people you talked to or even organizing a subsequent panel discussion in their community center or local school; (For example, conduct a Facebook Live chat). Also, go back to sources and ask what the story didn’t address and for feedback. Thank them for their participation. If you did not use them in the story, explain why and acknowledge how their information helped.
- Put reports/documents/memos online with annotations from experts, translations (such as into Spanish), and commentary options, and send links to highly networked citizens of color asking directly for their perspective. Ask for communities to help in gathering stories about an issue, building a dataset, or parsing documents.
- Partner with community centers to have listening sessions on important issues. Use Periscope or Facebook video to live stream, archive the video as an evergreen product.
- Note which students/programs/schools you showcase as success stories. Cover graduations at local colleges or nonprofits that train workers in nontraditional ways.
- Learn how to best operationalize social media platforms to boost online engagement. Think of Twitter, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat and Facebook as places to market stories, ask provocative questions, look for sources, seek feedback, and — most importantly — to build relationships. For example, Facebook Live your newsroom meetings, do Snapchat stories from the newsroom during big events such as election nights, or have your reporters create buzz for their upcoming stories via Twitter hashtag conversations with key influencers in those issue publics. Be active on these platforms – which can spark a dialogue that might ultimately result in community action as well as future stories.
- Encourage alternative ways of producing content from community members such as short video op-eds or snapchats. Offer 1-page primers on best practices for column writing. Be open to more ephemeral contributions from contributors – 1-2 blog posts in a community blog or Facebook page for example.
- Be transparent about all reporting choices, including use of specific terminology, ethical decisions, and sourcing choices.
- Help Citizens Solve Community Problems.
Rationale: By re-conceptualizing the roles of reporters to their communities and sources, journalists can double back on a fundamental aim of the profession: helping democracy thrive through governing by the people. Journalists are in a unique position to help citizens solve their community problems. However, the ways journalists report on problems and potential solutions frame how citizens think about the root causes – when they think of them at all — and some common frames seen in the news can sometimes limit deliberation. Our research shows that many citizens feel their “names” for community issues such as racial disparities, personal stories, and perspectives are dismissed by reporters, policymakers and others; thus, citizens never reach a place of ownership over either the problem or any proposed solution. Also, when sources, particularly official sources, strategize around language and the media adopt that language, that can also marginalize people. Journalists might enable citizens to engage and help in community problem-solving by publicizing how the process is working at micro-levels, connecting citizens with experts and policymakers, and reframing discussion around proactive measures that citizens themselves can perform. Furthermore, well-networked journalists can amplify a wide variety of causes of the problem as well as help bring different frames for a solution into a shared discourse that has a lot of different perspectives represented. Reporters might articulate a sense of hope and individual empowerment for their community in the process of reporting on social problems.
- Review how you ask questions and rethink whether those questions get at underlying biases, values, and structures that might be causing people to think one way but answer another or that allow people to give stock answers that do not get at the innate problems. For example, rephrase the common question “whose side are you on?” and reject game frames to refocus: “What might citizens do to help solve this problem?” or “What is a question for fellow citizens on this topic to explore?”
- Use proposals, events or reports about disparities as an opportunity to look at patterns, structure and systemic disadvantages. Ask deeper questions that go beyond the report. Give more space to the report, with the aim of suggesting possible solutions for proactive and provocative deliberation.
- Challenge the semantics – both in the newsroom as well as with audiences. For example, complicate easy categories such as “achievement gaps.” Be open to other articulations such as “opportunity gaps” or “disparities” or “education debt.” Note how words such as “minority” or even “diversity” serve to “other” groups.
- Learn the history of the community from those who have lived there for a long time. They can help reporters navigate background of dialogues and cue if a story is repeating.
- Stay in the room beyond when you think you have “the story.” Hearing the talk around the reporting helps nuance the frames.
- Avoid phrases such as “the black community,” which assume one voice, one opinion from a very diverse set of people.
- Have sit-downs with community influencers and others about past reporting as well as a primer on approaching marginalized communities: What are phrases, questions to avoid? What has the past relationship been with media? What is the best way to build trust?
- Offer interactive commentary with prompts using widgets and other digital tools to help guide a more productive discussion.
- Bring citizens together with policymakers in forums both online and offline. Step in when common, unhelpful tropes emerge to nuance discussion and redirect toward opportunities to act.
The purpose of the recommendations above is to offer a starting point for re-thinking audience relationships between reporters and their communities, particularly citizens who have been typically marginalized in public discourses. Journalists’ primary connection to their audience is that they live and work in the same physical community, and the internet’s networking capabilities can enhance these connections beyond tracking clicks, likes, and shares. In addition to tracking metrics, one key to engagement initiatives is to track how well you are doing. Set realistic goals and follow through with quantitative metrics (numbers of shares/comments, page views according to platform/device, site registrations) as well as more qualitative feedback from community members (calls, emails, focus groups). Furthermore, the recommendations above require engaging in “casual listening” online and offline as well as “staying in the room” (despite sometimes feeling uncomfortable or asking difficult questions) to help journalism bridge communities. Most importantly, however, management must make clear the organization’s commitment to expanding audiences and better coverage of issues around marginalized communities. This would entail fewer expectations of reporters in the forms of bulk copy and more in terms of developing relationships with a wide network for better, more nuances stories. This work is an active practice and must be done intentionally, even daily as a part of journalistic routines.
Reporters and editors in this research expressed much concern about “critical distance.” The worry is that by engaging from within communities in these ways, bias will sneak into coverage and taint story truths. But I argue that this kind of relationship work is about bridge building for knitting communities together in conversation, and not about advocacy or activism. In operating as citizens with a stake in one’s community, reporters can expose themselves to a wider variety of names for the problems facing the town or city, appreciate those perspectives at a more genuine level, and help people navigate the often difficult and tense process of framing out solutions together. Such journalism can help people see themselves as having agency in fixing these problematic issues and push communities past the singular – and often slow – institutional or systemic change (which is also necessary of course). Such a mission falls solidly into the realms of traditional journalistic tenets still so essential for a thriving democracy.
 All of which have experienced (and continued to experience) significant resource cutbacks and mergers during the last 5-10 years.
 Check out this YWCA Diversity Curriculum for self-assessments and good readings: (http://www.ywcamadison.org/site/c.cuIWLiO0JqI8E/b.7968335/k.A744/Racial_Justice_Online_Class.htm