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How ‘community engagement’ can give your story longer legs

How ‘community engagement’ can give your story longer legs

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“Community engagement” has been a bandied about buzzword in journalism circles in recent years. Definitions vary, but the idea is generally the same: How do journalists ensure all the hard work that goes into big stories reaches the people most affected? How can we give our reporting a better chance of spurring significant change?

Cole Goins, senior manager for engagement and community collaborations at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), is in the vanguard of those thinking about how newsrooms can start conversations and bring about real-world changes. Goins shared his tips and insights on “journalism as a community change agent” with fellows at the 2016 California Fellowship this week.

In an era when “do more with less” has become a cruel euphemism, the prospect of adding community engagement to existing duties can seem like a bridge too far in many newsrooms. But Goins is careful to emphasize that engagement spans a spectrum: It might be something as small as adding a callout for stories on the homepage or courting a Facebook group directly affected by problem you’re reporting on. Bigger newsrooms may opt to mount more ambitious outreach campaigns, as CIR/Reveal did for its series called “The Dark Side of the Strawberry.”

The investigation looked at farmers’ heavy use of dangerous fumigants on strawberry fields in Oxnard, Calif., and the risks posed to nearby school kids and residents. At the project’s outset, Reveal conducted a survey of local residents’ knowledge about the issue, which offered a baseline to gauge impact and helped guide the reporting towards the community’s information needs. After publication, the team sent out a postcard to some 5,000 addresses near pesticide hotspots. The cards detailed key points from the series, and included a number residents could text to find out the volume of pesticides applied near their home.

CIR also got experimental by using theater as a means of telling the story. “Maybe people didn’t read the article, but they might want to come a play,” Going said. “To us, that’s just as important.” The center commissioned a noted playwright to transform the 15-month investigation into a one-act play, which was performed locally in Spanish and English. A theater workshop pulled in drama students from the local high school as well.

It may sound a bit unconventional, particularly for a traditional newsroom, but that’s partly the point. Goins urges journalists to ask: “What’s a unique way to tell the story that’s really going to get to people in a new way?”

Here are a few more key themes from his talk:

Identify your stakeholders. This is something most reporters do anyway when thinking through a story, but the idea is to clearly identify at the outset who is most affected by the issues you’re covering, what they might need to know, where they are and how you can best reach them.

Goins refers to primary stakeholders (those directly affected by the issue), secondary stakeholders (actively involved but perhaps not directly impacted), the greater public and key influencers (those who can change the situation). In the case of the greater public, remember to answer the question, “Why should they care?”

Think of yourself as a convener of conversations. “A lot of times there are a lot people who are dealing with the same issue in different ways, but they don’t talk to each other,” Goins said. “They all touch the issue in some way, but they’re not working together and having conversations with each other about like, ‘What do we do about this?’”

That’s where a reporter can help bring different stakeholders into contact and help jumpstart the conversation. For example, reporter Jackie Valley of the Las Vegas Sun organized a community forum that brought together a standing-room-only crowd of parents, academics, mental health professionals and advocacy organizations to discuss the region’s failure to meet children’s mental health needs.

It’s easy to assume such groups are already working together to solve such tough problems, but that’s often not the case. “As a journalist doing a story, can you bring those people together?”  Goins urged journalists to ask themselves. “We’re providing that common ground for people to talk through these issues in a way — we’re connectors.”

Don't let fears of advocacy paralyze you. The most common form of pushback Goins gets from other journalists has to do with worries over their journalism sliding into advocacy. Goins said they often ask, “If you want your story to do something, isn’t that advocacy?”

Not necessarily. “I think there’s definitely a clear line,” Goins said. “We’re not advocates; we’re journalists. But we can empower people with information. It doesn’t say that when you point out a problem, that we can’t highlight ways to address that problem. It’s not that we have to say that I want ‘X’ to happen. It’s more anticipating that these are the things that could happen as a result of the story.”

Similarly, solutions journalism offers a useful framework for finding “positive deviants” and evidence-based approaches to complex problems. Identifying potential solutions isn’t the same thing as lobbying for one in particular.

“Impact doesn’t happen overnight,” Goins cautioned. A big investigative piece might whip up an instant firestorm, but more often, shifts in awareness and policy unfold slowly, over months and years. “We were reporting on veterans' health care benefits and delay in getting care for two years before anything actually happened,” Goins said. “Persistence is always key.”

[Photo by VFS Digital Design via Flickr.]

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