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How SoCal Public Radio is trying to bring the 2020 Census home for listeners

How SoCal Public Radio is trying to bring the 2020 Census home for listeners

Picture of Ryan White
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The other week, the KPCC newsroom held a series of meetings called “Census and Cereal.” 

“We basically ate Cocoa Puffs and talked about how the Census relates to individual reporting beats, whether it’s education, infrastructure, health,” said Kristen Muller, the station's chief content officer. 

The gatherings were meant to emphasize the importance of a big challenge that newsrooms are wrestling with in the run-up to the 2020 Census: How do you make critically important — but potentially boring — stories, well, easier to swallow?

At KPCC, the meetings were part of a broader effort at L.A.’s largest NPR affiliate to think critically about how it covers the 2020 Census and how to best focus the station’s local reporting. Muller shared insights from the station’s research and strategy with reporters from around the state as part of the Center for Health Journalism's one-day Census briefing last week.

One of the “low-hanging fruit” changes the station has made to its staff guidelines is to avoid referring to “the citizenship question” in the first 11 seconds of the story, a crucial window for whether someone keeps listening or not.

“It’s thinking about how you set up a story – how you frame it so it’s not alienating right off the bat. Instead, it’s like, ‘There’s this thing happening, it’s important to you because … , and here’s what’s happening with it.’” 

It’s also a deliberate reframing: The controversy around the citizenship question is often the only thing many audiences have heard about the much larger story of the Census.

More broadly, the station has decided to focus on stories that connect the dots between the Census and people’s everyday lives. “What is it, why is it important, what does it mean to people’s lived experiences in L.A.,” as Muller put it.

“There was a real lack of connective tissue between their lives and what it means,” Muller said, citing a series of background interviews KPCC did to inform its Census coverage. “So that’s what we decided to focus on. We’re not going to say, ‘Stand up and be counted.’ We’re going to say, this is what (the Census) means living in L.A. County.”

When they did get people talking about the Census, they always framed it in terms of their children or their employees, Muller said. "It was never about them, very much about 'I care about my kid’s school, and I understand their school could be affected.'"

The station’s reporting revealed another common thread among listeners: “A lot of people we interviewed felt that the boxes on the Census don’t actually match up to anything in their lives,” Muller said. That in itself can be a rich story, as Leslie Berestein Rojas showed through this piece that unpacks the complex racial identities in an Orange County family of Palestinian-Lebanese descent — and how little those identities are registered on a Census form that no longer even includes a “Middle Eastern or North African” box to check.

“Those are the kinds of stories we’re looking to do, (those) that get at people’s sense of self, rather than what the form says you should be,” Muller said.

Stories such as Berestein Rojas’ also illustrate how journalists can keep human lives, in all their fascinating complexity, at the heart of the story. That’s no small achievement. As important as the upcoming Census and potential for an undercount may be, Muller readily concedes the topic remains a huge storytelling challenge.

The Census “really, really, really super matters,” Muller said. “It’s just so hard to make it interesting. I feel as storytellers it requires us to put on our capes for this one, because boy, is it boring. We need to think about how to make it narrative, we need to think characters, we need to think story arcs, all this stuff. You’ve got to find your characters.”

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Listen to the full conversation between KPCC's Kristen Muller and Center for Health Journalism director Michelle Levander here:

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