12 ways journalists can effectively work with communities

As a newbie to the public radio journalism space, I’m seeing a lot of blog posts on “community engagement”. There seems to be a growing interest in doing journalism with and not just about communities matched by a curiosity on how different newsrooms are doing it.

Here are some tips based on our experience over the past two years producing Capital Public Radio’s documentary series “The View From Here.” Many of these strategies come out of my experience over the past 20 years facilitating participatory photo, radio, and video projects around the globe that help residents identify issues and advocate solutions for the places they live.

DEFINE WHAT YOU MEAN BY COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: It’s important to have a shared vision for community engagement internally before you try to involve residents in your journalistic enterprises. Pull together an interdepartmental workgroup at your station to come up with a working definition that everyone can get behind and work towards. At Capital Public Radio, community engagement means “working collaboratively to discover, understand, and give voice to community needs, values, and aspirations”.

CHOOSE YOUR PARTNERS WISELY: It’s tempting to go with the first great potential partner (organization, think tank, social action group) that you find to get the project rolling or meet a grant deadline. Take the time to really explore if that group has the capacity (staff, time, resources, life situations) to fully commit to the storytelling project. If possible, raise funds to provide partner groups with an honorarium to cover some of their staff time and travel. Even if it’s a small amount, it will make a difference.

ELICIT GOALS AND NEEDS: People and organizations get involved in collaborative media projects for different reasons. Make sure that there is time for all participants — journalists, community members, other stakeholders — to reflect on and voice their interests in the project. Otherwise, they may get involved and then find that it is not as satisfying (personally or professionally) or relevant as they hoped.

INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS: The most important ingredient in any collaboration is a strong relationship among partners. Make time early on to develop trust and set up communication and decision-making processes. Agree on roles, responsibilities, and a timeline and identify how the project will be mutually beneficial. Codify the agreements in an MOU that all parties sign and give everyone a copy of this foundational document. Celebrate the document signing in some creative, public way to forge stronger personal bonds, reinforce shared agreements, and model the importance of fun in collaborative processes.

PAD THE TIMELINE: Participatory media projects have a lot of moving parts: journalists, residents, community partners, sponsoring organizations, institutional affiliates, life! Build wiggle room into the project timeline for the many changes that inevitably arise and need to be accommodated, especially if you plan on teaching people on the backside of the digital divide to produce stories—which always takes longer than you think! Journalists who are used to working independently may also need more time to process how involving residents in shaping their content can build better stories.

ENGAGE IN GROUP PROCESS: While it’s a challenge to get folks out to yet another meeting, whenever possible have project participants come together and do group work (story circles, scripting sessions, listening to rough cuts, outreach planning). There is power in small groups getting together to produce and share stories as a team. It builds the learning community, generates stronger content, and facilitates shared ownership of the work and its impact.

SHARE WORK-IN-PROGRESS: Journalists are used to bouncing ideas off expert sources. They rely on the editorial process to sharpen their work. But they don’t often do the same with community members with ground-level experience on the issues they are covering. Conduct rough-cut listening sessions to ask community partners: does this story ring true? If so, what did we get right? If not, what needs to change? Who else should we talk to? How is this story going to make a difference? This exchange not only demonstrates your intention of creating accurate and relevant stories but also generates better content.

CREATE OPEN SPACE: Build in opportunities for collaborators to engage in open-ended conversations about the project outside of formal meetings or agenda items. These informal discussions are often where we are most creative and allow innovative ideas to take root.

CALCULATE REAL COSTS: Since community based projects tend to evolve in unanticipated ways, it’s tough to figure out just how much staff time, supplies, and travel to budget. Add 10% to whatever you think the project will cost to cover inevitable additional expenses. If you want to involve community members in public presentations, be sure to budget for honoraria to fund their travel and honor their time.

STAY FLEXIBLE: Community-based storytelling projects have a way of evolving in unplanned ways and taking new directions. Be responsive and adaptable to emerging community needs and wishes. Stay open to coming up with alternatives if something doesn’t work out the way you wanted.

HOST A LIVE BROADCAST PARTY: Bring journalists, station staff, community partners, and storytellers (the “subjects” in the story) together to hear the work broadcast live and have a follow up debrief. While this can feel intimidating for journalists, it creates a unique space to engage the community you’ve built around the project to make meaning of the experience together. It offers immediate and crucial feedback on the content and makes us accountable for the stories we put out. And it wraps up the project in way that is respectful and inclusive.

DOCUMENT, EVALUATE, AND REFLECT: Everyone gets something different out of a collaborative project experience and it’s not always what we had in mind. Be sure to assess impacts the project had on journalists and the station as well as participants, partners, and communities to see the full range of outcomes generated by the project.

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