There was a moment last month when we were truly taken aback. Most of our work over the first half of 2020 has been on our Change the Story project, with the aim of exploring how best a collective of people can collaborate to work on a local news project.
Much of the conversation focused on how people of different backgrounds and experiences are represented in local news, and how many stories are never really told. One thing that seemed a given throughout was that increased representation is good.
However, we ended up hearing from one woman who was so nervous about coverage of her community that she would prefer it to be invisible in the mainstream media. She told one of our interviewers: "I don't see that many people like me on the news, but I'm quite happy about that. It's much better this way. I don't trust the news trying to tell our stories."
She spoke of a sense of dread when anyone from the Muslim community appears in the news for any reason, and she said she could not remember when it was last beneficial. This stark illustration of how poorly-served some people in the UK feel by the news should concern all of us involved in journalism.
The Bureau Local is a core team of five people working with a network of over 1,000 members across the UK. We aim to be a people-powered network setting the news agenda and sparking change, from the ground up.
When we conceived the Change the Story project, 2020 was a blank slate. Our work ultimately took place against a backdrop of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests - both major global events that have highlighted division and inequalities while sparking calls for honesty, solidarity and deep change.
Throughout the Change the Story process, the same themes that have reverberated around British society and the wider world have emerged in our conversations about local news. People from marginalised communities have told us that they do not see themselves represented, either in the make-up of newsrooms or in the stories they tell.
A common perception pervades of journalists as manipulative people who will twist the truth and protect power. A belief that the issues covered are not relevant to people's everyday lives has seen them switch off and turn instead to social media and community forums.
We kicked off our project by recruiting a cross-UK advisory group made up of journalists, community media practitioners, organisers, arts producers and human rights experts from a range of communities across the country, from Belfast to Liverpool, Cumbria to Cardiff.
We also launched a parallel pop-up newsletter bringing in insights from a wider community of interest. You can read more about Change the Story's members and how it was conceived here, and you can read through the archives of the Change the Story bulletin here.
We broke our process down into three key steps: identifying shared aims, developing key issues and stories, and figuring out ways to collaborate. Our group carried out in-depth interviews with members of communities under- and misrepresented in local news, and from that we identified key concerns about the media, and some of the reasons that many people find it alienating.
Conversations were frank, but also hopeful, and together we looked at ways of imagining local news that would serve more people better. To that end, we want to share three key resources widely.
You can read the full report and its conclusions here (it also includes tips on how to carry out your own in-depth interviews on media perceptions and use).
We have also co-created two open resources that we plan to use and would love others to use too. One is our Manifesto for a People's Newsroom, and the other is a Roadmap for Local News Collaboration. The first is about shared aims and values for journalism that build in fairness and power-sharing, and the latter walks you through how to develop a local, collaborative news project.
We also worked with the Change the Story participants to develop a #NewsYouCanUse social media fortnight, looking at how news can be rethought so that it is genuinely relevant, useful and impactful for communities that often miss out.
There is much, much more work to be done before concerns like we heard at the start of this piece are addressed. But we hope that this contributes to an honest conversation, and to collaborative efforts to build something better.
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