Mia Ryder-Marks is a journalism graduate at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She writes on community engagement and social justice issues.
Journalists have an important role to play in amplifying under-represented voices, with outlets like the Marshall Project and Independent Journalism Fund providing platforms for marginalised communities. However, the greater news landscape has still glaring gaps around who is being heard and who is falling between the cracks. As a result, many communities believe they are not represented in journalistic coverage, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
What is the bigger picture?
University of Oregon professor Lori Shontz said that ignoring the bigger picture means failing the people you are reporting about and for.
For example, reporting on immigration in the USA largely focuses on communities from Southern and Central America. However, according to the Migration Policy Institute, new arrivals in the country are more likely to be from Asia. Not only these voices are just as important to cover, they also correct the distorted picture of the reality many journalists and audiences have.
Covering a community story is not just about the main events but also about how people are reacting to them and how these events affect the community.
Am I challenging stereotypes or feeding into them?
There are many misconceptions around certain communities, mainly because very few journalists are making an effort to debunk the falsehoods. For instance, indigenous peoples are often being stereotyped as 'addicts', specific racial groups as 'criminals', or immigrants as 'illegal'.
Emily Olsen, a digital journalist for ABC News Australia, said we need to address tropes in journalism: "Speak to those stereotypes – say how they are of value but also challenge them."
Journalists have the power to shape perceptions, influence public opinions and change the status quo. It is an ever-growing process for reporters to work against feeding common tropes of communities, such as the 'victim narrative' or outdated terminologies. Both can be deflated by doing your research.
How am I creating positive relationships with communities?
Depending on which research you are looking at, public trust in journalists seems at best shaky and at worst declining.
Jason Wambsgans is a photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune who documents Chicago’s gun violence problem. To authentically capture the crisis, he strives to build constructive relationships with the affected community. In a Demystifying Q&A episode, Wambsgans said that being forthright about your motivations and expectations, while remaining respectful, will help you gain trust so people will want to tell you their story.
The thoughts that positive relationships with communities all filter down to the efforts by reporters is echoed by solutions journalist David Bornstein.
"Trust is a form of accuracy," he says. "I don’t care what you know, until I know that you care."
As you report on a community, what techniques are you actively implementing to build a sturdy foundation of trust?
Creating solid connections with sources is a good first step to genuine relationships. Award-winning director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio Ashley Alvarado advised to reach out to sources, even when there is no story. Another way to keep the connections warm, according to Carl Segerstrom, reporter for High Country News, is to call back every source he is quoting in his article and alert them about how they will be represented in that story.
What is missing?
When interviewed for the Demystifying Media podcast, Bornstein said that 37 per cent of audiences do not consume news because it makes them feel "powerless." One of the reasons for that is that stories often focus on the negative side and highlight problems in communities.
This thought is echoed by journalist Lisa Heyamoto who spoke at the Connecting with Communities, Reaching Rural America webinar, giving an example of reporting on a community and only focusing on the crime.
"That becomes the narrative of the place, and then that becomes the narrative of the people. And it’s not the whole story."
Ask yourself, what side of the story is not being tapped into? Also, keep in mind which voices you are amplifying and which you are turning your back to. For instance, a Pew Research Center report has found that white men are favoured by local journalists, despite them being less engaged with local news.
"It was often that I would listen to the news, watch the news, read the news and feel left out of the conversation," Alvarado says about her experience growing up in a prominently white community.
"Finding sources that aren’t the same four to five voices is constantly a challenge but it’s a necessary challenge. Otherwise, we’re not complicating the picture and we’re not elevating voices who have unique perspectives on issues," adds Segerstrom.
Am I writing for a community or about a community?
Segerstrom also shared the value in reporting for a community and not just about them.
"Writing for the place that you’re reporting on can be a really useful way to build empathy with the people that you’re reporting on and get a deeper understanding of the place," he concludes.
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