Connecting with your community and knowing where “the line” is before you cross it

by Julia Haslanger @JuliaJRH

This week in class we heard from two guest speakers, looked at some thought-provoking charts and discussed how we think of advocacy and bias within the new realm of social journalism, and specifically as we work with our communities throughout the year.

Sandeep Junnarkar and Allegra Abramo stopped by our class to talk with us about their “Stop the Mold” series. It was enlightening to hear about their process of going into the community, identifying leaders and building connections with the people whose lives were affected by mold.

Sandeep Junnarkar, Director of Interactive Media at CUNY. Photo by Carrie Brown
Sandeep Junnarkar, Director of Interactive Media at CUNY. Photo by Carrie Brown

Experiences from “Stop the Mold” worth learning from:

  • Having the stamp of approval from trusted community organizations or individuals (such as relevant beat reporters) helps a lot.
  • Allegra says the key to building valuable relationships with the community is simple: “It’s showing up.” Normal human interactions. Show people you care, that you’re sticking around — you’re committed. People feel that. “It’s not rocket science.”
  • Sandeep says each time they met with an organization they had to build trust. They would go to the organization, sit down with people and show clips of the kind of work they’ve done and answer their questions. Having your elevator pitch ready helps build trust.
  • If people are mistrustful, try to learn why. What are their concerns?
  • Learn how to avoid the minefields (rivalries between people and groups, etc.) and focus on what you’re covering.
  • It can be slow going. “For the longest time in this class, we had nothing to show,” Sandeep said.
  • The next step for the “Stop the Mold” project is to try to provide information and instructions to the people who have mold, and teach them how to document their situation. Jeff Jarvis says that’s great community journalism: “The way to really do it is having a community really depending on you for information.

A few takeaways from their other experiences:

  • Sandeep underwent a period of transition from being what he called as a “taking” journalist to a community-focused, “sharing” journalist. Also within the last 10 years, he says he went from being very “balance” focused to acknowledging that he has an opinion and wants it heard.
  • Don’t be afraid to apply for grants that aren’t a perfect fit. It’s OK to “hack” the grant, especially for projects you’re passionate enough about that you want to do them regardless of whether you get the grant or not.

For the second part of the class, we turned our attention first to three charts about engagement, then to a discussion of challenges and principles of social journalism.

First we looked at a chart by Peggy Holman about different levels of engagement.

Chart One

Carrie Brown suggested many newsrooms only make it halfway across the continuum, to the “involve” level, allowing readers to comment, but not to “collaborate” or “empower” levels.

Then we looked at a chart Joy Mayer made from a concept Meg Pickard was using at The Guardian in 2010:

Chart Two

This chart is so simple and so valuable to explaining engagement concepts to more old-school journalists. I remember when I first saw that drawing from Joy, five or more years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

The third chart we looked at was another Peggy Holman creation:

Chart Three

It looks at opportunities for a journalist to become interdependent with the community he/she is serving.

With those charts and the lessons we heard from Sandeep and Allegra in mind, we began a conversation about advocacy journalism, and what the challenges we’ve encountered so far or expect to encounter.

One challenge mentioned was juggling when to use the language of your community, even if those outside it don’t get the jargon. When is it OK or good to use abbreviations, acronyms and other shorthand, and when do we need to explain terms to a general audience?

Jarvis pointed out that by using the language of your community, you’re demonstrating that you’re an insider. You’re writing for “a public” rather than “the public,” as Jarvis put it. Figuring out which you’re working with and for can be troublesome as times.

“Facebook confused being public with your public to being public with the public,” Jarvis said.

Once you figure out how to talk to people, and once you start becoming immersed in your community, how do you recognize where “the line” is?

Jarvis asked us to define “intellectual honesty.” His definition:

“Reporting the facts that may disagree with your worldview. If you give that up, you’ve lost your core asset for your community. We do have to explore honestly the limits of advocacy.”

Jarvis also prodded us to identify what would be the moment you know you’ve lost your independent perspective. We brought up lying, falsifying or hiding facts. Cristina put it nicely: You have to cover everything, not just what you want to cover.

Carrie then asked us to consider biases, and then wanted us to think about what biases are generally accepted in journalism, such as, “lynching is bad,” or “crime is bad.” But Carrie said the biases you don’t know you have are the most dangerous. An exercise that I did in undergrad that was really helpful in identifying my own biases and perspective is called “Fault Lines,” I highly recommend checking it out.

Carrie also referenced the work of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “Elements of Journalism.” Bill, Carrie said, made the point that watchdog journalism clearly has a form of bias — it’s pointing out something that’s wrong. You wouldn’t be writing the story if everything was fine and nothing needed to be changed.

Jarvis said one thing that he would like to see our inaugural Social Journalism class produce before we graduate would be “The Principles of Social Journalism.” So, the question for this week:

If you could propose one item for an early draft of “Principles of Social Journalism,” what would you propose and why? Try to suggest something different than the commenters before you.



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