Breakout 3, Day 1: The Information Needs of ‘A’ Community

Day 1 Gordon & Torgersen

The Information Needs of A Community Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 Marbella Room

Leader: Rich Gordon, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University Scribe: Carolyn Torgersen, VP Marketing and Communications, Community Foundation of the Lowcountry

Rich Gordon did a brief icebreaker and asked participants to describe an issue in their community that was affected by lack of information or misinformation. The concept behind the exercise was to get participants thinking about the voids in their community left by inadequate or misinformed coverage from the media.

The following is a sampling of the examples given by the audience:

  • Reading Software Company issued a letter to the editor claiming that the community was losing jobs due to the school’s non-use of its software.
  • School bond referendum/paper did not delve deep enough related to other capacity uses in inner-city schools and use of resources.
  • Water issue in S. Florida/lack of information or investigative reporting.
  • Immigrant neighborhood and home ownership in less than thriving area/media not engaged in telling story.
  • Mayor announced plan to sell city sewage treatment processing and plant and turnover profits for local college funding/no public input allowed.
  • Previous mayor legacy to be fast ferry/lost millions due to lack of vetting and information gathering.
  • Toll road business sold to Spanish company/tax dollars being used to lobby.
  • Seattle Supersonics basketball team move to Oklahoma City/sales tax to raise funds for upgrade of facility/news coverage has been promotional only, not investigative.
  • Legislative revenue for smart growth housing/Boston Globe’s quality of housing has declined – no consistent reporter/reporting. The editorial board is good and came out in favor of legislation to the benefit of affordable housing.
  • 18 percent of community does not speak English at home/issues not covered in paper-media.

It was noted that many of the examples related to community initiatives could have been more effective if communication structure had been developed and credible.

The following question was posed to the audience:

What are the barriers to complete and accurate coverage of community news?

  • Shrinking capacity of traditional media
    • Absent ownership
    • Layoffs
  • Choices are being made related to reporting priorities rather than full coverage
    • Complete stories not making it into paper due to space and other constraints
  • Polarization of issues which leads to only one side being heard. The media typically does not analyze the issue.
  • Consensus if difficult to build when news is given different priority levels in neighboring media markets

The following commentary was also provided on the topic of media coverage:

Our communities are drowning in data that is typically not put in context that makes it useable for decision making.

The paradox is that with so many sources of information, what is true? Should community foundations support the proliferation of information from so many sources knowing that it is harder to decipher what is reliable?

Many community foundations are smaller in size, so how can they participate?

Do community foundations take on the responsibility to speak out against media that is providing misinformation?

How well can community foundation gather, analyze and disseminate information for multiple issues?

Community foundations have typically taken a neutral stance on issues. How do they make the jump to advocacy?

There is a need for ethical deep issue journalism as is provided by Pro Publica and Commonwealth.


Several points were made over the course of the session, most resonating were the following:

Can community foundations make the move from being just grant-making organizations to an advocate for community issues knowing the risks may include alienation of donors and the community at large?

What should be the mission of the field and how does that mesh with the mission of the individual organization and the community it serves?

Infrastructure is an issue as community foundation board and staff lacks the skills and expertise to play a role in meeting the information needs of their communities.

The Community Foundations Leadership Team in conjunction with CF Leads are supporting the “theory of change” related to community foundation roles in civic engagement.

It was also noted that in many communities, traditional media is not shrinking, but thriving.

Community foundations are making progress with the collection and analysis of data related to community issues but have not yet implemented systems for dissemination, rather they rely on traditional media sources to fill this role, often with disappointing results.

The session was attended by 26 participants. All were very actively involved in the lively discussion.