An experiment: Journalists at a convention take time to engage with the community

Journalism / Article

A week ago, I helped moderate an experimental discussion between South Florida residents and a group of journalists from all over America. Why? Because a big gathering – the joint convention of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio and Television Digital News Association – had come to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the journalists wanted to hear what community leaders had to say about the news media.

The “community engagement lunch” was worthwhile and long overdue. Community members learned about the daily realities journalists face. They learned both organizations have strong codes of ethics. The journalists learned that community members have longstanding issues that are not being dealt with – yet anyone who seeks credibility as a source of news and information must address them.

We started by looking at the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities. Did community members and journalists agree that news and information are core community needs? They did. Had they noticed the digital-age explosion of traditional media’s advertising-based model and the resulting local journalism cutbacks? They had.

Then we got into it. Here are the major topic areas:

Real names on news websites

Community members said they do not leave comments on media websites because of all of the anonymous hate speech there. Why, I asked, do news organizations allow anonymity on the web? The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should “always question sources’ motives before granting anonymity.” Says the Radio and Television Digital News Association code: “identify sources whenever possible.” Yet many news organizations do precisely the opposite. They never question the motives of the people who comment on their web sites and then all of them remain anonymous. They do not “identify sources whenever possible.” So… what is the point of having a code of ethics if we then ignore it?

When real names are required, the conversation is more civil. But no technology can guarantee all the names will be real, observed Howard Saltz, editor of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. Some always will fake an identity to get in. Even so, news organizations, including major ones like the Gannett newspapers, have switched to Facebook registration and found other ways to ask for real names. When they do, bigoted name-calling falls off fast and people are more likely to post thoughtful comments.

Half a story now and half later

One-sided stories are a real problem, said Mary Ross Agosta, communications director at the Archdiocese of Miami. The 24/7 news cycle creates “frustrating” situations where a reporter posts part of the story now and the rest later, because many never see the second version. Mohammad Shakir, director of the Asian-American Advisory Board, talked about how “wire service” stories written by people outside the community can contain stereotypes and factual errors that would not have happened had the story been done locally.

These are valid issues, and again, fly in the face of ethical values the journalists promoted. Resisting the temptation to be first when it’s more important to be right – that is a constant struggle. Hearing the damage and alienation that wrong stories create can help us do the right thing more often.

Of cats and trees: Where’s the good news?

Several community members said there just was not enough good news in the media, that every story seems to have a villain – and a lot of the time, it really does seem to be that way. As Walter Cronkite used to say, it’s not our job to cover all the cats, just the ones that get stuck up in the tree. Why? So we can get them down. But the world of finite journalism was smashed nearly 20 years ago with the World Wide Web. Now, we have as much space as we want. (That is why YouTube covers all the cats, not just the ones in trees.) The secret: We need to let go of a little control and let people put their own good news onto a special section of our web sites.

Community members and journalists agreed there should be a lot more transparency – news organizations explaining how they operate, making sure phone numbers and other contact information is easy to find, even putting the codes of ethics on their web sites so the public knows they have them. We also appeared to agree that cable news, at least in recent years, is giving people the idea that everyone in journalism has an agenda and no one cares about the facts.

Whose problem is this, anyway? 

The shrinking local news staffs in recent years are pushing more journalists into covering topics they do not know much about. Yet we need journalists with expertise, community members said. Could they help, we asked, by putting more general information on their own web sites? Some are, but admit they could do more. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has its own radio show (where they interview reporters about how and why they do what they do). Commander Michael Calderin summed it the philosophy when he said: “Whose responsibility is it to care about community news and information? Everyone’s.”

How the community engagement session came about

At the University of California at Berkeley this spring, I spoke at the invitation of investigative legend Lowell Bergman about journalism and transparency. We do such a bad job of telling the world how and why we do what we do, I argued, it’s no wonder most people think it would be no big deal if newspapers were to go away (but it would be, of course, because they do most of America’s original reporting).

Among my suggestions: Open up our conferences. “Our professional organizations have for 100 years held conferences where storytellers tell stories to storytellers about how to do great stories,” I said. “We should include our communities in these conferences. No journalism conference should happen anywhere without a session involving leaders and citizens of the host community.” Such “open journalism” sessions would create thousands of journalist-community encounters.

Bergman, the former 60 Minutes sleuth who still wins journalism’s top awards through his investigative reporting projects at UC-Berkeley, has “open sessions” at his annual Logan Symposium. At times, you have to be an investigative reporter just to figure out who is at the conference: It is common for FBI, CIA, private investigators and many others to be there. That fits his topic. But I was more interested in the connection between journalists and specific geographic communities.

The next day I was still on my high horse. Dori Maynard, who runs the Maynard Institute, journalism’s leading diversity organization, and Sally Lehrman, author of News in a New America, liked “open conference” sessions.  Lehrman told the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Associate executive director Chris Vachon and colleague Scott Leadingham, who wanted to try it.

From Fort Lauderdale to America to Macon

Leadingham, the society’s director of education, developed and co-moderated the community engagement session in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He loved it, and said he believes this kind of “open session” should continue. At first, he had worried the lunch would become a “gripe” session, with the journalists becoming defensive. But it did not. He was “pleased… with the quality of the conversation.” He thinks these sorts of sessions “need to happen all over the country.” Congratulations, Society of Professional Journalists!

Kenny Irby also thought the conversation was a success, which is saying something. Irby is director of community relations and diversity at the Poynter Institute, the top journalism training organization, home to News University. Irby offered to help duplicate the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. session; it reminded him of the “time out for diversity” events he did in the late 1990s, with one important difference. These days, if community members do not like the local news, they have alternatives. They can beef up their web sites, go out and publish some of their own. That makes community engagement an essential element of local news reporting.

Later today I am in Macon, Ga., moderating a panel of journalists at an open session at Mercer University, home of the Center for Collaborative Journalism. We will be talking with students and community members about what it will be like for daily newspaper journalists, public broadcasters and student journalists all to occupy the same physical newsroom. I will raise the community issues from Fort Lauderdale,  and ask how community engagement in Macon will be strong enough to address them.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation

Related: “Let’s get it right with real names in 2012,” by Eric Newton on KnightBlog.