The Listening Post
A new reporter assigned to the police beat knows without being told that one of the best places to go for information is a police station. She gets to know what time “roll call” happens each day, when the shifts change, who the shift commanders are, which street cops like to talk and which ones defer to public information officers.
The reporter understands the importance of getting to know secretaries and volunteers and home telephone numbers. She reads the bulletin boards and newsletters and all other publications that come from the department, as well as regional and national trade publications. She establishes relationships and begins what she knows will be a long-term process of breaking through the wall of suspicion, misdirection, even hostility that comes with the beat. She does it because the news organization sees the beat as central to good coverage.
The police station is a listening post, and checking in there is part of the normal routine of most news organizations. Journalists check in with institutional listening posts all the time – legislative bodies, schools and school boards, local government offices. Their routines, personal and professional, bring them in contact with large segments of the population. Those routines also result in large chunks of the population being left out of coverage.
Journalists interested in telling more of a community’s “truth” need to establish listening posts in the places that fall outside the routine of journalism. The skills for doing this are not new to the profession; just ask the police reporter. But there are things the journalist needs to think about when working on setting up listening posts in undercovered communities.
The first thing they need to know is that they have to leave the office, the neighborhood, maybe even the comfort of personal likes and dislikes in order to make this happen. When they do, though, they’ll find new, interesting stories that no one else has, fresh sources, and the chance to paint a more accurate picture of what happened in the world today.
This is about beat coverage, so the focus should remain on that universal point, even as the instructor has something more specific in mind. Every beat reporter and photojournalist should have a range of listening posts beyond the institutions to which they’ve been assigned. Placing this exercise in that context normalizes the work rather than separating it out as a “diversity” exercise.
It’s good if the instructor already knows of a few good listening posts in the community. Such places might include day-care centers, eateries, bars and barber shops, factories that employ an eclectic collection of people, funeral homes (among places people in a community always must go eventually), community centers or playgrounds. The list can go on.
Send reporters out to establish contact with one or more listening posts. Here’s one set of criteria for their choices:
1. It must be a place you are not likely to go otherwise.
2. It should include a group of people who are poorly understood and/or poorly covered by the media.
3. It should offer a window onto a “community” of people that might provide information on the group beyond the people who come there.
Give the journalists a set of questions to answer while at the listening post:
1. Who comes here?
2. What can I learn about the community from this place?
3. What stories might I do about this place, the people who come here, or the things I’ve learned from looking around?
4. How might the people I encounter here fit into my (and my organization’s) everyday coverage of other beats?
A number of things can flow from the day(s) out. You might spend some time debriefing the exercise in class, asking students not just what they learned, but how they felt. You might also ask the students to put this information in an essay or write it in a journal you’ve had them keeping throughout the term.
Students could be required to produce stories from the listening post. They could be asked to use sources found at the listening posts in stories unrelated to that place. They might be asked to write a few descriptive paragraphs for a feature-writing class, produce a source list for a beginning newswriting class, analyze the way the group is portrayed for an advanced class.
This exercise, a staple of our work with professional journalists, strikes at many levels of the complex thing called diversity.
• It raises awareness, often introducing journalists for the first time to a group of people, a faith, a condition –whatever the source of difference being explored.
• It informs, providing primary (though very limited) information to the journalists; information that will have immediate applications in their daily work. Talking to Muslims at a mosque demystifies the faith, expands the journalists’ vocabulary and makes it all the harder to stereotype or demonize a whole group of people.
• It energizes often-abstract discussions about story ideas or ethics or “diversity.”
A conversation with students should probe for any or all of these results, reinforcing and expanding the learning by the degree to which students shared similar experiences or added new perspectives for the class’s consumption.
The “Listening Post” exercise offers a good opportunity to reconcile one of the abiding dichotomies of so-called diversity: undercovered people want to be treated no differently than anyone else, but they want their differences recognized by the media. This exercise emphasizes the ordinary nature of beat reporting while demonstrating the need for – and advantage of – going to the places no one else goes.
The exercise has many applications. It can be used to sensitize journalists to the world around them. It can be used to help beat reporters and photojournalists improve the range of their coverage. It can be used to help copy editors know more about the names and places that will be mentioned in stories or the loaded language usually associated with this group. It can help managers understand the worlds of the people they supervise. Ethics students could wrestle with the conflict between truth-telling and independence that arises when journalists seek out undercovered groups for coverage. There’s hardly a part of journalism to which it doesn’t apply.
The Listening Post
A guide for journalists
How do journalists get to know the stories of places, people and neighborhoods that have, for various reasons, gone uncovered or undercovered? One way is to find the places you can go to tune in to a community’s frequency. Here are some guidelines for using “listening posts.”
Before you go
1. Find places where people are likely to stop and talk, mingle, share information about themselves: Barbershops and beauty salons; grocery stores; community centers. Some of the most informed people in a community are often the funeral directors, day care center directors, health clinic workers, neighborhood association presidents.
2. Choose a variety of listening posts within a community to avoid becoming the pawn of factions or prominent sources.
3. Learn all you can about the people and community you plan to visit before you get there. That way, you’ll be aware of any cultural challenges or historical obstacles you might have to meet and overcome.
4. Don’t go in a rush. Allow enough time for a leisurely visit.
While you’re there
1. “Listen’ with all of your senses. Read bulletin boards, pamphlets, leaflets.
2. Resist the temptation to interview people. Sit down and have a conversation.
3. Listen carefully to the language people use to describe themselves and what they do. Take your cue from them.
4. Be willing to be wrong about a place or person. Show up with an open mind.
Keith Woods, Lillian Dunlap, Aly Colón
The Poynter Institute