October 28, 2015

A lot of newsrooms have a goal of reflecting the diversity of their communities. But the way they go about their reporting, writing and producing can get in the way of that.

Journalists are great at:

  • talking to lots of people
  • picking the most relevant, interesting or thoughtful remarks
  • weaving those selected remarks together into a story

The problem? That method leaves out anyone whose comment has value but is not the MOST relevant, interesting or thoughtful. It favors the people who know how to give a good sound bite. Journalists want complete sentences. We want unique points of view.

We say we want lots of voices and perspectives represented in our coverage, but our journalistic processes too often leave those voices out.

In my newsroom, we’ve developed a set of strategies — and are constantly looking for more — that help us document more than the usual voices and reflect them back to our community.

We start with some questions, then we let the storytelling format take its cues from the answers.

  • Whose voices do we need?
  • Where can we find them already gathered (in person or online)?
  • What method of contribution will they feel most comfortable with?
  • Will people want to get their pictures taken?
  • Will they be in the mood to linger with us, or do we need to honor their desire for speedy interactions?
  • Will the setting lend itself to audio?
  • Should we invite people to write their thoughts down rather than talk to us?

Perhaps most important: Is our role one of storyteller? Will we want to craft a “story” out of these responses, or should we instead get out of the comments’ way? Might a diverse collection of voices offer a more complete reflection of our community than a well-crafted story?  Could the whole of that collection be more valuable than the sum of its parts?

Here are some examples of “stories” that don’t look much like traditional journalistic stories. The reach of these types of stories often eclipses that of the traditional stories. Real people saying real things are awfully compelling.

Technique: Pose a central question or two to lots of sources

being-blackWhen African American students gathered to talk about diversity in black culture, a reporter from our newsroom wrote an event story that capture the back-and-forth in the room. But more effective was what Mark Selig, a member of our community outreach team, did. He chose three questions to pose to attendees before and after the event, and he gave them room to share their perspective. The perspectives he captured felt more authentic, more powerful and more descriptive than a traditional journalistic account of an event.
We do the quotes-and-pictures thing on Facebook a lot when our goal is to share a lot of faces and perspectives. Here we are with same-sex marriage, a science fair, the allure of baseball, Race for the Cure and why people vote.

Technique: Allow for various response formats

A response to a question about lessons learned from your first love.

A response to a question about lessons learned from your first love.

For Valentine’s Day, we asked readers about lessons from first loves. Some responded by typing their answers online, but most we gathered through our reporting. But instead of conducting a typical interview, a member of our community outreach team offered up a prompt, then stood back and collected what was said in response. Some people wanted their pictures taken and some didn’t. Some were comfortable with audio (and in a spot that made audio possible) and some weren’t. Here’s the resulting collection.

Think about a typical reporting process as a contrast to this one. If a reporter spent an afternoon gathering material and came back with what’s in this story, she might be disappointed. She might bemoan the lack of a compelling enough lead or the lack of detail that follow-up questioning brings. But I’d argue that together, this story highlights the beautiful variety and scope of what love can look like.

For July 4th, a few students decided to ask as many people as they could: What comes to mind when you think of “America”? This was conceived as a social-first project. The result was posted directly to Facebook (and also collected on our website.)

America=facebookFor part one, we invited community members to write their answers on white boards, and we took their picture. We were deliberate in the diversity of the locations we chose. Check out José Martinez. And Steven Senger. Some answers are intense, some are humorous and some are banal, but together they represent a real scope and diversity of thought. And the pictures add a layer of information that often feels meaningful.

america-facebook-2For part two, we invited summer school students to engage with the question. Elementary school kids wrote and drew about the Bible, civil rights, a difference between Mexico and the U.S and how all cultures can be together. Oh, and Mickey Mouse. We also took a group picture of a class that chose to write a Top 10 list together.



Technique: Written crowdsourcing

My favorite crowdsourcing tool is the Google form. We usually invite users to leave them names and contact information if they’d be willing to be contacted by a reporter and/or have their answers published. But we also allow anonymity in many cases, so perspectives can inform our reporting even if people prefer not to go on the record. What we hear back usually gets fed to a reporter, but we often publish excerpts of what is submitted.

When we asked for reactions to a proposed mandatory diversity training program at the University of Missouri, the responses were varied and thoughtful.

When we asked readers what their mothers had passed on to them, the result was a charming Mother’s Day story.

Lots of newsrooms use social media for this, and we do it when we want to include a lot of written answers or submissions. When we asked people on Facebook to weigh in on a high school’s odd mascot, we got dozens of answers and published 10 of them. But the Google form allows anonymity and generally invites more thoughtful remark than social comments, in our experience.

Technique: User-submitted stories

We have a section of the paper called From Readers, in which community members tell their own stories. There are few rules or limitations. Sometimes the submissions feel newsy. More often they read like blog posts. Individually, few of them stand out as the best kind of work we do. Together, they add up to a rich collection of community voices and perspectives that would otherwise be missing from our coverage. (See highlights from last year’s submissions here.)

So … what’s the highest good? The chance for journalists to select meaningful voices that reflect a larger picture? That’s often the case. But sometimes, it’s more important to invite the right voices to the conversation and know when to get the journalism the heck out of the way.

Do you want this “quote”? (My answer is yes.)

One final example: When our town’s first black city councilwoman died, we knew we wanted to hear from more than the usual suspects about her legacy. So we pulled out the white boards and talked to people who knew her, lived near her and were friends with her.

Read what one woman attending her funeral said when asked what she would thank the woman for. This “quote” wouldn’t make it in a news story. It’s not unique, grammatically correct or specific. But man, do I want my community to see it.

"I thankful that god bless us with you to be the first woman who is black to serve on first ward council and the work us…

Posted by Columbia Missourian on Friday, November 1, 2013

The question is, does my “story” allow for it to be included?

Joy Mayer is the director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Joy Mayer is the director of Trusting News, a project that researches news consumers and then helps journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility. That work…
Joy Mayer

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