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Embodying key principles and ethics of deep listening

Listening can help news organizations inform and enrich their journalism. It also challenges reporters to pursue new and sometimes different relationships with people in their communities, going outside the typically transactional nature of journalism.

“Our current approach to listening, dialogue and engagement in general is episodic and sporadic,” said Linda Miller, director of network journalism and inclusion at American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio. “It is content-driven, not values-driven. We use content to drive engagement and engagement to drive content, but these activities do not necessarily increase knowledge, curiosity, inclusion, trust, action, audience or revenue.”

The biggest barrier that Miller sees for newsrooms is a reluctance to measure success through the strength and number of connections in the community, rather than the content it creates.

Making this internal shift from content to connections may seem like a departure from newsrooms’ traditional approach. But ultimately, a newsroom with deep, extensive relationships throughout the communities it serves has more potential to get both stories and sustainable support from that community, as we’ll explore more deeply later in this report.

For newsrooms seeking to reorient toward relationship-building, there are several principles that can help you be more open, respectful and effective.

Don’t be extractive. Journalists and newsrooms routinely ask people to give them information, stories and support, but aren’t always clear about how they’re giving back beyond the story they’re working on.

Hearken’s Jennifer Brandel and Groundsource’s Andrew Haeg recently labeled this as acting like an “askhole” — making requests from the public to meet our own needs without bringing that information back in a way that’s useful to our audiences.

Listening involves a more public service mindset. It can lead to source cultivation and stories — the things many journalists want — but the larger goal is understanding what a community wants and needs, knowing that will lead to better journalism later.

By investing more time in listening, newsrooms can open doors ahead of time. They will have stories and connections that they may not have gotten without a willingness to listen and learn.

As several participants said, it’s important to find creative ways to show up and listen to people in your community without a particular story in mind. We’ll dig more deeply into best practices for creating and finding spaces to listen in the next section.

In most newsrooms, journalists don’t often have time to spend in conversations that aren’t directly related to a story, and the news cycle demands that reporters gather quotes and information quickly. But by investing more time in listening, newsrooms can open doors ahead of time. They will have stories and connections that they may not have gotten without a willingness to listen and learn. This can break the cycle of being extractive.

Be transparent about your goals and gaps in your knowledge about a community. Especially when approaching communities your newsroom doesn’t have a relationship with, it’s important to be upfront about your intentions, what you’re looking for and how any input or information will be used. It’s common practice for journalists to identify themselves as reporters and explain what information they’re seeking, but this is especially important when attempting to build long-term relationships.

One participant at the Nashville summit said journalists should also be transparent about where they are in their personal learning process about the community they’re approaching. The public often appreciates the humility of journalists who both concede gaps in their knowledge and offer specific ways for members of a community to inform their reporting.

As P. Kim Bui explains in her report on empathy for the American Press Institute, journalists should do their research before approaching a community, but acknowledge that they’re not experts. Admitting what you don’t know and building in room to learn from the people you talk with can help journalists build trust, especially with communities who feel wronged or misunderstood.

Be aware of power dynamics and language. Journalists wield privilege and power through their platforms and can cause direct harm to communities at the center of their reporting. As Ruth Palmer writes, journalists’ megaphone and their ability to shape stories can cause newsrooms to be viewed by members of the public, especially in marginalized communities, as powerful institutions worthy of skepticism.

It’s critical to keep these power dynamics in mind and acknowledge them, and to display transparency, honesty and empathy in reporting, so people trust journalists not to abuse their platform.

Fiona Morgan encountered this dynamic firsthand as a local newspaper reporter working on Election Day: A community advocate whom she was attempting to interview began angrily chastising Morgan over her paper’s political coverage, which made Morgan realize that the advocate assumed she held a certain amount of power — more power than Morgan herself thought she had. The interaction made Morgan realize the importance of understanding the power dynamics at play between newsrooms and the people they cover, and how people in the community may view your influence as a journalist.

Language also matters when you interact with communities you don’t have strong relationships with. A recent survey by API found that many Americans aren’t familiar with journalism concepts and terms like “op-ed” and anonymous sources. As one group at the Nashville summit noted, even saying things like “off the record” and “on background” may not make sense to people you talk with. That can feel like the “journalism version of reading your rights,” as one participant called it, and affect the dynamics of your interaction.

Follow up is essential. Journalists must demonstrate accountability to the people they listen to, and show how they’re incorporating their insights, ideas and feedback.

Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media and Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project emphasized how much journalists can learn from customer service, an industry where it’s crucial to get back in touch with everyone who reaches out to you. Beyond simply listening to what someone has to say, Goligoski pointed out the importance of finding value in what you hear and making sure that the person feels heard and appreciated.

Journalists must demonstrate accountability to the people they listen to, and show how they’re incorporating their insights, ideas and feedback.

Though maintaining one-on-one correspondence isn’t scalable for journalists, there are plenty of ways you can stay touch in with communities and keep them updated on how your reporting is addressing their needs and experiences.

The Journal Star sends emails twice a month to people from the South Side who have signed up to receive stories about their neighborhoods. Ashley Kang of The Stand in Syracuse cited a practice by the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., to invite people who had submitted a letter to the editor to a big picnic hosted by the newsroom, as a way to thank them for their contributions.

Communicating how your newsroom is actively responding to the needs and ideas of the people you’re listening to is also a key pillar of any good membership strategy, as the Membership Puzzle Project outlines in its Guide to Audience Revenue and Engagement.

Don’t be too defensive of criticism. John Pettus, founder of online public discourse tool Fiskkit, said that many newsrooms don’t want to open their content up to criticism. If your newsroom writes off or doesn’t respond to basic criticism, however unfounded it may be, that can send signals to your audience that you don’t care about their input.

Though it can sometimes be frustrating, listen to what your audience and community is saying in response to your reporting, talk publicly about what you could do to address their concerns, and let them know how you incorporated their feedback, or explain why you made certain choices.

At WCPO in Cincinnati, for instance, Mike Canan and his team anticipated criticism from the public about their investigation into accountability for local law enforcement and wrote a piece articulating their editorial process and reasoning. Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News project, detailed several examples of how newsrooms are being more transparent about their work and responding to questions from their communities.

Not all communities want to listen or be listened to by journalists. Journalists are often “aggressive listeners” and force people to talk about complicated or troubling issues even when they may not be ready. Some people may be openly antagonistic toward journalists and don’t appreciate what they see as outsiders “parachuting” into their community.

Monica Guzman, director of The Evergrey in Seattle, cited examples of closed groups or communities on social media that benefit from being able to have frank, empowering conversations that could suffer from being brought into the mainstream by journalists. In line with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists should consider how their efforts to listen may not be in the best interest of a particular group or community, and work to minimize harm from their reporting.

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