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How to decide whom your newsroom needs to listen to

To listen more deeply, newsrooms must first determine who should be the focus of their listening.

One of the first questions we asked participants at our summit in Nashville was: “Whom do you want to listen to more in your work?” We distributed Post-Its and had everyone write down specific individuals, groups or communities that they wanted to reach in their listening efforts.

Participants offered a range of rich examples, including: non-voting Texans who hope to better engage in discussions on state politics and policy; disenfranchised voters; service industry workers; Hispanic immigrant parents; rural progressives; people who distrust the national media; and low-income Detroiters.

Summit participants listed individuals or groups that they wanted to reach in their listening efforts.

This process helped the group ground our discussion with specific individuals and communities in mind. It’s a crucial exercise for any newsroom when mapping out strategies to better understand local information needs and build new connections.

Strategies for identifying whom you need to listen to

Your newsroom can use a variety of tactics to identify key communities and stakeholders whom you may not be reaching, who may have lost trust in your newsroom, or may not feel accurately or adequately represented in your reporting.

Below, we’ve outlined a few examples offered by participants at our Nashville summit.

Conduct an audit of your staff and sources. Newsrooms can set up processes to evaluate diversity in their reporting and among their staff to get a better understanding of groups who might be missing or misrepresented in their coverage.

One summit attendee suggested comparing newsroom demographics to the U.S. Census. Does your newsroom staff reflect Census demographics for the area you cover? Do the stories you tell proportionally represent the communities you serve?

Identifying possible gaps can point you to people to whom you need to be listening more. In its 2017 Newsroom Diversity Survey, ASNE partnered with Google News Lab to create a visualization that put newsrooms’ staff demographics side-by-side with Census data, highlighting many such discrepancies.

Another area to examine for imbalances in representation is sources. For example, does your newsroom quote more men than women, or rarely highlight people of color as experts?

Jodi Gersh, VP of engagement, says PRI now conducts an annual audit of both its staff and content to examine representation of gender, race/ethnicity and identity, and people with disabilities.

In its 2016 Inclusiveness Report, PRI neatly sums up the justification for this evaluation: “More than ever before, journalism and media organizations need to better reflect the diversity of our country to effectively and credibly tell the important stories of our world and our communities.”

Other public radio stations such as WHYY, KQED, KUT and KUOW have developed systems for tracking data on the diversity of sources in their news segments to get a better understanding of representation and adopt strategies that better reflect their communities in their broadcasts.

Evaluate the types and tone of stories about different communities you serve. In addition to auditing diversity of staff and sources, evaluating the types of stories you tell about various communities can help you understand possible inaccuracies in how you represent them. For instance, a recent survey by advocacy organizations Color of Change and Family Story found that the vast majority of news coverage pertaining to African American families portrayed them as overwhelmingly poor and dysfunctional.

It’s easy for reporters to misrepresent people in areas where they don’t have strong connections.

Andrea Hart, director of community engagement for City Bureau, noted that many communities, particularly those of color, only see a reporter or read a story about themselves when something bad happens, such as a homicide or natural disaster — a sentiment shared by people in Peoria’s South Side before the Journal Star began its listening campaign. And even then, it’s easy for reporters to misrepresent people in areas that they don’t have strong connections with, simply by the language they use and the way they frame particular issues.

Understanding imbalances between how you cover communities and how they see themselves is crucial to building trust. Waliya Lari, formerly of WRAL, said that being out of touch with how people in different communities see themselves can be detrimental to trustworthy relationships, leading individuals in those communities to wonder, “If [the newsroom] isn’t getting stories about me right, how are they getting anything right?”

This work is at the core of Free Press’ News Voices project, which works to give communities a stronger voice in local news. Through these conversations the News Voices team gets a better sense of how participants feel represented — or misrepresented — by the media, and helps newsrooms use this feedback to reframe certain types of coverage, like crime reporting or local success stories, and build better relationships with those communities.

Assess your current (or former) base of subscribers and supporters. The Journal Star’s initiative to form a community advisory board with residents of Peoria’s South Side stemmed in part from the fact that just 5 percent of the newspaper’s subscribers came from a ZIP code representing that community.

Emily Goligoski of the Membership Puzzle Project talked about the learning opportunity from conversations with people who stopped subscribing or donating to your news organization. Ask them: What drove them away? How could your newsroom regain their support?

As we’ll discuss in greater depth later in this report, listening presents long-term revenue opportunities through new subscribers and supporters, which will require concerted efforts from your newsroom to more directly serve the communities currently missing from your audience.

Talk to the people who don’t like your coverage. One group at our Nashville summit suggested having conversations with your newsrooms’ most vocal critics, to understand the reasons behind their anger or mistrust.

David Plazas, opinion and engagement editor at The Tennessean in Nashville, has hosted several listening sessions with groups who feel particularly marginalized or misrepresented by the news, such as gun owners and young American Muslims. Their feedback has helped his newsroom understand nuances in its reporting, and how The Tennessean can tell stories that are more true to lived experiences.

Use asset mapping to understand information networks in your community. Many people trust and rely on sources of information beyond news organizations, and understanding how these sources operate can inform your listening. Andrea Hart of City Bureau and Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting both advocate for using a process called asset mapping to get a better, fuller picture of local news ecosystems beyond traditional outlets. In this approach, journalists can set out to understand how information flows through informal networks, such as church groups, barbershops, local listservs and Nextdoor groups, to name a few.

By examining the information assets within a community, newsrooms can see where they have strong relationships and where they are lacking. DePaul University’s Asset-Based Community Development Institute offers a variety of high-level resources on understanding approaches to using asset-based practices in your community.

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