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A reflection on the power of creative storytelling to unite communities

In times of disparity and political division, storytelling can be beautifully unifying.

My work on this report began in July 2016 with a weekend trip to Richmond, Virginia, where I attended a live storytelling event that AIR’s lead producer Kelley Libby led with the help of a community collaborator. There was a line outside the door to get into the Hippodrome Theater where the event took place. Inside, I saw people from different races and ages conversing, laughing.

The energy and enthusiasm in the room were palpable.

Later, I learned that this is part of what makes the lead producers’ stories and events so unconventional: they have brought together disparate and sometimes divided parts of the community to share and hear stories about an issue of common concern.

Community-driven stories hold power — to reveal hidden truths, activate public discourse, and create positive social change. They feed the soul, providing emotional and intellectual sustenance. They help us understand, and in some cases celebrate, differences. Now more than ever, we need stories that give us a window into people and cultures that are different from our own so that we can better understand and appreciate the rich tapestry of America.

Deb Echo Hawk is from the Pawnee Nation. She runs a nutrition program for elders and uses Pawnee seeds in a garden she grows.
Credit: Allison Herrera (Invisible Nations)

Many of these stories have remained untold in mainstream media, particularly in the far corners of American communities that traditional public media typically doesn’t reach. These corners are a mosaic of cultures, races, ethnicities, and political ideologies. They’re the places where public media outlets need to establish more inroads if they want to build their audience and remain relevant. Many are hard at work on this, including those that participated in AIR’s Finding America initiative, which produced valuable lessons and takeaways for the industry at large.

I’ve been researching this initiative and have co-authored this report with Finding America Executive Producer Sue Schardt and with input from the lead producers, station managers & AIR staff. My intent was to learn more about what happens when public media producers try to tell stories not just about people, but with and for people.

In my day job, I work as the executive director of Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh), a media nonprofit that aims to elevate media’s role as a force for good. Previously, I worked as the editor of Poynter.org, one of the world’s leading media news websites. I covered stories about buyouts, layoffs, and cutbacks, but the stories I preferred were about best practices. There is plenty of criticism of media; I like to drill into what’s working and draw out lessons for the industry at large. My interest in looking at what works, as opposed to only focusing on what’s broken, prompted me to help AIR conduct research on the Finding America projects.

I write this as someone who has long had a journalistic frame of reference. I work with media practitioners of all kinds in my day job, but nonetheless have a tendency to speak in journalistic language — using words such as “cover” and “report.” Over the course of my research, I was reminded of the value in embracing a broader definition of “media” and “stories.”

Viewing media through a wider lens enabled me to see the Finding America projects for what they are — a mix of reporting, anthropology, ethnography, engagement, and art. Many of the lead producers’ success comes from their courage — their willingness to embed in communities where they were outsiders and not always welcomed. They took bold approaches to storytelling, broke (and remade) rules, pushed boundaries, and challenged their own perceptions while maintaining the highest journalistic standards of seeking truth and minimizing harm.

The resulting stories sound different from what you traditionally hear and see in public media. They’re raw and real.

They also embraced different approaches to measuring a story’s worth. They didn’t assess it based on the story’s timeliness or how many clicks it generated, but rather on the story’s importance and relevance to the people living in the community.

The lead producers found stories about love, triumph, and resilience, and they often let community members narrate them. In an act of humility, they invited community members into the storytelling process instead of wielding control over which stories were told and how they were told. The resulting stories sound different from what you traditionally hear and see in public media. They’re raw and real.

This authenticity stemmed from the producers’ approach. Rather than parachuting into a community for a brief period and then leaving, they traded in parachutes for lawn chairs, metaphorically speaking. Many of them embraced an approach that AIR referred to as “reposing” — in other words, spending concentrated time getting to know their communities without the expectation of having to produce stories right away.

The idea of “reposing” initially struck me as far-fetched. I didn’t think it was realistic for journalists to simply observe a community before reporting on it. There’s not enough time for this, I thought. It’s just not practical. They need to report, not reflect. I realized, though, that this is one of the beauties of the Finding America incubation period; it helped stations bring in outside producers who had the freedom to explore what’s possible when you experiment with different storytelling approaches — without immediate concerns about time or money.

Reposing is an antidote to rushed reporting, but it isn’t easy to embrace. It requires time and patience to enter a community and simply observe — to listen to the sounds and silence, to walk the streets with open hearts and a nonjudgmental gaze, to engage with people who may see you as an outsider. It’s easier to pull out your notebook, microphone, or camera and use it as a protective shield. But when you enter a community as a person first and a journalist second, you begin to see it not through the lens of your camera or the quotes in your notebook but through the eyes and ears of the people who live there.

When you enter a community as a person first and a journalist second, you begin to see it not through the lens of your camera or the quotes in your notebook but through the eyes and ears of the people who live there.

I’d venture to say that a lot of journalists probably wish they could take this approach but simply don’t have the time; they’re juggling daily deadlines and doing the jobs of three people. They might also lack resources or a feeling of “permission.” That shouldn’t be an excuse, but it’s a reality in many newsrooms.

Newsrooms can address this challenge by bringing in outside talent — independent producers and community storytellers — who have more freedom to experiment with different ways of pursuing community-driven stories. Unlike many newsroom staff members who are focused on producing daily content, independent producers aren’t constrained by daily deadlines and often have more creative freedom to tell stories with and for communities. AIR has long advocated for this idea, and it was central to the Finding America initiative.

Bringing in outside talent isn’t always seamless. Some station collaborators said it was difficult to collaborate with independent producers who weren’t aware of the station’s culture, workflow, and budget constraints. There was sometimes confusion around roles and expectations, and uncertainty about how to work with the lead producers’ community collaborators—many of whom didn’t have any previous journalism experience — in a way that wouldn’t be perceived as generating biased coverage. Additionally, some of the lead producers wished they had more support from, and interaction with, their stations.

Despite the challenges, the Finding America experiment has paved a clearer path for future collaborations between public media outlets and independent producers, and shown a promising model for how public media can turn to outside talent to fill gaps in coverage.

Anthony Williams (pictured) has worked at Shake and Bake Family Fun Center, the only skating rink with Baltimore City’s limits, for 30 years. Now manager of the facility, he works to ensure that the surrounding, embattled West Baltimore community has a safe place for families to exercise and bond.
Credit: Joanie Tobin (Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City)

In 2017, those of us in media have an opportunity to envision and create media that unites and inspires people, rather than tearing them further apart. Recent debates over what constitutes truth vs falsehood in the news have perpetuated a feeling of ideological and political divisiveness in America. This is the time for producers, news organizations, newsroom leaders, and media practitioners of all kinds to embrace radical, new approaches to telling stories that reflect the full range of the American experience.

We don’t intend to sugarcoat any of the projects in this report. Rather, we want to be transparent about the challenges and shine a light on what worked.

Editors, reporters, producers, public media executives: this report is for you. We want to show you how to embrace new storytelling methods that can better serve communities — and help you navigate challenges along the way — with the ultimate hope of changing media for the better. Change doesn’t happen in one full sweep; it happens one risk, one story, one person at a time.

It’s in this spirit that we present these findings and best practices. In addition to highlighting lessons and takeaways, the goal of the report is to give you ideas about how to push past obstacles and break from traditional journalistic norms. My hope is that it will ultimately prompt you to reflect on how you can contribute to — and influence — the movement toward community-driven, people-powered public media.

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