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Effective accountability journalists work hard to create context for their audiences

These journalists strategize ways to ensure their stories have context and a place in their readers’ lives. They think about impact as they report, frame and write, keeping in mind who can take action on the issue at hand. (This characteristic and relationship-building were tied at No.1 when participants were asked which of these seven characteristics they believe are most important.)

John Micek, who emphasized that he did not want to be “an ivory-tower editorial writer,” said he often uses the “taxpayer’s money” angle as a way to explain how a particular topic matters in readers’ daily lives. Kera Wanielista, a crime and education reporter for the Skagit (Wash.) Valley Herald, said her best stories are those that “do a good job of narrowing down larger issues so that they mean something to my community.”

(These journalists) think about impact as they report, frame and write, keeping in mind who can take action on the issue at hand.

One reporter made a routine campaign financing story more relevant by telling readers about “donations from their neighbors.” Others consistently use data to provide relevancy to stories.

Anjeanette Damon, a government watchdog reporter at the Reno Gazette, used her own social media network as well as all of her newspaper’s branded accounts to generate discussion and ideas for how the city should spend its $10 million surplus last year. That caught the attention of policymakers who subsequently allotted more time for public input on the issue.

Mary Ellen Klas, a longtime political and government reporter for the Miami Herald, said she seeks to write about “what people don’t understand” and, more importantly, why they need to. She also gravitates to “outrage factor” stories: topics that can lead to emotional reactions.

Clinton Yates operates on the idea that stories need to touch readers “on two or three levels.” For example, a story about a new amphitheater can be written to provide importance to a reader who’s a taxpayer, a parent or a music fan.

Though the number of competitive media markets is declining, some journalists do face competition on specific stories or topics. And that’s when providing context and meaning to their coverage can give them an audience-share advantage.

Jason Rosenbaum, a St. Louis Public Radio reporter who covered the Ferguson police shooting and protests, said he was able to compete with news organizations around the world by providing something they didn’t: historical context concerning how police, communities and other agencies work together in Missouri.

These strategies also tend to draw in new and socially/demographically diverse audiences. “If you can’t find readers [other than] who’s been reading your publication in the past, you’re not going to survive from a business standpoint,” said Clinton Yates.

“One audience isn’t going to sustain you,” said Lee Tolliver.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: Context is “hugely important,” says Kaiser, because “with that comes impact. Journalists must spend their time and effort to do reporting that has impact. The days are long past when we could publish ‘he said, she said’ stories … A first step for journalists to have impact from their stories is do deep reporting so they can write the truth” and let readers know why a story matters.

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