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Effective accountability journalists think about multiple audiences

Within the expansive term “audience” are numerous diverse communities, and a point we heard repeatedly from these journalists is that they think about multiple audiences.

Some of the audiences can be quite specific. Some reporting and writing is aimed at one particular audience, and sometimes it’s designed for more than one. Among those audiences or communities the reporters have in mind as they produce their work are:

  1. Highly engaged citizens: voters, taxpayers and community members.
  2. Not-so-highly engaged citizens: They need more context, and are better served by stories about the meaning of events instead of process.
  3. The political class: people who work in or closely follow the inside game of politics professionally.
  4. “Niche” groups that are highly affected by the specific issue or action being written about.
  5. Powerful individuals and institutions: Some even talked about writing a story with specific powerful influencers in mind, such as a mayor or school board. And reporters told us that important community issues were addressed afterward because that particular person or entity became aware of the problem.
  6. Diverse audiences: Reaching out to audiences who are diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity and other demographic characteristics.

The multiple-audience concept is clear in their answers to our question: “Who are you writing for?” The answers included “my mom,” children, parents, and political junkies.

A background in a non-journalism field also seems to be advantageous.

A background in a non-journalism field also seems to be advantageous. Stephanie Arnold, a former print reporter and now a social media manager for Philly.com, said she has long referred to herself as a “digital immigrant.” She says her work in other industries — including retail and non-profit — has given her a baseline of understanding customer service and solving problems. Lauren McGaughy, a Dallas Morning News politics reporter who holds degrees in Asian and Islamic studies, also credited her interest in interactivity and social media to her non-traditional entry into journalism.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: Curiosity is essential, says Marty Kaiser, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a board member for the Center for Journalism Ethics who helped to review this report. Highly effective accountability journalists want to know, “What am I missing? Who can I talk to or what documents can I use to increase my expertise and allow me to write with more authority and have more impact?” Kaiser said. “In addition, the best journalists understand the shades of gray that are often part of accountability journalism. They understand that life and people are complicated.”

These are the reporters’ answers to the question: Who are you writing for?

The journalists use several methods to reach those pockets of readers and potential audiences: attending events held by that niche community; asking sources for their ideas on how to get the community to pay attention to a particular story; and having informal “barstool” conversations, as Lee Tolliver, a sports and news reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, described it.

A true respect for those audiences is important. “Many of my readers have been around politics a lot longer than I have and add great context” to her reporting, said Briana Bierschbach, a MinnPost politics reporter. When meeting with niche groups, said Brandon Rittiman, simply listening is important. The reporter’s attitude should not be, “I understand this and you don’t,” he said.

“I don’t want to get too savvy,” said Topeka Capital-Journal state government reporter Jonathan Shorman, explaining that he wants to remain as curious and questioning as his audiences. Another reporter said a crucial characteristic of a good journalist is one who will “act as an aggressive advocate for readers.”

One concept that came up repeatedly in discussions with this group of journalists was “cultural competence” and having the skills to listen to, understand and identify with diverse cultures in one’s community — skills that are essential in producing successful 21st-century journalism.

Much like the best doctors and police officers, these journalists strive to learn and understand all sorts of cultural variables they might not share with their audiences — race, gender, age, faith, socioeconomic status and more.

They also understand that audiences no longer need to adapt their lives to media distribution and production styles; instead, successful journalism has to understand and adapt to the needs and rhythms of its different communities to be relevant.

“Diverse” ranked high among the terms used by the group to describe their audiences:

Accountability reporters used these words to describe their audiences.

Newsroom diversity obviously is necessary to help reach diverse communities, we heard. But newsroom diversity alone is not sufficient. And this broader concept of diversity encompassed in the notion of cultural competence also means that newsroom diversity is a matter of intellectual openness and empathy — and is not the job simply of editors or those who hire.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: “The best reporters listen and learn,” says Marty Kaiser. “They know they have a lot to learn about whatever subject they are reporting and writing about. The best reporters are not afraid of asking what many reporters might think are stupid questions. The Enron scandal was uncovered by a reporter who wasn’t afraid to say she didn’t understand what the company was doing and simply asked for an explanation.”

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