July 27, 2014

What’s Community Journalism?

In regions like Miami-Dade County, which is home to nearly 2.6 million people, what is a community? That’s not really a word we associate with such a large space. As community journalists, then, how to we tackle that problem?

Jennifer Hemmingsen from The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa shared the following tips with FIU journalism students working on the eyesontherise.org project about how we can shape our sea level rise journalism to meet community needs — even when it’s hard to define a single community.

Her discussion revolved around what she calls “naming and framing.”

Naming: Does the language we use in our reporting match that of the community? Let community members shape the words we use. Instead of “sea level rise” maybe we talk about “flooding” or other words used by citizens to talk about what’s happening locally.

Framing: How journalists decide what’s important and “news?” Are they the same as what citizens think? Are we letting citizens “frame” or shape the stories we tell?

And so did her main solution: Spend time just talking. Journalists, she said, should be spending as much – if not more – time during their daily reporting capturing information, perspectives, sources, and ideas related to larger, enterprise stories. Simply, we should work smarter.

But students asked the most practical of questions, those that are likely on the minds of many reporters who read the above advice as “do more with less”: With all of the pressures, how can we learn the language used by citizens to discuss an important issue and tell important stories on deadline?

Hemmingsen suggests thinking beyond the daily story. We all have to do the daily deeds, but what about our future stories? Shouldn’t we be interested in staying ahead of the curve?

If so, that takes having a personal laundry list of possible stories to tell.

And as Hemmingsen said, “You’re only as good as the information you get,” which means talking and listening without the immediate desire to produce a story, but to collect insight for the story that will come later.

Lastly, Hemmingsen addressed another concern: How do we make changes in newsrooms to focus on community when newsrooms are driven by production and deadlines? Bluntly: “Won’t we get fired for suggesting these changes?”

Her response was great!: “Good work speaks for itself.”

Certainly, Hemmingsen said, not all of her suggestions (including considering allowing sources to read quotes before publication and verifying copy before print) need to be heralded from atop your cubical.

While journalists need to comply with their newsroom policies, journalists still hold autonomy to make their own decisions in who to talk to, where to report from, what to cover, and how to cover it.

In the end, she said, these decisions might just create good enough content that when asked, “How’d you do that?” the answers will lead to major changes in how journalists work.