RFA2019 Highlights — How to Engage with the Community You Cover

Beena Raghavendran of ProPublica addresses our corps members in Houston on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Our 2019 corps members spent one week in Houston, Texas, training with top journalists from around the country. This included attending three days of RFA-exclusive sessions, the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, several smaller RFA gatherings and evening events. Here are highlights from those sessions.

Reporter Alexandra Watts says she hates it when journalists say their mission is to give voice to the voiceless.

People already have a voice, says Alexandra, a second-year Report for America corps member based in Mississippi. “It’s just our job to go out there and really amplify those voices,” she told the incoming class of corps members.

One way local journalists can spotlight those voices and help rebuild trust in news is engaging with their communities. Engagement experts and prize-winning reporters joined us in Houston to discuss the ways in which communities can play a bigger role in a journalist’s reporting — before and after publication.

Engagement reporting can go beyond traditional newsgathering tactics because you’re asking the audience to become directly involved in the story’s creation, said Beena Raghavendran of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

For example, when Beena partnered with Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail on a story about the local economic effects of West Virginia’s natural gas boom, they posted an online survey that would direct Beena’s reporting. These surveys yielded more than 100 tips and led to meetings with 60 local sources in five days!

Corps members Wyatt Massey and Savannah Maher interview one another during a training exercise in Houston on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Here are other engagement tips from sessions throughout the week:

*When posting online surveys to seek tips and sources, Beena recommended that journalists think through and edit the questions just like they would a reported story. Then, test the callout with a few sources to make sure it works, and spend a few days distributing it via social media, email and any other channels where the community you’re trying to reach might find it.

*But Beena also says it’s smart to be cautious before blasting out surveys and call-outs. Engagement reporting can be a delicate task —  the last thing any reporter new to a community wants to do is offend potential sources. People may have difficulty trusting new reporters, or have had negative experiences with the press. “Only do [engagement reporting] when you have a good reason to do it,” Beena says.

*When in the reporting process should reporters call out for tips? No one wants to tip their hand with a scoop by publicizing their investigation. Beena advised reporters to circulate call-outs after they’re certain they will be running with the investigation. She also advised our corps members to determine whether an online survey is the right way to reach the community you want to hear from. First, find out where they congregate and go there, she advised.

*The Listening Post Collective has a seven-step playbook with instructions on starting community conversations, which Carolyn Powers shared with our corps. One helpful step? “Get creative and get offline!” That means joining sports leagues, heading to coffee shops, and getting to know local businesses.

*Corps members who are new to a community should consider introducing themselves with a survey, questionnaire or another type of outreach that meets the community where they are, Carolyn also suggested. That might be a Google Form, or it might be a community event.

Mary Meehan of Ohio Valley Resource and Jenni Monet address corps members in Houston on Monday, June 10, 2019.

* Send stories directly to sources after publication as a way not only to seek feedback but to build trust, according to second-year corps member Manny Ramos of the Chicago Sun-Times. In his case, a source was dissatisfied with his lead-in of her quotes. Manny said they had a respectful conversation about their perspectives, and she still is a valuable source.

*Big-picture, swooping investigations from national organizations can miss crucial local stories based in communities, says engagement reporter Byard Duncan of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. That’s why he encouraged our corps members to tap into the Reveal Reporting Network for story ideas — which are available to any local journalist who signs up for the free service. These helpful sets of news tips and data are currently focused on three topics: rape case clearance rates, high school concussion protocols and work rehab programs that trade employment for purported help in getting sober. The networks can be used to find tips to localize the national reporting Reveal and their news partners have done on these issues. See Byard’s full presentation on the networks here.

More highlights from our training: 

How to Develop Sources in a New Community or Beat

Building Trust in Undercovered Communities

Tools and Tactics to Help You Report Better