RFA19 Highlights — Building Trust in Undercovered Communities

Second-year corps member Obed Manuel addresses the 2019 class of Report for America 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 Obed Manuel covers second-generation immigrant communities for the Dallas Morning News, a beat where his reporting often requires interviewing people who are in the United States without authorization. These sources may be wary of reporters — especially when news organizations like his require people to give their first and last names, said Obed, a second-year corps member.

That’s why Obed, whose family moved to Dallas from Mexico when he was four years old, has learned to bring his humanity to the job, he told new corps members.

“You have to give a little piece of yourself to them,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I’m an immigrant, too.’”

Our 2019 training featured several speakers who gave advice on building trust and sourcing in traditionally undercovered communities. While building — or rebuilding — trust within a community is hard and takes time, Obed said, he reminded the corps members that their job is to listen.

“If the reputation of your organization follows as having not done good work in representing the communities, they’re going to have adverse views of you, and you’re gonna have to sit there and take the criticism from time to time,” he said.  

Here are a few additional tips on reporting in undercovered communities from our training:

Byard Duncan of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting speaks to corps members in Houston on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

*A notebook can be a reporter’s worst enemy, says Director of Corps Excellence Alison Bethel McKenzie — especially in the beginning stages of trust-building. “Sometimes, if you’re just getting to know a community or a group of people, put your notebook down and just listen. Just listen to what people have to say.”

*Diversity exists within beats and communities, so seek it out, Alison said. For example, find seniors and others who live in public housing, not just single women with children.

*Reporters should take the time to talk to community members about the kind of stories they want to see covered, says public health reporter Mary Meehan of Ohio Valley Resource. “That may be very different than what you expect them to be interested in.”

*Mary also suggested that reporters get involved in the community outside of their jobs. “That could be joining a soccer club, not to find sources, but because you like to play soccer, or join a church, join a gym, volunteer at a soup kitchen. Something that makes you part of the community other than going to people with your notebook/recorder/camera in hand.” Read more tips from Mary in the latest Navigator over at The GroundTruth Project.

Corps members Camalot Todd and Arielle Dreher during a training session in Houston on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

*Journalist Jenni Monet, who has covered indigenous news and issues for more than 20 years, advised local reporters to check themselves as to whether they’re letting their biases get in the way of their reporting. “All too often, the narrative is a total misfire.”

*Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia reminded reporters to give a sympathetic ear to newsroom callers, even if they’re upset or giving negative feedback. Not only might they provide a great news tip, but they’ll walk away with a positive impression of a journalist that might keep them from canceling their subscription.

*Multiple corps members are reporting in communities where English is a second language, and Carolyn Powers of the Listening Post Collective advised them to partner with bilingual or foreign language outlets. Those outlets might be able to follow your reporting or tailor the story to their audiences. This not only builds collaboration but can help build trust in your publication with a new audience.

More highlights from our training: 

How to Develop Sources in a New Community or Beat

How to Engage with the Community You Cover

Tools and Tactics to Help You Report Better