In every community, there are people who care about the place they live in and work to make it better, and people who despair over their prospects for the future. There are people who run the show and people who feel ignored, dismissed, belittled and rejected.
When people lack opportunities to give meaningful input on decisions that determine their future, they lose faith in the democratic process. They’re wary of election-year appeals from political candidates — the very people they feel have abandoned them.
The way journalists cover politics and policy often contributes to this failure. When reporters focus exclusively on insiders and experts, they perpetuate a system in which Very Important People talk at the rest of us. The knowledge and experiences of “regular” people rarely informs these discussions.
That’s the kind of “journalism” people are most exposed to. And it’s very different from the kind of journalism democracy needs to survive. The gulf between them is a big problem if you believe, as I do, that the best hope for journalism’s future lies in public support.
Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project has been working to change that dynamic by connecting community members and the journalists who serve them to better understand their common interests and complementary roles. We want to encourage newsrooms not just to turn to experts for answers but to turn to the public for questions. Our ultimate hope is to create a constituency for journalism, a public motivated to advocate for open government, press freedom and local reporting. This will happen only if people feel that journalism represents them and supports their interests.
“Engaging all demographics to identify the most important issues to the community and use their input to frame media coverage. There is a great diversity of stories and interests in our community and they deserve to be heard. The inclusion of underrepresented individuals in this process is essential. Opening this dialogue helps articulate community needs and demonstrates the media’s value of these communities, which will in turn enhance the trust between the community and the media. This helps the community feel more engaged/empowered in the news/media, influencing them to become involved in the election.”
News Voices works at the local level, in individual cities and towns, and we meet people face to face. We talk about what’s going on in neighborhoods and local institutions to name and address each community’s challenges. We work at the human scale, the scale at which people can discuss their lived experiences. Journalism at the local level depends on understanding those experiences and giving people the information they need to participate in their communities.
When people put down their smartphones and sit across from neighbors they don’t know, they have the chance to truly listen. Doing that makes people realize what goals and struggles they share, and how their efforts in the community are, intentionally or not, interconnected. Face-to-face listening doesn’t just make people feel heard; it also develops a sense of mutual accountability. That’s one reason it’s important for reporters to sit at the same table with the people they serve.
After a full year of events and groundwork, News Voices is now moving toward the next phase: fostering relationships and nurturing projects in each community, linking these local networks across the state and building the constituency for journalism and press freedom — in New Jersey and beyond. To do that, we’re reaching out to people doing journalism-engagement work across the country to see what we can learn from their efforts.
A project in Ohio has provided an opportunity for us to share what we’ve learned and to see how another model can move toward similar goals.
As a swing state, Ohio is the site of intense political campaigning, which includes an onslaught of political advertising — much of it negative. Informed Citizen Akron is bringing together a select group of residents for substantive, informed discussions of the issues at stake in this year’s election. The goal: putting the public at the center of the political conversation.
Informed Citizen Akron is a joint endeavor of the Jefferson Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works toward democratic solutions through civic discourse, and Your Vote Ohio, a collaboration of Ohio media institutions including newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. The project uses the citizens-jury model, drawing on a set number of people who represent the community socioeconomically, racially and politically and engaging them for three days of conversation and deliberation. Statewide polling on the issues most important to Ohioans informs the entire process.
Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal and one of the project’s leaders, is concerned that the public is losing trust in journalism. He says that the people the media should serve are skeptical that there are reporters who truly want to help their communities.
“I have always been a reporter who believes that I’m most empowered by understanding the people I need to represent,” he told me. But his experiences talking to reporters, civic groups and others over the last several years have made him aware of a deep disconnect between the work reporters do and the image the public has of that work.
Informed Citizen Akron puts people at the center of the political conversation, and invites them to think about how the media could better represent their voices.
That very idea was a surprise to many participants, said Andrew Rockaway of the Jefferson Center.
“The biggest realizations people had were that media organizations see themselves as having responsibility to the community, and that they want to serve the needs of the community, which was not the sense people had going in of what the media’s role is,” Rockaway said. “Participants also really didn’t know what the job entails and what the realities were of being a journalist or the challenges journalists have to face.
“People see news organizations as black boxes, which is the problem in a lot of respects. It was good for people in newsrooms to see that they’re not doing a good job of communicating what the organization does and what the mission is.”
Across the board, regardless of cultural or socioeconomic background, people involved in this project were enthusiastic about the possibility of weighing in on how journalism could better include their perspectives. Project organizers invited speakers from across the country to present ideas to the jurors. Southern Methodist University Professor Jake Batsell described strategies for engaged journalism, while Michelle Ferrier talked about her research for the Media Deserts Project. Engaged journalism projects across the country — including News Voices, Hearken and Groundsource — gave examples of tools, methods and philosophies, which informed the engagement strategies the citizens’ jury recommended in its report.
The jury proposed organizing information to make it more accessible, fact-checking statements from candidates and officials, creating interactive features like news quizzes to engage readers, using text messaging to reach broader and younger audiences, and treating news as a conversation between readers and journalists.
At the top of their list was a recommendation that gets to the heart of work News Voices is doing in communities across New Jersey:
Engaging all demographics to identify the most important issues to the community and use their input to frame media coverage. There is a great diversity of stories and interests in our community and they deserve to be heard. The inclusion of underrepresented individuals in this process is essential. Opening this dialogue helps articulate community needs and demonstrates the media’s value of these communities, which will in turn enhance the trust between the community and the media. This helps the community feel more engaged/empowered in the news/media, influencing them to become involved in the election.
The newsrooms across Ohio that sent reporters to participate in Informed Citizen Akron — including Oplinger and one of his reporter colleagues — have committed to heeding the jury’s recommendations and delivering coverage that’s responsive to community concerns.
“We will not allow candidates to come into Ohio and dictate the issues,” Oplinger said. “We’ll write stories so that Ohioans see themselves in the democratic process represented by the news media. We’ll go to the candidates and say, no, you stop. This is what Ohioans say.”
News that represents the people it serves: That’s the news democracy needs.
Fiona Morgan is Free Press’ Journalism Director and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. She works with Mike Rispoli to oversee News Voices: New Jersey, a Dodge-funded Free Press initiative designed to create conversation and respond to the needs of both journalists and residents.