Community and Complexity: Investing in Nuance, Building Trust and Engaged Journalism

Posted on by Sabrina Hersi Issa, Local News Lab Fellow
Image via Unsplash

As part of research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.

This research sought to explore how local newsrooms and journalists cover communities in deep transition, the role of listening in community journalism and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms. To achieve that, I turned to experts leading important work on issues directly impacting communities in personal and profound ways. Themes emerged reflected pathways for media funders to engage impacted communities in stewarding inclusive journalism respectful of complexity and diversity. There is space to design funding opportunities that evolves how diverse communities are covered and champions meaningful local journalism.

Covering the Public Square: Healthcare at the Forefront

Healthcare is the issue that impacts every community and household in America. There has been no single piece of legislation in recent years that has influenced American life at every level more than the Affordable Care Act.

The rollout and initial enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act was met with technical challenges that were aggressively covered for news cycle after news cycle over the fall and winter of 2013 and early 2014. The stakes were astronomically high and the team that saved from falling off a cliff were heralded on the cover of TIME magazine. The volume of reporting, hot takes and punditry of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act was tremendous but the specifics, the actual data-driven reporting and analysis on how many (or how few) Americans were actually able to enroll on the exchanges were sparse. It was a national story that was not reported in a local context. While the data was publicly available, there were not many media outlets telling the story within the numbers of how the Affordable Care Act enrollment and implementation unfolded in local communities.

Charles Gaba is a Michigan-based web developer and self-described data nerd. He runs, a site he started during the inaugural Obamacare enrollment period in 2013. It hosts the most comprehensive publicly available datasets tracking the Affordable Care Act, measuring Obamacare enrollments, sharing data analysis down to local Congressional precincts levels. Gaba pulls together information from monthly HHS enrollment reports, healthcare interest data sources and updates issued from the states running their own exchanges. “I’m pretty good at taking those numbers and breaking them out in a way that explains the different variables without going over too many people’s heads,” Gaba explained in an interview.

He has come to expand ACASignups to include impact analysis should the ACA be repealed, using what public data is available to measure how many people in state and local communities stand to lose their healthcare. Gaba’s has become a must-read for healthcare policy wonks, journalists and politicians hungry for information on how the ACA is impacting communities they serve.

Gaba started the site as a hobby.

“I was expecting that there would be a daily odometer style thing or be like, ‘Hey, we’ve had this many people each day. Sign up!’ There was nothing. I knew the real reason is because the [enrollment] numbers were terrible. It later came out that only six people, six, signed up through on that first day. Not six million, not six thousand, six. What I was more astonished by was that of the major media outlets, places like the New York Times or CNN or whoever, none had a daily report about how many people enrolled. Because they love that stuff. They love colorful charts and graphs and all that. There was nothing. Or if there was something it was with data that did not inform anyone of anything or it was completely wrong.”

Gaba kept the site going because he was directly impacted by Obamacare.

Journalists began to take note.

In a 2014 piece wroteNew York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Gaba, a website developer, realized that nobody was systematically keeping track of enrollment data for Obamacare, and has turned himself into one-stop shopping on the law’s progress. And he really fills a need: when you read news reports on Obamacare, you can tell right away which reporters have been reading Gaba and know what’s happening and which reporters are relying solely on official announcements — or, worse, dueling political spin.”

When the site launched there were a few healthcare data sites run by individuals, consulting groups or think tanks that tracked enrollment rates but over the years, those efforts have fallen off or been abandoned. Today major outlets such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Urban Institute also host datasets but none as comprehensive, with the level of local context or layered with analysis on related issues impacting the healthcare law in the same fashion Gaba’s site has become known for. Gaba blogs regularly and makes no attempt to hide his political point of view in his writing but maintains his data and analysis as strictly non-partisan.

“It is what it is. The data and analysis itself is non-partisan,” Gaba said. “I think the main reason why I get as much attention as I do is that it’s not just a matter of trying to be as accurate as I can. It’s also about citing my sources openly and when I do make a mistake and I realized that or somebody has called attention to it, that I have no problem owning up to it. And not only saying I made a mistake but also explaining here’s how I made the mistake. Here’s the methodology I used and it turns out that I forgot about this or didn’t know about that and I explain why. It’s not enough to just say, ‘Well, I was wrong’. It’s great that you admit that you’re wrong but that doesn’t help especially when we’re talking about data. It doesn’t help expand understanding.”

As a result, the value of his healthcare data analysis cuts across partisan lines and media markets. ACASignups has been cited in CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, by Republicans, Democrats, in official Congressional records, even (bizarrely) by Donald Trump. During the 2017 enrollment period, a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors contacted Gaba to cross-check numbers with him. There are several resources for open data sites but in terms of pulling these multiple perspectives and providing an analysis and presenting them back out to the world, Gaba stands in a league of his own.

Image from

It is striking that a major resource for data infrastructure analyzing legislation impacting the lives of millions of Americans, a law that occupies substantial space in every community’s public square and dominates media coverage across the country is run as an unfunded side project by a small business owner in Michigan.

Gaba is a web developer by training and notes the primary expense for running the ACASignups is timeTime to source data, synthesize reports, write up findings, speak with reporters, meet with community groups.

Time that has slipped from running his business, “I had devoted so much time. I had lost business clients,” Gaba explained. To mitigate this, the site now runs modest banner ads from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, participates in Google Adwords, hosts a GoFundMe and Gaba occasionally freelance writes.

But those funding channels do not make up for or reflect the value provides the public square. In 2014, after the first enrollment period concluded, the community behind the website DailyKos threw Gaba a retroactive fundraiser to thank him for his work filling a critical need. In his interview with me Gaba cited that fundraiser from 2014 as one of the reasons he was able to continue his work today.

Healthcare directly and viscerally impacts lives in every community. Resources that help journalists understand and measure the stories within the numbers, that help paint a clearer picture to how the Affordable Care Act is unfolding in communities they cover; it all adds necessary dimension and humanity to the stories they tell. It takes an issue often presented in the media as black-and-white and via split-screen punditry and adds nuance and complexity.

“Healthcare is all about nuance. The actual policy stuff, all the wonky stuff, is very nuanced. Politics does not like nuance and so I work to try to bridge that gap,” Gaba explained, “For journalists, I’d like more to look beyond the screaming headlines and look into what the numbers actually represent. These are people’s lives on the line.”

For media funders, this case is an opportunity to interrogate how data, infrastructure and resources shape how national issues are reported in local community narratives. How can media funders support local journalists in looking, as Gaba implores, “…beyond the screaming headlines”?

Invest in Building Trust

Chaédria LaBouvier is director of the Basquiat Defacement Project, a project exploring how the legendary artist addressed state violence against black people in his work. But before launching the Basquiat Project, LaBouvier was one of the first writers to regularly cover police brutality in mainstreamwomen’s magazines.

Image provided by Chaédria LaBouvier

Four years ago LaBouvier lost her younger brother, Clinton Allen, to police brutality.

LaBouvier is not only part of a community of those directly impacted by the police killing unarmed black men, but reflects a growing force of individuals frustrated at stagnated media narratives and slowly building their power and raising their voices to demand justice and truth. Their experiences navigating obstacles to achieve this reflect systems never designed to deliver truth nor justice to communities like hers.

Historically, media coverage of police brutality, excessive force and police killing unarmed black men has lacked measure, depth and humanity. In countless cases and media markets, the coverage of these killings only resulted in minimal or no press coverage. The rise of social media, movements such as Black Lives Matter and a more interconnected viral culture has dragged this issue out of the darkness and into the light. And even though, there are still shadows. Only in the last few years have federal agencies and newsrooms begun to track the data on police killings of unarmed men.

“People don’t understand what these statistics mean until they have a human face. What does it mean when people say that every 28 hours a black man is killed by the police? Do people know what a body with seven bullet holes looks like? What does it mean when they say the police are rarely indicted? Do people know how the victim’s families sob in the court hallways?” [She] hopes that by telling her story, people will understand — and act upon — those statistics. LaBouvier shares in the piece, Challenging Police Brutality.

LaBouvier turned to guidance from activists after facing obstacle after obstacle tracking down facts about her brother’s case and having to repeatedly correct the record with local media. “We were told that by activists.’You’re going to have to get national attention because you are on your own on a local level.’ And it’s true. In the South, particularly, the only time you get any kind of journalistic accountability is when the story becomes nationwide,” she explained in an interview with me.

This was no foundation of trust between impacted communities and local newsrooms.

LaBouvier built national media attention as she and her family navigated a personal nightmare by embarking on a reporting project. She pulled through open records of other outstanding cases of police brutality and through that began to weave an organizing network to demand justice and accountability for her family’s case and others like them. That organizing effort eventually evolved into co-founding Dallas-based community organization, Mothers Against Police Brutality.

“I just started interviewing people. Because we were organizing we started pulling open records requests. That’s how we found a lot of families. It was because we were pulling open records requests with our own money and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s find this victim and let’s find this person’s family.’ I would find people on Facebook or they would reach out to my mom. Because we were doing news interviews people started reaching out to us and other activists who had been working on this issue for a long time like Dallas Communities Organizing for Change. They also connected us to a lot of the families they knew and had been working with them for years. That’s how we got connected with people. This is how we built trust,” LaBouvier explained in an interview with me.

LaBouvier sought to build upon her experience reporting on police brutality and organizing impacted communities from specific local contexts through various efforts: 

One example includes a journalism project called the Allen Wells Project, examining the issue of police brutality as it impacts specific communities within cities, LaBouvier explains, “In San Francisco, in my process of research and activism, I saw how police brutality in the Asian community in the Bay area is a huge issue and no one talks about it. It’s about to get even worse because of the immigration situation, the raids and the climate of the country right now. There is a large undocumented Asian immigrants community in the Bay that are already hesitant to go to the police to report police brutality. So this issue of the immigration and the fear of raids is going to make it even worse. I actually met with a couple of Asian families about this. It’s an issue and no one talks about it. I wanted to look at police brutality in ways that people are overlooking.”

For LaBouvier her endgame is to use the power of her story, the power of her brother’s legacy to expand the humanity for how the media covers victims of police brutality.

“Journalists are missing the human story. It’s missing nuance. Everyone’s writing the same story. If there could have been this magic wand, I would have actual, in-depth conversations with victims and survivors of police brutality.”

When a graduate student grieving the loss of her brother to state violence is able to execute an organizing strategy to reach other impacted families through traditional investigative journalism methods it is necessary for funders to ask and examine this question:

What other the untold stories are being missed because there is an erosion of trust between local journalists and the communities they cover?

Invest in the Bridge Builders

Bryan Mercer is trying to build a bridge of trust over this gulf and increase understanding between local communities and journalists. He leads the Media Mobilizing Project, the organization works across social movements to increase media and communications capacity and run strategic communications campaigns.

The organizational ethos — movements begin with untold stories — reflects MMP’s strong track record equipping leaders from diverse, multi-generational, multi-racial and intersectional backgrounds with the training, skills and tools to own the power of their stories. Mercer describes the organization’s training programs as borrowing the best from community journalism and social impact documentary.

Media Mobilizing Project’s 2017 Movement Media Fellows. Image provided by Media Mobilizing Project

“One of the things that comes out of our work is because of the relationships we built with community organizations is we’re often a point of contact or connection for journalists. We see ourselves in relationships with journalists, but playing a different role because of the way that we’re embedded in community organizing work and are advocates for that work,” Mercer explained in an interview with me.

Mercer’s organizations champions storytellers within local community and leverages his role as a trusted expert, both by communities and journalists alike, to push for media that respects and reflects people’s full humanity”

“One outcome of this work that’s come up for us is the question of representation and how do you respect and uplift community stories. Something that we experienced struggle with journalists are narratives focusing on the problems that a community is facing without showing or really trying to interrogate the ways that communities are responding.

“We have a principle in our work to lift up the fight, not just the plight, as we talk about it.”

For Mercer, the challenge of building trust between communities and journalists is an opportunity for Media Mobilizing Project to equip impacted communities with the skillsets to own and drive their own narratives.

Overall, for media funders the themes in these cases reflect an opportunity to explore how to better support these bridge builders who improve local journalism ecosystem by providing necessary nuance, guidance, connection and humanity to complicated issues often at great personal cost.

Sabrina Hersi Issa
 serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.

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