by Sarah Shively
The efforts of the America Amplified initiative culminated in a six-part, national radio talk show, America Amplified: Election 2020, which explored the social challenges facing Americans before and after the November national election. Employing community engagement (CE) strategies, the production teams, a collaboration from eight radio stations across the country, doubled down on several key practices; 1) listening, 2) allowing guests to establish the themes, 3) elevating lived experience as expertise, and 4) prioritizing diversity.
Project Goals: Andrea Tudhope, Senior Producer, America Amplified: Election 2020 explained, “Our goal [at America Amplified] was to coordinate and support engaged community coverage ahead of the 2020 election through 8 collaborations and 50+ stations across the country.” In her personal review of the national talk show, she stated, “Having a platform like ours is a privilege, and we have a responsibility to use that platform wisely and conscientiously, and that means challenging our norms and trying new ways to truly put the community first.”
Tools and Technology: In addition to the various technologies available via the associated radio stations, the initiative supported the use of Hearken and GroundSource to connect with communities and record and collect data for analysis. Along with digital marketing, some initial outreach efforts included print marketing tools such as direct mailings and posted flyers. And anecdotally, one reporter rode his bicycle across the Mountain West to speak with people face-to-face. America Amplified worked extensively with the Local Voices Network who were essential in helping convene the listening sessions that led up to and informed the talk show.
Impact: The America Amplified initiative provided training for dozens of reporters across the country in CE practices. The long-term impact of this effort has yet to be ascertained. As Tudhope explained, “community engagement is a long game.” The communities and newsrooms will see the impact in the years ahead. Getting buy-in among reporters, producers and hosts and nurturing the trust of the community were significant steps. From talk show listener feedback, it was clear that the process of empowering sources and guests was deeply and positively felt. People commented particularly on the opportunity to hear public discourse on the air. Feedback from program directors outside of their network further suggested that the results of their CE process were not only appreciated but sought after. And quantifiably, the initiative’s commitment to diversity of voices resulted in a full 81% of the guest panelists identifying as BIPOC—a radical statistical flip from traditional programming. Tudhope explained that about 45% of the voices sourced for the pre-produced element were white, but only 19% of the panel guests were white. Historically, this breakdown between guests and those sourced for clips is al réves-the inverse.
Initiative Background: Through funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, America Amplified was a national public media collaboration. With a small central (but virtually operating) team and a larger collaborating consortium, they were able to cast a nation-wide net in their community engagement reporting. At least 100, including tribal-affiliated, stations aired the episodes. According to Tudhope, “Our overall goal was to build trust in local journalism by elevating diverse voices and practicing anti-extractive reporting.”Project Resources: The initiative launched with a $1.9 million journalism collaboration grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With a leading team of seven individuals, the funding provided for eight networks around the country to participate and engage locally. Additionally, America Amplified partnered with the Public Agenda/USA Today Hidden Common Ground Initiative.
Here’s How it Happened
The genesis for the broader initiative was the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Stakeholders within various news media, especially the national media, realized they had missed the mark on engagement. This was the salient issue to which CPB responded. The team then sought to use CE practices to improve and repair relations within communities. Once launched, they were able to focus their engagement strategies, starting with the need to listen.
Here’s What Worked
1. Listening is Key
For Andrea Tudhope and the America Amplified team, this was fundamental. It formed the basis by which the entire show would be developed. They hosted a dozen virtual listening sessions — an effort led by Ann Alquist and Matthew Long-Middleton — across the country at the beginning of the process. From these sessions they examined arising themes and those led to the topics that guided each of the six episodes. Tudhope commented that, “Even the structure and framework was derived from the insights of the community members we met. For instance, we heard a consistent call for “good news” in media coverage. So, I decided we would end each show with a short audio postcard, highlighting how one community was coming together in the face of crisis, or how a local artist was finding solace and healing for their community in their craft.”
2. Allowing guests to establish the themes
As a method for arriving at the topics, the team drew on answers to ‘throughline’ questions reporters had been asking all year—open-ended questions that invited people to speak up about issues and concerns within their immediate communities. This technique gave the community members permission to share their experiences and, in the talk show, allowed them to drive the conversation. Additionally, when it came to hosting the show, emphasizing the responses between guests made the exchanges authentic and brought connection to the discourse.
3. Elevating lived experience as expertise
The CE ideal that community members are experts of their own lives and their own communities, suggests that their input on issues affecting their lives must be solicited just as rigorously as statements from traditional experts usually quoted by journalists on community matters. When possible, America Amplified: Election 2020 invited academic experts into the conversations who were also members of a particular community impacted by the discussion issue. As an example, Tudhope shared the inclusion of Danielle Clealand, a professor of Mexican American and Latino studies, as well as African and African diaspora studies to their pre-election show to participate in the conversation about the so-called ‘Latino vote.’ Clealand is Afro-Latina and provided insight both professional and personal. For Tudhope, ‘experience is expertise’ must become the mantra of CE. It is the shift that will impact the future of journalism.
4. Prioritizing diversity
Paying more than homage to diversity in mission statements, journalism organizations must do the hard work to move the percentage points. America Amplified: Election 2020 did the following with their demographics: 45% of the people featured in the 10-second pre-produced clips were white while 55% were BIPOC. 19% of panel guests were white. 30% of the panel guests were Black and collectively 81% of the panel guests were BIPOC.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
More training and education for the reporters and editors to deepen the overall industry understanding and support of community engagement would have made this project all the richer–but would have necessitated additional time and resources.
There is always more that can be done to improve practices around diversity. Although the project and production teams committed to prioritizing diversity from the start, and Tudhope was pleased by the outcome, she noted that they could have established more specific diversity goals at the outset.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
Regarding practices of Community Engaged Journalism, go deep. Tudhope spoke to the importance of sussing out the issues behind the issues. For example, if someone is presenting with misinformation, it is not enough to learn where they get their ‘facts’. We must understand the deeper values that inform their perspective. Do this through follow up questioning. There is often a good story behind the story and will provide a place for engagement.
Place empathy and humanity at the heart of the work. These were often tough conversations had between people from different communities across the country. Everyone engaging in the project from the sources to the producers sensed the need to empathize with the other people involved, even–and especially–when it was hard. Without centering humanity in every conversation, the project ran the risk of failure.