by Yu Vongkiatkajorn
As part of a pilot for Challenge for Change, a national media project in Canada, Discourse Media reporter Brielle Morgan organized a series of listening events and convenings to discuss the child welfare system in British Columbia. Morgan wanted to highlight the challenges faced by Indigenous children in the welfare system, but knew that she first needed to acknowledge and tackle the community’s deep distrust of the media. After the listening sessions, Morgan issued a call-out for audience ideas on covering child welfare, wrote a series of features on the issue (which she will continue covering for Discourse), and launched two media fellowships for youth in/from government care. She’s currently working on an investigative feature, organizing child-welfare training for journalists and working with other Vancouver-based journalists to plan a Child Welfare Media Day for the fall.
Project Goals: One major goal was to deepen public understanding around the connections between Canada’s history of colonial policy towards Indigenous people and its current child welfare system, where Indigenous children are disproportionately represented. According to Morgan, “people close to the system… are tired of tragedy-driven coverage that does little to inspire hope or illustrate ways forward for young people and families.” The project aims to create more community-driven stories and rebuild trust between journalists and stakeholders in the child welfare community. Morgan says she also wants to spark action that would help improve outcomes for kids “in care” and create opportunities for youth to get involved in media production.
Tools and Technology: Morgan used Google Forms to collect survey responses and audio equipment to record and facilitate listening events.
Impact: The project created a space for journalists, youth in and from care, social workers and other system stakeholders to have conversations about how the child welfare system should be covered. It acknowledged that media coverage was damaging and needed to change. The project is also creating opportunities for youth in and from care to investigate their critical questions about the system and develop media skills with support through fellowships and commissioned work.
Organization Background: Discourse Media is an independent journalism outlet based in Vancouver, Canada dedicated to in-depth reporting on complex issues in Canada. It has a 12-person staff and partners with community organizations, media outlets, funders and its audience. The company is funded through various partnerships, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ashoka, Inspirit Foundation, and Challenge for Change.
Project Resources: The pilot project was supported by grants from two nonprofits, including Challenge for Change. Morgan doesn’t know the full cost of the project, because Discourse Media tries to separate reporters from funding details.
Here’s how it started
Challenge for Change, a Canadian nonprofit, approached Discourse Media about a national project that would use live listening and storytelling events. Morgan pitched B.C.’s child welfare system as the focus for the pilot and began by doing community outreach and meeting various stakeholders. One of the first people she met was Kris Archie, a senior manager at the Vancouver Foundation. Archie advised her to meet with the Youth Advisory Circle, a group of youth who have been through the foster care system and now advise Vancouver Foundation’s grantmaking, research, policy development and communications work. Archie also connected Morgan with several other community partners.
The initial outreach helped influence how Morgan organized her listening events: Morgan learned that foster care youth would have difficulty accessing transportation and they would have to heavily rely on adults to get them to the events. Rather than holding a single event, she decided to bring listening workshops to the youth at various centers. She held 4 workshops with local community partners, and also held a follow-up event where youth could bring people they wanted to interview. She also conducted individual follow-up interviews in cases where a case manager told her about a story or a person she should interview. This took a couple of months.
For Morgan, the listening events continued to reinforce what she had heard from her initial outreach—that there was a deep lack of trust of the media and stakeholders often saw media as a barrier to positive change within the community. Following the listening sessions, Morgan facilitated an event in February inviting journalists and stakeholders to have a conversation about child welfare. About 25 people, including 9 youth who were in care or from care, attended the meeting to brainstorm the media’s responsibilities and best practices going forward. She wrote about the event and the best practices list here.
Morgan then put out a short three-question survey asking the community what stories she should cover. The survey asks members of the public a) how they are connected to the welfare system, b) how they think the media could better report on child welfare, and c) what stories she should investigate. Morgan says she has received over 60 responses so far and has been happy with the depth and thoughtfulness of the responses. She has also written two features on the topic.
Here’s what worked
1. Community outreach
Spending months doing community outreach really helped Morgan understand the needs of the community, as well as anticipate some of the challenges she might face in organizing the listening events, such as transportation, that she might not have thought of earlier. Morgan says that meeting with the Youth Advisory Circle was especially eye-opening. During her meeting, one of the first questions the council asked her was: What’s the aftercare plan for the youth who go to these listening events and have to share or listen to traumatic stories? Morgan says she was honest and admitted she didn’t know the best course of action and asked them to advise her. They were quick to jump in with ideas and suggested she have counselors on-site. Morgan organized for mental health handouts to be available at the end of each listening session.
2. Being really honest and clear about the project, its value proposition, and the fact that reporters were part of the problem
“When you’re doing outreach to communities, it’s important to be really clear about the limits of your relationship and your capacity, and to let people ask questions,” says Morgan. She emphasizes that you need to approach a community with clear intentions, humility, and “an invitation to truly collaborate rather than pose a solution that you came up with at your desk.” Morgan’s various meetings, especially her meeting with the Youth Advisory Circle, gave her opportunities to hone her pitch and see how the community responded to her ideas. Morgan says she stressed that she believed journalism could play a positive role, but that stories needed to be much better informed by the community. She was also explicit about what she wanted to produce, detailing to stakeholders that she had a mandate to do her project for four months but didn’t exactly know what lay ahead.
Here’s what to do next time
1. There needed to be more training and resources on how to cover youth in the welfare system
There were very few resources that covered how to interview youth and other sensitive subjects, and Morgan says she was faced with numerous questions during the process, such as whether youth could talk on the record or from whom she needed to obtain consent.
2. The project possibly could have circulated the survey earlier
Morgan says that it might have been a better idea to start circulating the survey once she had established a couple of key community connections. “I figure the earlier you can humble yourself and invite guidance from a community that feels burned by the media the better,” she says.
3. Discourse could have been more strategic about timing their stories around local elections
Morgan says Discourse could have published more stories before a recent election and missed an opportunity to have child welfare be part of the conversation. In the future, they might plan more stories or live storytelling events in advance.
Here’s what else you should know
- Sometimes the initial research and outreach can take months before a reporter even starts writing a story… and that’s okay. Morgan says she didn’t hold the listening events in order to write any particular story. The events were “an offering,” she says. “It was about building trust, and creating opportunities for others to tell their story.” By the time she did write her piece, she felt far more comfortable writing about the issue in a nuanced way.
- Morgan’s listening events included follow-up events where participants could bring a person they wanted to interview, which led to really intimate, eye-opening conversations. Morgan mentioned one example in which a foster care youth interviewed her birth mother—the interview challenged preconceived notions about why parents put their child in care.
- After hearing from several people that youth want the opportunity tell their own stories, Morgan developed a fellowship program for youth in/from care. Supported by Vancouver Foundation, the fellowship aims to support youth with paid opportunities to develop their creative media production skills, investigate their critical questions about B.C.’s child welfare system, and see their work published on a professional platform.
- Working with other Vancouver-based journalists, Morgan is organizing Child Welfare Media Day, a collaborative reporting project focused on B.C.’s child welfare system. Inspired by the San Francisco Homelessness Project, the idea is to get as many media outlets as possible publishing stories about child welfare on October 25, 2017. In advance of this day, Morgan is organizing a training session for journalists, so that they can learn from experts—social workers, youth from care, academics, lawyers and policymakers—about how to improve reporting. She’s encouraging Child Welfare Media Day partners to consider how they might support youth in and from care through mentorships.