Journalists in Relationship with Community: Introduction

For this guide, we talked with four journalists about what it looks like to be in relationship with a community. Through stories about their personal experiences, Adriana Gallardo, Kavolshaia Howze, Terry Parris Jr., and Natalie Yahr explain what it’s like to:

Four Engaged Journalists Weigh In

Natalie Yahr: Doing Your Homework to Learn What Communities are Already Talking About

Before Natalie Yahr was a full-time journalist, she often found herself in the know about a lot of issues facing immigrant communities, and specifically about important details that weren’t being reported in the local news. Her boyfriend was a member of the Congress of Day Laborers (an organization of immigrant workers and families, founded by the day laborers who helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), and Natalie was attending many of the group’s weekly meetings.

I remember being at those meetings and hearing them talk about the move to apply federal reentry charges as a form of immigration charge, basically. The organizers there would talk about this and say, “We are seeing this pattern. Immigration is a civil violation, but [we’re] seeing people getting increasingly charged with this quote-unquote crime.” And they were saying, you know, “We think that this might be a move to basically put more people in the criminal immigrant category.” Like if you can say, “Well, we are going to deport felons but not families,” that this in their mind seemed like a way to quite literally make more people be criminals.

She saw that journalists were missing some of the important connections the community was observing around things like how the reentry charges would affect immigrants. She also watched how local news outlets covering immigrant issues highlighted the stuff that didn’t seem as important to them, like giving bilingual officers a bonus, and leaving out the things that mattered to the community, like how the Superintendent of Police had finally agreed to accept alternative forms of ID in place of a license (an agreement the group had been organizing around for years).

When she decided to write a story in grad school that was about immigrants in detention and what factors could make a difference in their court cases, Natalie already knew this would be a good story for her to focus on. She knew that the subject was of interest to her, and she knew it was an aspect that mattered that wasn’t getting a lot of attention because she had spent time learning about it already.

Clearly you should not assume too much and you should not be arrogant or anything like that, but having done some homework first to at least attempt to understand some of those issues could help you go in being more informed.

Terry Parris Jr.: Being a Part of the Community

No matter how well you get to know a community, Terry Parris Jr. says as a journalist, you’re kind of always on the outside looking in. The only way he thinks you can truly get around this barrier is when you’re actually participating in the community because, say, you live there. That’s how Terry first started developing ideas around engaged journalism himself, 10 years ago, as he was emceeing a fundraiser, volunteering to be the guy in the dunk tank, and riding his bike around town to city council meetings and other important local events. He even had a nickname in the community: Patchy, because he worked for the Ferndale, MI chapter of Patch (a network of hyperlocal news sites). The way Terry used Patch was to facilitate an information exchange, asking what people needed to know and reporting on that. When he looks back now, he realizes he was essentially doing information needs assessments before he really knew what those were.

It wasn’t just that I was covering it, it’s that I cared about it. So I had a feeling for the city, and for the neighbors, whether I agreed with them or disagreed with them. So, I think it was really a really formative experience for me, because I approached it almost as if I was a citizen with the privilege of saying, “I am a reporter, can I talk to you about X Y or Z?” And then having a platform to then publish those things. Folks would respond to me because I was responding to them, because I didn’t approach it from the top. I approached it as, you know, I’m just a member of this community.

He says he never thought of community members as readers, he communicated to them like neighbors. He thought of himself as the town crier. The community became really active within their Patch chapter, and began to take ownership of the information exchange that was happening there.

I think a lot of journalists – some journalists – would probably say that I would go too far in terms of my personability… I think the way that we did things 100 years ago should not be the way we do them today.

Kavolshaia Howze: Immersing yourself in local culture and history

When Kavolshaia Howze starts working with a new community, she treats it like learning a new language. She says, “If you really want to be fluent and get the gist of the language and how to speak it, you have to immerse yourself into it.”

Even after living for six years in Northern Louisiana and Central Louisiana, when Kavolshaia moved to Lafayette, in the southwestern part of the state, she realized she would have to learn a whole new culture. Luckily, some friends from college who already lived in town helped her to get acclimated and to figure out that she needed to be going to the zydeco concerts and food festivals that are so important in the area. She says that just putting herself out there into those spaces gave her the opportunity to see how people interacted and how they talked about their community, and what they wanted to see more of in the community. When she told the people she met that she was a journalist, a lot of them were pretty excited to get to talk to her and tell her all kinds of stories because she was around and available to them. 

She says even though she was raised in Fairfield, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham, and can’t speak a lick of Creole, she became part of the community by immersing herself in it, and she brought a new perspective to the community’s stories.

I didn’t even know that the area was called Acadiana until I got there and the whole history around the Acadians, so I immersed myself in learning about that I learned and researched on my own about the history of Lafayette, like, I didn’t know that there was a difference between Cajun and Creole. I just thought it was just a fancy way to say Black and White, but we did news stories that actually investigated that there are Black Cajuns and White Creole people.

Adriana Gallardo: Telling the Story the Right Way

Telling a story right, and doing right by the affected community takes time and collaboration with community members.

How do you come to the understanding that the best way to interview someone is to have their mom do it? For Adriana Gallardo, a reporter with ProPublica, it came from hitting walls and “from sitting with the difficult questions for a long time and many conversations with your sources.” That’s how she ended up connecting with a woman who had nearly died a few months ago during postpartum, then going to the woman’s home to facilitate a conversation between her and her mother about the woman’s experience. Adriana says she knew the consequences of maternal death for Black women were generational, but she was having trouble illustrating the generational impact through the story. This eventually led her to think that maybe the story should include a woman talking to her own mother about giving birth. She had pitched other ideas to participants before, but this format was the one that really resonated. She says that when you build enough rapport, you understand the issue intimately enough to know that you might not even be the best person to be asking these questions.

At the end of the day, the best conversation that she could have was one with her mother about what had happened, and they were allowing me to record it and they were allowing me to be a part of it as part of the journalism, but really, there, you know, you’re transcending the purpose of your piece and you’re transcending the relationship that exists between these two people that are part of this larger group that can relate to the thing that they’re talking about. Which was the enormous rate that Black women face in maternal deaths, right? And so for me, that’s how layered it should be when you’re doing an interaction with a group of people that have volunteered to give you so much of something so personal.

Guide and illustration produced by Maia Laperle. This guide was last updated in January 2021.