The practice of Engaged Journalism is evolving all the time, in large part due to its connectedness to community needs. As such, the resources in this guide will evolve as the practice does. Most of these ideas and resources are rooted in work by, and collaborations with, Journalism That Matters.
This guide provides suggestions and best practices for how to ethically collaborate with communities while ethically seeking participation and feedback from them.
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.
Try out some of the tips below to help you build better relationships through your work!
- Listen: Ask follow up questions, use repetition to show you’re listening, and keep responding!
- Build Trust: Become a reliable presence in your community. Give people options for sharing with you and reflect back to them the importance of their unique knowledge and story.
- Find People to Talk with: Build off of the work that other community organizations are already doing rather than duplicating it, connect with people who are directly impacted by the issue you’re reporting on, and make the extra effort to represent the diversity of stakeholders.
- Stay Accountable: Be transparent, own up to mistakes, and if you can, keep in touch with people you meet through your reporting.
Tips On Listening
Tailor Your Interview Style to Different People
When Adriana was interviewing survivors of sexual assault, she made sure to check in with other reporters who had experience working with this population and they were able to share important tips that helped her be prepared. She says she learned that “folks don’t remember things linearly, like, they might talk about the end first, or they might call you back because something else came to mind that didn’t at all surface when you were talking to them.” So she made sure to give extra time and “air to breathe” during interviews, saying things like, “Hey, you don’t have to tell me everything in this conversation, I’m happy to call you again,” and reminding people to share in however much detail they were comfortable with.
Don’t Overdirect Things
Natalie says to “Ask a question and just don’t immediately rephrase because the person hasn’t immediately started speaking. I value the blank space while they perhaps collect their thoughts and the little bit of a gap at the end.” While Natalie was an adult education teacher, she remembers being trained on the ideal wait time after asking a question. She says the average teacher’s wait time is about 2 seconds, while the ideal wait time is 10 seconds.
Record Your Interviews
Listening well is a big enough job on its own, along with being ready to respond. Natalie says she always records her interview so she won’t have to worry if she caught everything.
Use Repetition and Follow Up Questions
“When it comes to listening to establish trust, for me, it’s always about repetition,” says Kavolshaia, “even just repeating their name.” She says you should be sure to go off-script from your pre-packaged questions to ask follow up questions about what they’re actually saying. She’s seen how follow up questions help people become more engaged in a conversation and drop their guard a bit.
Kavolshaia says follow up questions can also be crucial when you need a soundbite for an audio or video piece, because you’re more likely to have a few different phrases to choose from.
Listen by responding
Terry says if you’re not responding, you’re not listening, “So that is the quantification of listening is your ability to respond.” That means responding to emails and answering questions, but it also means recognizing things like when people show up to your meetings regularly, and telling them, “Hey, thank you for showing up regularly.”
- Learn from Free Press’s News Voices how to contact folks in your community and find out what information they need to stay safe, healthy, and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Gather featured project ‘Rona Call: A Community-Info Phone Tree. You can find this and other related resources on Gather under the Dialogues topic.
- Read the Listening Post Collective’s Playbook section on Listening!
- Check out API’s primer on building audience and relevance by listening to and engaging your community!
* * Lightning Chat! * * Find more ways to connect with people from the What Does Local Mean chat!
“I don’t know any other way to build trust, other than being present,” says Terry. And the other part, again, is responding. He says, “If you are asking people questions to participate in crowdsourcing, that is a level of building trust because you know that if they respond to you, that they’re engaged and interested and then you respond to them. That is the beginning of a relationship.”
Keep it Casual to Build a Connection
Kavolshaia usually starts out an interview by just talking about weather or something. “Sometimes, if I have to go to either their place of business or their house I’ll just look around and see if I can find something in common or just something that is just as a talking point, and just go from there. Oh, they have a Faberge egg, and you say, ‘Oh my grandma used to collect those growing up,’ or whatever. Something that little can go a long way establishing trust and making that person more relaxed to talk to you.”
Being Yourself — Not Your Organization
Kavolshaia says sometimes you have to distinguish yourself as a journalist from the station you work for, and explain that you’re dedicated to each story and telling it in the correct way—more than you’re dedicated to trying to impress a boss.
Be Clear About Expectations and Options
When Natalie reaches out to someone who might be nervous about speaking to a reporter, or have some reason that they might need anonymity she tries to mention that from the very start, because she knows the outlet she works with will usually allow that. She also lets people know that if they’re not comfortable answering or don’t know an answer to a question to just let her know and they can move on. She says, “These are generally not people I’m trying to like, hold accountable for something and ask them, you know, the hard answers to all of my grilling questions.”
Legitimize Their Expertise
“I think we’re very used to the ‘How Awful It Was’ story. And I think the stories that I like to build, they’re like, yeah, look how awful this was—and look how far she came. What kept her from dying versus the other case? Something was done better to save her life.” Adriana says the people who she interviews have specific expertise in the thing they’ve lived through, even when it’s unwanted expertise, and they often have insights that no one else could have.
How can you work to share power with community members? Find out from Local News Lab in 5 lessons about sharing power in journalism collaborations. You can find this and other related resources on Gather under the Building Power topic.
Read Natalie’s Guide to Less Extractive Reporting!
Identify Reporting Gaps
In Adriana’s work, the community is woven together through her reporting process, but they’re not people who necessarily know each other at all. The community is selected by identifying whose story they haven’t yet found. “I think sometimes what I see in engaged journalism is reporters go out with a romantic idea that there’s a group of people sitting waiting for you to get in touch with [them].” She says it doesn’t usually happen like that, and when you approach your reporting with this mindset, you might end up making assumptions that the group has more in common than they really do.
Use Social Media
Kavolshaia says she starts her day with social media to get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in the community. Watching over community Facebook groups, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok can give you a better idea of what people are talking about and who has something to say about it. Adriana uses call out forms to find the specific people she still needs for a story who are also ready to volunteer to tell that story, and she shares these forms widely in Facebook groups. “[At] every step of the reporting process, you’re zeroing in on the reporting gap. And when you fill one, there’s probably a new one that shows up.” She says building a really good form is key, because it can give you a much clearer picture of what people are dealing with even before you meet them.
Connect with existing organizations
Terry has heard great stories about reporters who go around exploring in a new community and eventually they find some well-known spot where everyone hangs out to talk about the issues they care about. He thinks that while you might get lucky sometimes being in the right place at the right time, it’s been more efficient for him to identify and try to work with local organizations.
Natalie shares that once she’s been in touch with more “official” type sources, she makes sure to find the people who are directly impacted by an issue early on.
- Check out the Gather featured project Listening Post Macon to learn how Georgia Public Broadcasting connected with community members by creating a space where nuanced and complicated opinions are welcomed. You can find this and other related resources on Gather under the Community Participation topic.
- Read the Listening Post Collective’s Playbook section on Choosing a Community
* * Lightning Chat! * * For more tips on using forms check out Gather’s Community Information Needs chat!
Be Upfront About Your Capacity & Your End Date
It can be hard for a journalist to commit to working with the same community indefinitely. “Time at a newsroom does not go on forever,” says Terry, “Your boss will determine how long you are working on something.” Natalie says it’s a good idea to be clear with community members about your timeline upfront, especially if you’re working with a community that has been disenfranchised from the news. “You might be needing to bow out gracefully, but did you kind of tell all these people in their minds that you’re, like, now their go-to reporter? What do you tell people from the beginning about an end date on your work, because how long will you really stay embedded in a certain community?”
While reporting, Adriana tries to respond to everyone who is involved in the reporting process, even if they don’t end up in the story. She says it can be stressful for people who are waiting for a story to be published about them. As much as possible, she says to “give them back the thing that you’re building together,” by detailing how the story is coming together and letting them know when she’s talking to other people about similar things. Terry says it all goes back to responding and making sure your ability to respond is meeting the needs of the community, and not leaving them hanging in some way.
Do Your Work with Them in Mind
When you publish a piece about someone, they may or may not be your target audience, Natalie says, “Sometimes things are targeted towards the people who make the change rather than towards the people who are feeling the impact.” But you should still think of them as you craft your words and framing in a way that would not embarrass them. “If they had a criticism or concern, that should be relevant to you,” she says, and it’s a good idea to keep this in mind while you’re still writing, ensuring that you’ll be comfortable with them reading it after you’re done.
Own Up to Mistakes
Everyone’s going to make mistakes sometimes, and while it’s embarrassing to do so publicly as a journalist, sometimes owning up to your mistakes can build more trust than you had even before you made the mistake. Kavolshaia witnessed this at a TV station when they aired a story about a man who visited local hospitals dressed as Santa Claus. The story he told them was incredible but they immediately began getting comments from people who believed it was fake. The station didn’t shy away from their mistake, but kept investigating and openly reporting their findings. They ended up getting a lot of positive feedback for their transparency and their work to get to the bottom of what was really going on.
Follow The Evolution of Their Story
While you may not be able to follow a story or work with a community indefinitely, you might be able to check back in with certain people regularly. Kavolshaia says she asks to follow people on social media so they can keep up with each other and she’ll message them to check in on how they and their family are doing, or the work they’re doing. Sometimes this has led to other stories and opportunities to help amplify the work they’re doing.
- Gather did a case study on Vox’s ER bill database. Vox keeps the community in the loop every time they publish a new story related to the project! You can find this and other related resources on Gather under the Solutions Journalism topic.
* * Lightning Chat! * * Check out Alicia Bell’s talk on media reparations and Free Press’ Media 2070 project!
Learn more about the journalists who contributed to this guide!
Adriana joined ProPublica in 2016 as an engagement reporter. Since then, she’s collaborated across the newsroom on investigative series covering women’s health, immigration, and sexual violence. Her community-sourced reporting contributed to several awards including a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist series for explanatory reporting (Lost Mothers) and the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for public service (Lawless). Prior to ProPublica, she oversaw a national reporting series at 15 public media stations. She’s traveled the country with the StoryCorps mobile booth collecting hundreds of stories archived at the U.S. Library of Congress. In her hometown Chicago, she spent over a decade working as a journalist, media educator and radio producer.
Kavolshaia is a Fairfield, Alabama native with fusions of the Bayou state after spending 10 years in Louisiana. She graduated from Grambling State University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism in 2008 and Northwestern State University of Louisiana with a master’s degree in Sports Administration in 2012. Since beginning her career in 2005, Kavolshaia has developed her skills in writing, filming and producing for television, radio, as well as digital platforms. Now she’s applying those skills as a video producer with Reckon South. Over the past year Kavolshaia has worked with Reckon South, she’s produced several video and editorial stories including Reckon South’s 19th Amendment 100th Anniversary coverage while serving as a moderator for Reckon’s social media digital community groups—Reckon | Women and the Black Magic Project.
Terry Parris Jr.
Terry Parris Jr. is Engagement Director for THE CITY, an independent, non-profit news organization covering New York City. He leads THE CITY’s audience development and community engagement efforts — including crowdsourcing, engagement reporting, community events and social media. Projects include The Open Newsroom, an initiative in partnership with Brooklyn Public Library to make local news collaborative, and MISSING THEM, an ambitious collaborative journalism effort to track down every news yorker who died of COVID-19 and write a story about them.
Prior to THE CITY, he was a Deputy Editor at ProPublica. He’s won multiple awards for this work in crowdsourcing and social media. He was also part of the team that was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for the work they did on ProPublica’s Machine Bias project. Prior to ProPublica, he was digital editor at WDET 101.9 FM, NPR’s affiliate in Detroit. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University in Detroit.
Natalie Yahr is a reporter and podcast producer at the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has been published by Wisconsin Watch, the Center for Journalism Ethics, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times and Scalawag, and some know her for her “guide to less extractive reporting.” Before moving into journalism full-time in 2018, she worked for community engagement news outlet Listening Post New Orleans, trained as a Spanish-English interpreter and supported adult students working to earn their high school equivalencies.
Guide and illustration produced by Maia Laperle. This guide was last updated in January 2021.