Two years ago, Capital Public Radio brought me on board to launch a community engagement initiative inside their documentary unit The View From Here. When I started, I met a fair amount of skepticism and hesitancy among reporters and editors. But that’s changing, and I’m wondering why.
To find out, I’m interviewing journalists working on our documentary series, starting with reporter-producer Julia Mitric. I caught up with Julia after our most recent documentary The View From Here: Hidden Hunger, which tells stories of people who are “food insecure” and those working to alleviate hunger in one of the most agriculturally abundant regions in the country. We talked about specific engagement strategies, their benefits and challenges and the potential this work has for the public media system.
Our major takeaways?
- Convening stakeholders and reporters creates dynamic opportunities to bust stereotypes, build trust, generate relevant story ideas, and connect the dots between data and people’s daily lives.
- Involving community partners and pooling their collective knowledge helps journalists dig deeper and cover much more ground than they could through individual reporting.
- Hearing from the community and juxtaposing what they have to say with academic data helps us frame the issue in a more compelling way and ask the questions that aren’t being raised elsewhere.
- Ongoing engagement deepens our understanding of the perspectives, legacies, and challenges of people who are grappling with a social issue and widens the public conversation by including solutions generated at the community level.
- Live broadcast events create a powerful feedback loop for storytellers, community partners, reporters, and station management and hold us accountable for our work.
Read on to learn how getting involved in a community engagement process shifted one journalist’s experience with reporting.
jesikah maria ross: To launch the Hidden Hunger documentary project, I organized a series of convenings that brought diverse anti-hunger groups together with journalists to build relationships, discuss issues, and explore story ideas. You were part of that process. Given the time-frame and the deadline for your project, was participating in these community engagement (CE) gatherings a good use of your time as a reporter?
Julia Mitric: Going to a convening was worthwhile in several ways. It gave me a chance to connect names and faces and hear broad-brush strokes about the issue of hunger from various perspectives. For example, who is leading each organization, what people are working on, what their challenges/successes are, what kinds of connections between groups were or weren’t happening and how organizations were positioning themselves with regard to hunger and food insecurity. I came away from the convening with a snapshot of who’s working on hunger across this community as well as a sense of the obstacles they face in their work. The convening also offers the reporters a chance to hear community members talk with one another in a frank and off-the-cuff way.
And, conversely, I’d say it’s helpful for community partners to actually meet the person that is working on telling the story of their community. Face-to-face interactions are vital for any community engagement project. Period. From my view as a reporter, simply showing up lets that community know you’re taking their concerns (and the story itself) seriously.
Once we broke into smaller groups, it was helpful to get down to the nitty-gritty details with local sources and register their perspectives on what was missing from media coverage about hunger in Sacramento. The CE convening was also the beginning of my own process of shedding preconceptions and judgments (and personal bias) about who faces hunger and why. The summary notes from the overall convening informed the kinds of questions I went after in my reporting. I think it’s fair to say that the initial CE impacted the trajectory of our documentary project. Also, meeting people who were working directly in the impacted community allowed me to start making sense of the national hunger statistics we’d been poring over in our reporting. I started to connect the dots between data and the tangible, daily choices that people face when they’re coping with food insecurity.
Overall, engaging with community partners who are reliable, knowledgeable and open seems like a win-win.
jmr: Then why do you think that journalists are hesitant to do this kind of community engagement?
Mitric: I think it makes some news department staff and management feel nervous. As if “community engagement” were secretly code for “activism.” Underlying this anxiety may be fear that a documentary project risks losing its objectivity. And there is a legitimate concern that we, as journalists, might promote individual efforts, organizations, community leaders or their perspectives or platforms. (Or even that a journalist may appear to be carrying water for someone who has a vested interest – whether this happens deliberately or unintentionally.) Letting a source have undue influence is a real danger. And good journalism must also always be ethical journalism.
But, from what I’ve experienced on our documentary projects, this kind of community engagement doesn’t present a conflict. Here’s the way I see my role as a reporter. It’s incumbent upon me to remain skeptical about what my sources, experts, guides and contacts tell me. After all, I have a tacit agreement with my readers and listeners that I will double fact-check everything. And it’s up to me to rely on my own powers of observation so that I’m not swayed in any direction. I don’t see anything about this kind of community engagement effort that stands in the way of me doing my job as a reporter.
It’s my view that as long as the goals of community engagement are set out clearly at the outset and throughout the process, then no one is living with the misconception of a blurred line.
jmr: I agree. And to make sure community partners and station staff are aligned on outcomes, I work with both groups to create a community engagement plan that lists our shared goals right at the top. That way we have a guiding document to refer to if we hit any bumps in the process. Speaking of community partners, what do you think is the benefit of inviting ground-level organizations into the documentary production process?
Mitric: By polling the community partners about the documentary topic and pooling their collective knowledge and assessments, we’re able to dig deeper and go further in our documentary work. We’re able to cover much more ground than we would in our own individual reporting. Also, after hearing from the community and juxtaposing what they have to say with state/national data and context, we’re able to frame the issue in a more compelling way. We’re able to raise the questions that aren’t being raised elsewhere in the public realm. I like to think of our CE work as a community reality-check.
As reporters, producers and editors, we’re gathering facts from many different sources. When we take local knowledge, experiences, contexts, and tensions into consideration, it strengthens our stories – even when we’re reporting on the hard facts. And gathering local knowledge and local context is a considerable part of what we’re doing when we involve a broad array of community partners in the formative stage of the documentary project.
As reporters who are “outsiders” (be it outsiders in a socio-economic, racial, cultural or geographic sense) we would’ve faced major obstacles in trying to launch an in-depth exploration of such a community without understanding the perspectives, legacies and challenges of the people living and working within it.
Also – by developing CE along with these documentary projects, we are widening the public debate by including solutions generated at the community level. What works and what doesn’t work – based on demographics, social conditions, current and past efforts, partners, funding, etc. This is quite a different approach from the “insert academic expert here” formula we’ve grown to expect from public radio news programming.
jmr: To engage the community we built around the project and celebrate everyone’s contribution, I organized a live broadcast party that that brought journalists, storytellers, community partners, and station leadership together to hear and discuss the documentary. What was participating in this event like for you?
Mitric: I’d say the broadcast gathering created a powerful atmosphere of its own. And it was quite moving to bring together so many of the people who made the project possible… in one space, at one time, listening to the finished product. In our frenetic, media-saturated world, it’s a significant commitment to sit down together for an hour and listen to an audio documentary like Hidden Hunger.
jmr: What did you appreciate most about the live broadcast event?
Mitric: I valued hearing reactions to the documentary from community partners and documentary subjects. As well as hearing what it was like for them to participate in a project like this for the first time. During the live broadcast, you could sense the feeling of empathy in the room.
As a reporter, I view the live broadcast listening session as the ultimate form of accountability. As a reporter who’s also an outsider, I’ve just spent 12 weeks delving into the lives of this community to bring the place to life in an audio broadcast for listeners who are also “outsiders” to the experience of hunger, for example. Then, at the broadcast gathering, I’m facing a jury of peers – the subjects of the documentary themselves. If they don’t like it or they don’t think it’s a fair or accurate reflection of their community, I can’t hide behind my byline. By making the listening session public, we’re putting ourselves forward to be held accountable.
jmr: I think it’s that sense of being held accountable that made so many of us a bit nervous to host the event. But I felt strongly that we needed a forum to bring the different people involved in the documentary together, face-to-face, to experience the broadcast and talk about its impact. And the response demonstrated how these kinds of listening sessions are game changers when it comes to how the public views our work—they talked about how much more respect and appreciation they have for public radio and the role it can play in community development. What difference do you think it made to have station management in the room?
Mitric: From my perspective, it’s essential to have public radio station management present at the documentary broadcast gathering. First of all, it’s a great starting point for future newsroom dialogue about how and why we do our work. On a symbolic level, it connects every level of the news organization with the community engagement effort.. By showing up, managers are putting themselves behind this work and saying, “We value this. We backed this. We stand by this.” And, perhaps most importantly, having station leadership participate in the broadcast gathering suggests a public commitment to funding and sustaining support for this kind of in-depth community documentary work.
jmr: Do you think it’s useful to bring journalists, their subjects, and community partners together in this way? Is it worth building into our community engagement model?
Mitric: I do think it’s worth doing. I see Community Engagement on these social issue documentaries as a genuine gesture of inclusion. Bringing people in is at the core of public broadcasting’s mission. That should extend to people who may not have any prior connection to public media. From my perspective, our public radio stations could do much more to make themselves into hubs for many different forms of community connection.
jmr: What could we be doing better in our engagement work?
Mitric: We must continually widen the tent of public radio if we want to build a lasting and inclusive institution. Not just in terms of who we cover, but also in terms of our listenership. A crucial part of this is training up youth from diverse backgrounds so they can shape tomorrow’s public media as makers and audiences. To that end, I’d like to see more media training (and media making) workshops for youth and adults in future CE-led documentary projects. And to bring all of this full circle, I’d like to see more people from the community at the live event (including youth). Not just the people we interviewed or the organizational leaders we convened or the voices that ended up on the radio but some of their children, their neighbors, their teachers and pastors as well. (It would be valuable to hear the perspective of people who weren’t directly part of the documentary but who live in the communities we profiled.) I also think it would be a great idea to hold a live event in the physical community where the documentary took place. After all, these are community-based documentaries.
jmr: You make an important point about growing and diversifying both our audiences and journalists through deeper community engagement. And I love the idea of community media workshops and events—I’m putting them on my list for future CE plans! How are you thinking about incorporating what you’ve learned from doing community engagement via CapRadio in your future work?
Mitric: I hadn’t heard of community engagement before I started working on the multimedia documentary The View From Here: Class Dismissed with CapRadio in 2013. I literally had no concept of what it meant to put the words “community” and “engagement” together in the same sentence with journalism. Now that I’ve had a chance to see the process develop across two different projects, I’d welcome future opportunities to be part of a community engagement-led documentary or in-depth story series. I now see this process as a tool that allows me to broaden the scope and impact of my reporting.
In a sense, community engagement is an acknowledgment of the fact that when journalists step into a community to report about it – impact ripples in both directions. And whether journalists like to admit it or not, we grapple with this reality each and every time we set out to tell a story.
This piece originally appeared here.
Julia Mitric is a writer and audio producer based in Sacramento, CA. She reports and produces stories for California public radio stations and NPR News in Washington, DC. Julia’s recent reporting is part of The View From Here: Hidden Hunger – a multimedia documentary exploring the lives of Californians coping with chronic food gaps. Julia’s favorite thing about her work in radio is hearing stories from people she’d otherwise never meet. For more about Julia’s work go to audiotypewriter.com You can reach her @jmitric or [email protected].
jesikah maria ross is a documentary artist who creates participatory storytelling projects that spark public dialogue and community development. She recently became Capital Public Radio’s Senior Community Engagement Strategist. jesikah can be reached at [email protected] or @jmr_MediaSpark.
Capital Public Radio is your home for international news from NPR and our own programs from the Sacramento region and Western Nevada. Seven frequencies, 420,000 listeners, and one mission: to build stronger communities by listening deeper. We’re member-supported and we’re listening. Our community engagement efforts seek to ignite conversations, deepen understanding, and galvanize community involvement on topics impacting the community. Up next: Undocumented Immigration In California. Follow our engaged documentary work at @CapRadioView.
Special thanks to Catherine Stifter and Josh Sterns for their feedback on this post.
Photos by Andrew Nixon and Marnette Federis, Capital Public Radio