Remix: How to Really Teach Students to Engage Communities

    by Rebecca Blatt
    June 2, 2016
    Cronkite School alumna Margaret Staniforth (right) interviews a woman motorcyclist at What the Hell Bar & Grill in Mesa, Arizona on July 19, 2015. Photo by Lex Talamo.

    Remix is a segment of education content on MediaShift, featuring interesting and innovative journalism assignments, courses and curricula. Writers will detail their ideas and work and, where possible, provide links and materials, so other educators can adapt them in their own programs. If you’re interested in sharing your approaches to be remixed at other schools, contact education curator Katy Culver.

    When we launched the Cronkite Public Insight Network Bureau in 2014, we planned for students on Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus to work with journalists across the country on digital engagement projects. In particular, students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication would learn to use American Public Media’s PIN engagement platform, and they would collaborate with journalists who wanted to gather personal stories and expertise from members of their own communities.

    “I've learned new ways to listen, new ways to let people make their voices heard and new ways to build relationships with both sources and audiences.”

    In our first year, PIN Bureau students worked with journalists in more than two dozen newsrooms around the country and gathered insights from thousands of people nationwide.


    Students learned a lot about engaging audiences online and collaborating across platforms, and these experiences have been valuable. But I had a nagging feeling that something was missing.

    Students were leaving the PIN Bureau with digital engagement skills, but many of them had never hosted a small-group discussion or developed long-term relationships with sources. Despite conversations about diversifying voices in our reporting and reaching out to those who are underrepresented in news coverage, students hadn’t gotten much practice doing either.

    I suspect this is not unique to the PIN Bureau.


    If we want students to understand the needs of their communities and produce reporting that is personal, inclusive and relevant, we have to teach them how to learn about the history of their communities, how to listen without judgment to what members of a community are saying, how to identify key influencers in a community, and how to find people who have very little influence at all.

    Most important, we have to teach them how insights from all of these practices can set their reporting apart. We have to teach them that serving communities is central to who we are as journalists and critical to the future of the news industry.

    Over the past year I have been developing and refining a project for students to practice doing all of this, and I have been amazed by what my students have learned.

    Nuts and Bolts

    At the beginning of the semester, students each select a local community that is under-represented in news coverage, and they immerse themselves in that community throughout the course. Students don’t produce actual stories until the second half of the semester. That gives them time to just listen and observe so they can develop stories that are deep, rich, personal and truly reflective of the people they meet.

    I divide the project into six milestone assignments spaced throughout the semester. You can find full descriptions here and the final projects here.

    Milestone 1 – Define Your Community: List two to three key issues affecting the community, five community members you will interview, three gathering places you will visit and five relevant sources you will follow. (1-2 pages)

    Milestone 2 – Interview at Least Five Community Members: Write a summary of each one, including takeaways, and identify at least three other community members each person recommends. (1/2-1 page each)

    Milestone 3 – Attend a Community Event: Write a reflection of your experience, including what you learned from at least three people you met. (1-2 pages)

    Milestone 4 – Write a Multimedia Engagement Project Memo: Outline a reporting project focusing on an issue of importance to the community. Include an engagement plan describing how you will involve the community and metrics to evaluate your impact. (1-2 pages)

    Milestone 5 – Produce a Multimedia Project: Include at least one text element, one photo, one data visualization element and one slide show, audio or video element.

    Milestone 6 – Present Your Project: Tell the story of your engagement work, including what you did to involve your community and what you learned. (6-8 minutes)

    Example Projects


    Cronkite School alumna Margaret Staniforth interviewed women motorcyclists for her community project. Photo by PIN Bureau staff.

    Margaret Staniforth. Photo by PIN Bureau staff.

    Arizona sees growth in biking community as more women hit the road

    Margaret Staniforth focused her summer 2015 project on a community of women motorcyclists in Arizona. She gathered stories through Facebook and through a PIN questionnaire, but she also held “office hours” at a local bar and invited women to share their experiences. Conversations she had in person and online informed her reporting.



    Cronkite School alumnus Chris Caraveo focused his community project on Hispanic engineers. (Photo by Cronkite PIN Bureau staff)

    Chris Caraveo. Photo by Cronkite PIN Bureau staff.

    Phoenix engineers show optimism for rising Hispanic population

    For his fall 2015 project, Chris Caraveo gathered the perspectives of Hispanic engineers in Phoenix. He set up recording equipment at a local library and asked engineers to come share their stories and advice for STEM students. He highlighted several of these interviews in his story.



    Cronkite School alumna Lindsay Robinson produced a digital art tour of downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Cronkite PIN Bureau staff)

    Lindsay Robinson. Photo by Cronkite PIN Bureau staff.

    Vibrant Latino arts community reflects generational differences

    Lindsay Robinson completed the course in spring 2016 and focused her project on Latino artists in Phoenix. When she attended events in the community, she brought art supplies and asked participants to draw what the arts community means to them. She found deep generational differences among visual artists and created a digital art tour to illustrate it.



    Student Impact

    Students say the listening and research skills they develop through these projects will help them in their future reporting, even when they are working under tighter deadlines.

    “I’ve learned new ways to listen, new ways to let people make their voices heard and new ways to build relationships with both sources and audiences,” Robinson wrote in an end-of-semester reflection.

    By the end of the project, students seem to recognize the true value of their work.

    “To be a better reporter of the community, you have to be a part of the community in an observant capacity,” Caraveo wrote. “Listen, listen, listen.”

    “It doesn’t matter if every engagement opportunity turns into a story or a source,” Staniforth wrote of her experience. “Now and again just connecting and growing trust is important.”

    Rebecca Blatt is director of the Cronkite News Digital Production Bureau and a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Blatt directed the school’s Public Insight Network Bureau March 2014-April 2016. Prior to joining the faculty at the Cronkite School, Blatt spent most of her career in public radio at NPR, WUNC and WAMU. You can reach her at [email protected] and @reblatt.

    Tagged: community education engagement journalism students

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