Story by jesikah maria ross and Ben DeJarnette
In 2013, when Capital Public Radio reporter Julia Mitric began a project on California’s school dropout crisis, she didn’t know what to expect from her partnership with the station’s community engagement specialist. “I literally had no concept of what it meant to put the words community and engagement together in the same sentence with journalism,” Mitric said.
Capital Public Radio’s “Class Dismissed” investigation included a series of stakeholder meetings where students, educators, civic leaders and other community members shared their experiences and insights on the dropout issue. Mitric says that participating in one of these conversations helped sharpen her understanding of community engagement — and how it can enrich journalism.
“In the beginning, I thought community engagement was something the station did to people in a sense,” she explained. “But now I see it as an experience where the station might initiate the community engagement, but what grows out of that can take on a life of its own and lead to the kind of community building that lasts longer than the documentary itself.”
The “stakeholder convening” has become a central part of Capital Public Radio’s community engagement strategy for deep-dive documentary projects. Josh Stearns wrote a brilliant piece detailing the station’s engagement philosophy, but in a nutshell the idea is that public-service journalism benefits from public input — and not just after a project is released. At CapRadio, community members help develop the story framing, inform the newsgathering process, and enrich the finished product with stories told in their own voices.
One reason reporters like Mitric are embracing community engagement is that it helps support strong journalism. At its best, CapRadio’s engagement is about getting the story right by learning from as many sources as possible. It’s about maximizing the reach and impact of the newsroom’s investigative reporting. And it’s about amplifying the rich, diverse, thoughtful community voices that are too often ignored or drowned out in the mainstream media.
Capital Public Radio published “Class Dismissed” in 2013, and it has since completed another longform project, the award-winning “Hidden Hunger” documentary, which wrapped up last fall. The station is now trying to tackle one extended investigation and community engagement project each year, starting with a documentary on affordable housing that’s getting underway this fall.
In the following interview, Julia talks with jesikah about the lessons she learned from “Class Dismissed” and “Hidden Hunger,” as well as how she came to embrace engagement during her first foray into collaboration with community members.
This abridged Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
jesikah: As a journalist coming to this stakeholder convening, what were you expecting?
Julia: I remember getting into my car in Sacramento and mapping my way to Stockton, a place I’d never been, and I remember thinking ‘I have no idea what I’m going to be doing.’ I didn’t know any of the people who we were going to meet, and I didn’t really know you either. We met that day, so it was sort of a leap of faith. At the very least, I was thinking, ‘This is a chance to get the lay of the land by talking with community groups that I might not have found through my reporting [on the dropout issue].
jesikah: The convening was packed. I don’t know if you recall, but I invited maybe 30 people, and I think about 60 showed up. What was it like as a reporter to involve community members in identifying and framing issues for the documentary?
Julia: What was really striking for me was being able to throw out the question — what are the causes and impacts of high school dropout? — to a range of diverse community members who could speak to their own experience about it. Nobody had an agenda there. They were just coming to say, “Here’s what we’re seeing in our community.” Another thing that really surprised me was that they had not met each other before the convening. That really struck me. Here we are as journalists hosting this gathering, and it’s both a chance for us to hear perspectives across various spectrums, but also a chance for these groups to interact with each other.
jesikah: One thing we did is take a clip of yours that was a work-in-progress and played it for this group of people, and we had them first speak together in small groups about did this ring true? If it did, how? And if it didn’t, what would we add? And then we had a full-group conversation. What did it feel like for you to have your raw tape workshopped like that?
Julia: It was definitely a first for me to play a piece of raw tape from my reporting for an audience of people I didn’t know. There was part of me that thought ‘Oh, this could expose me to some criticism. I mean, there’s always that concern with journalism that you’re plucking one person out as an example, but that person can’t possibly contain the complexity of the whole story. So I had that concern, and I wanted to hear whether other people felt like Unique Jackson’s story spoke to enough of the issues of high school dropout for it to be a strong story. People kept coming forward with their own testimonies about dropout, and they were connecting their stories to the story of Unique. And that’s when I started feeling like okay, this story has traction. We’re heading in the right direction, and here are some other issues that we need to keep in mind. That was of great value to me as a reporter.
jesikah: What was a good takeaway for you?
Julia: Walking out of the Stockton convening I remember thinking that this had been a really powerful step in terms of breaking down the privileged relationship between the reporter and those who are being reported on. No one in my family’s a high school dropout, I don’t know any high school dropouts, so I’m coming to it from this privileged position, and now I’ve sort of had a reality check with the people in Stockton to say “Yes, this is how it’s playing out in our communities.”
jesikah: Let me fast-forward to Hidden Hunger which is the next documentary that we worked on that had some deep community engagement. As you know, in Class Dismissed we started the community engagement work after the reporting had already begun, but on Hidden Hunger we flipped that model and started the documentary project off through a series of stakeholder convenings, and you attended one of those with Cosmo Garvin, the other reporter on the documentary. Can you describe what we did at that convening?
Julia: So at the Hidden Hunger convening that I went to I remember we broke out into groups and Cosmo, the other reporter, and I were each assigned to a different group and each group had a mix of folks that were working on the issue of hunger and health or hunger and food insecurity from a slightly different perspective. So we got a chance to sit at the table with a group of people who had been working on this issue for a while, had the local context down, could talk about their challenges, what was going well, what wasn’t, what was changing. We kind of got to be a fly on the wall in that series of gatherings, and I remember just being the secretary. I think I was writing ideas out on a huge flip board or drawing pad.
jesikah: It’s always good to have the journalist be the secretary because you’re usually the one who’s writing notes anyway.
Julia: Right, and it kind of removes you a little bit from the fray. You’re like, “I’m just writing it down.”
jesikah: And I’m listening.
jesikah: How did you use what you learned or who you met at that convening in your reporting?
Julia: It gave me a way to connect the dots across the various communities that were working on hunger in Sacramento, and it kind of gave me this little modern-day rolodex of people who I could contact and people who I could reach out to for sources or for fact-checking or, like I said before, reality-checking.
I also think another part of it was just the showing up part. I think when you’re working on a documentary about social issues and you’re going to be covering a community for a number of months, I think it’s really important to just be there, for people to see you, see who you are, get used to the idea that you’re not just coming to get a quote, you’re not just flying through for a day or two, that you will be around and you are reachable if they want to speak with you privately or connect you with a source that might not feel comfortable coming out in public. You know, being there is a way of opening yourself up at another level as a journalist, and I found that really valuable.
jesikah: Why do you think so many community members show up to these stakeholder convenings?
Julia: You know, I wonder why they do show up, because I think about how many meetings they’re already going to as people who are community organizers. It’s actually pretty surprising that people would take a two- to three-hour chunk out of their week multiple times to come to this. [But] I think people want their stories to be heard, and they’re also acting on behalf of a segment of our society whose stories are not often heard. And so it’s a chance to connect with media makers face-to-face where they might actually be able to bring to light some of those stories that are usually ignored. So I think they’re there to be listened to.
jesikah: I want to go to a different moment in this project: the live broadcast party. This was a new community engagement activity I was piloting. Can you describe the broadcast party, who was there and what we did?
Julia: It was a debut broadcast for everyone. I was super-excited about it. I think somebody asked me, “Do you think we should do this?” I was all for it. At the same time, I was again a little nervous about playing this documentary for people in our community, those I had interviewed and those I hadn’t and various sources and, you know, leaders from community groups and folks from the station. I just remember feeling like it was a very powerful thing to have the news director of the public radio station, the people who we had spent weeks and weeks interviewing, the producers, the community engagement folks. Everybody was in one room and they had taken an hour, an hour-and-a-half out of their day to come and sit and listen. It says something in our busy world that people came to experience that.
jesikah: There was kind of a palpable energy in the room because we were listening to the broadcast live together. And then we had a chance to debrief it, right? We sat afterwards, we had a meal, and we had some time to talk with each other.
Julia: You know, in coming away from these community engagement projects, I’ve thought about it — in the beginning, I thought community engagement was something that the station did to other people in a sense, or the station initiates community engagement and then there’s an impact to other people. But now I don’t see it as a vertical experience; I see it more as a horizontal experience where the station might initiate the community engagement, but then what grows out of that involves many more people and can take a life of its own, and it can lead to the kind of community building that lasts much longer than the actual media documentary itself.
jesikah: Has it changed your view on the role of journalists?
Julia: Learning about and experiencing community engagement hasn’t changed what I think the role of the reporter is, but I do think it can extend what I like to call the tent of public media. It’s a way of bringing the people that are part of the story into the world of public media, so that they are not simply the subjects of our stories, but they’re also actively involved in seeking out ways they can tell the stories of their own communities. You know, it’s a way for them to take stories about their community, to generate more dialogue, and actually bring people together around problem-solving about these entrenched social problems. We need to have a public dialogue about these social issues, and we need to involve as many people as we can in those conversations, and that’s part of what community engagement is all about.
jesikah: I’m wondering, what does community engagement in journalism mean to you now?
Julia: Big stakes question, jesikah. Big stakes. You know, one of the most powerful things for me that has come out of working on community engagement documentaries has been this process of shedding bias and being aware of one’s own privileged position as a reporter. That really tends to shift when you start doing community engagement, and instead of being this reporter that’s always on the outside sort of looking at the subject, community engagement can be a process where you’re actually brought into closer contact with the impact of these different social problems that we’re talking about whether it’s hunger or dropout or family members who are caregivers. You’re actually brought into a much more intimate relationship with the subject of your story.
I think that’s a powerful thing for a journalist. I think sometimes we like to keep our distance, and of course we must keep our objectivity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to rely on policy experts and statistics to paint a picture of a particular societal issue. How about immersing ourselves with the people who are dealing with that societal issue? After a while, it gets to be very formulaic to hear the reporter turning to the expert, hearing a quote that sets up the statistical context of how prevalent this problem is, and then you hear a 30-second clip from the person who’s the token person impacted by hunger or dropout or homelessness.
Instead. how about spending time with people who have spent decades working on these issues? And by doing that, going to a deeper level and also questioning some of the biases and privileges that you might be bringing to the subject. This may be a subtle point, but it’s one of the more powerful ways in which community engagement has impacted my role as a journalist.
jesikah maria ross is the senior community engagement strategist at Capital Public Radio. She’s out to innovate how we collect, tell and share the stories of our communities. jesikah can be reached at [email protected] or @jmr_MediaSpark.
Ben DeJarnette is the associate editor at MediaShift. He is also a freelance contributor for Pacific Standard, InvestigateWest, Men’s Journal, Runner’s World, Oregon Quarterly and others. He’s on Twitter @BenDJduck.
Julia Mitric is the food & sustainability reporter at Capital Public Radio. Julia’s favorite thing about her work in radio is hearing stories from people she’d otherwise never meet. You can reach her [email protected] or @jmitric.