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Tips for Smarter Reporting

By Jan Schaffer

What is the definition of a “good school?”

To journalists, it’s often strong test scores, low drop-out rates or the tax dollars a school gets.

But ask ordinary people and you might get some very different ideas. For instance: Is my kid learning? Will the principal return my phone call? How does the school deal with bullies? And is the school a real “third place,” a gathering spot for the community?

Journalists look for things to measure. Ordinary people look for things they value.

Journalists who don’t probe for the real meaning behind labels risk writing about subjects in ways that have no relevance or connection to their readers, listeners and viewers. They may be covering the news – but are in danger of missing the real story.

A good primer on civic mapping is the Pew Center’s workbook, “Tapping Civic Life: How to Report First, and Best, What’s Happening in Your Community,” which was prepared by The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. (E-mail news@pccj.org for a free copy.)

So how can we journalists better link the more traditional thresholds for a news story with what our increasingly diverse communities value as important?

In many cases, we have to get smarter. And that often means we have to talk to new types of people – those with day-to-day knowledge about an issue, not simply formal expertise. We have to talk to them in new places, ask them some different questions and engage them differently.

This will require developing new reflexes. But the payoff is huge. We’ll end up with a vastly more diverse source list, new definitions of “news” and ultimately some new relationships with our audiences.

A good place to start is with “civic mapping,” a simple and systematic way of diversifying our Rolodexes. Here’s an overview:

— Start with newsroom conversations. Identify your pre-conceived notions about a community of interest. Put them up on the wall.
— Collect the names of known community leaders – the officials and quasi-officials.
— Ask them this important question: Whom do they seek out to get news and information about the community?
— Collect names they give you. These will generally fall into a couple of categories: “Catalysts,” the go-to people who often get things done but may not carry a title. And “connectors,” the civic bumblebees who pollinate many different groups – Scouts, sports teams, PTAs, health clubs, church groups – imparting information.
— Find out where people hang out – the diner or donut shop, the barbershop or swim club – the “third place” where people talk informally about their communities.
— Hit the streets and start interviewing these folks and visiting these places.

Ask Different Questions
Initially, you need to have a conversation rather than conduct an interview. What things do they hold valuable? What do they aspire do? What do they mean by the buzzwords they use? Did they mean what you thought they meant?

Give people some space to “try on” some different answers. Let them figure out which one best fits. This will ensure that you, as a journalist, really capture how they feel.

Test your stereotypes and pre-conceived notions in these conversations. Where are you off base? Where are the internal tensions more important than the external conflicts?

Ultimately you will start to hear patterns – and it’s the patterns that will give you your story.

Jan Shaffer is executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

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