By now, this should be a given in journalism: Decisions for and about readers cannot be made without input from those readers, and that “If we build it they will come” is a doomed plan. 

But longtime journalist Melanie Sill, who’s working with North Carolina newsrooms on local election coverage, is concerned that too many newsroom leaders are still making coverage decisions based on outdated assumptions about readers. “I worry that some people in the newspaper industry still don’t grasp that disconnect,” Sill told API, “that they’re focused on what they put out versus what people are looking for or using.” 

That discordance is one reason confidence in the media, which has been a challenge for decades, has now fallen to record lows. At a critical time in history, what can local journalists do to fix the longstanding lack of connections with communities?

Yes, your audience-tracking software can provide a guide for where and how to focus your journalism. But you can’t measure what you’re not providing, and you can’t track those who don’t read your content.

The concept of “rupture and repair” — a term typically used in therapy but one that can be applied to relationships in general — examines how and why relationships are broken and finding ways to build trust. Efforts like Trusting News, a project of the American Press Institute and Reynolds Journalism Institute, have chipped away at repairing those ruptures. If you haven’t been following advice from Joy Mayer and team, now is a good time to start. Trust-building is a slow and intense process, and it can’t be achieved over an election cycle that promises increased partisanship, divisiveness and continuing erosion of democracy.

Meeting and talking with the community also is an opportunity to dive deep into what they want to read and why. Yes, your audience-tracking software can provide a guide for where and how to focus your journalism. But you can’t measure what you’re not providing, and you can’t track those who don’t read your content. 

At the Charlotte Observer, executive editor Rana Cash says the staff plans to use “mobile newsrooms” to maintain a presence in the region’s Black communities. Journalists will “report from there and…invite people to come in and tell us the stories they want us to write about,” Cash told WFAE.

At the Richmond Free Press, new managing editor Bonnie Newman Davis told API the publication plans to focus on a more specific audience: Black women over 50. “It’s a constituency to be listened to,” says Davis, with a substantial record of voting in elections. “There’s a growing number of black women coming to the polls” who are interested in key issues including health care, infant mortality and the economy.

In September, a group of North Carolina news and journalism organizations, organized by the NC Local News Workshop, held a community dinner in rural North Carolina, inviting residents to “share your views about local issues that matter to your community and tell news and information organizations how you want to be informed.”

For help in engaging communities, news organizations have turned to collaborations with local civic groups, a partnership that can be complicated but not impossible. The Richland Source newsroom in Ohio launched a series of community conversations last year and worked with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative on one of its largest sessions. 

“They really came along with us as partners instead of just allowing us to use their facility,” said Brittany Schock, the newsroom’s engagement editor, told API. “For us, it’s been very important to partner with people who are already doing the work and doing it well,” Schock said.

Instead of duplicating civic education efforts, she advises, newsrooms should “find people who are already doing this work. They understand that elections matter very much.”

Other ideas to keep newsrooms and  the community engaged:

  • Local opinion pages that include reader-submitted letters and regular local guest columnists. Media researchers have made a case for local-only opinion pages, and the American Press Institute has advice on how to start.  
  • The Norwood News held a “voter turnout contest” among districts in the Bronx City Council special election. 
  • “Pints and Politics” nights, which often include a community meet-and-greet or a trivia contest, are popular at several news organizations including The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, The Post & Courier in South Carolina, and WABE in Atlanta.
  • Expand your definition of community leaders and think in terms of influential residents. A community’s most knowledgeable and effective representatives could be a local store clerk, a grandmother, a middle school teacher or a librarian. GBH reporters had a roundtable discussion about the city’s mayor with YouTube “influencer” Java with Jimmy, a popular resident who had begun live-streaming conversations about city life and politics during the pandemic. Interacting with those influential residents helps to “make sure we know what we don’t know, and to understand that they might have influences in the community or inroads that we don’t yet have,” Lee Hill, executive editor of GBH News, told API. 
  • Using the Citizens Agenda reporting model developed by NYU professor Jay Rosen — and assisted by Solutions Journalism, Hearken, Election SOS and Trusting News — these newsrooms are among those that have developed successful ways to reach specific communities:
    • San Luis Obispo created the Outspoken project to reach young voters in the county. Guided by community conversations and answers to surveys, the newsroom wrote stories and newsletters directed at millennials and voting-age Gen Z-ers. 
    • Santa Cruz Local also asked residents about their top priorities in the 2020 elections, and published “The People’s Agenda” to guide their reporting. The project continued for this year’s primary election. The staff used residents’ responses to develop questions for candidates, such as: “Many District 3 residents told us they or someone they know needed immediate help to pay rent. They can’t wait for an affordable housing project to be developed. What will you do as a county supervisor in your first year to expand rent assistance programs? Where could that money come from?” 

The San Luis Obispo and the Santa Cruz projects were supported by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Renewing Democracy program in partnership with Hearken not just to do one project but to start taking the first steps toward change in a sustainable way,” Linda Shaw, editorial director for the Solutions Journalism Network, told API. 

How to talk to people. All of them.

How do you interview people who believe conspiracy theories, righteously share misinformation, and profess to hate the media? Can you frame questions in a way that avoids loaded words? And what if no one in the community will talk to you? 

The historic lack of trust in journalism certainly will impact reporters covering democracy and election issues through 2024. Interviewing “groups that typically hold low trust for mainstream news organizations” including conservative voters, immigrants and communities of color will be tricky, writes Mollie Muchna,  project manager at Trusting News.

The organization has a list of questions that can help guide those tense, complicated conversations. An important tip: If you begin with questions that acknowledge the lack of trust in media (“What do journalists often get wrong about you or things in your life?”) you can gradually build to the issue you’re there to cover.

“Even just acknowledging that journalism as an institution could be doing a better job goes a long way,” Jaisal Noor, democracy initiative manager for Solutions Journalism Network, told API.

He recommends this list of rules developed at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics. Called “Why Should I Tell You?,” the rules are “written from the perspective of a white journalist going into a black community” that historically has received little coverage from local media, Noor says. 

Trusting News also has a step-by-step guide for “identifying audiences you’re missing, finding people to talk to, hosting a (non-defensive) conversation, and acting on what you learn.”

If you’re interviewing someone with a firm belief in a conspiracy theory, make sure you don’t come off as dismissive, says journalism professor Whitney Phillips and the author of “You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape.”

Instead, consider why the person believes in something that seems nonsensical to you. Where did they first receive this information, and what convinces them that it’s true? “People are serious in how they relate to these beliefs,” says Phillips in an interview with International Journalists Network.  

Others working on the polarization problem include Braver Angels, an organization that holds community workshops and training to “bring liberals, conservatives and others together at the grassroots level — not to find centrist compromise, but to find one another as citizens.” Nextdoor, the neighborhood social platform that can be notoriously nasty, is exploring a partnership with Braver Angels. In an August email to users, Nextdoor said Braver Angels’ training “teaches the knowledge and skills to avoid contributing to polarization in your neighborhood and how to help keep political conversations from becoming overheated.”  

Resetting the American Table, a nonprofit organization that promotes civil discourse, has created training for journalists that “focuses on integrating mediation tools into everything from how journalists ask questions to what stories they choose to tell.” 

Here’s an example of deftly crafted questions for a political story written by Richland Source and cited by Jennifer Brandel, co-founder and CEO of Hearken.

 “What made it so notable is they used questions that depolarize and complicate the narrative, explained to readers they were doing so,” Brandel writes in the Election SOS newsletter

She added: “If every newsroom copied this technique for candidate interviews, it would go a long way toward turning down partisan heat and injecting nuance into what’s become a very over-simplified public narrative.” 

Richland Source learned the techniques from Good Conflict’s Amanda Ripley and Helene Biandudi Hofer (formerly of Solutions Journalism Network). 

A Richland Source reporter crafted interview questions like these that are designed to “depolarize.”

Words matter. In a study published in March, researchers from Yale, NYU and an Israeli scholar looked at “troll rhetoric” often used by foreign instigators on Twitter and other social media platforms. They mapped hundreds of top words and issues that triggered the most polarized responses, and then created a “polarization dictionary.” 

“In times when it seems like we have reached toxic levels of polarization in America,” the scholars wrote in conclusion, “it is increasingly important to continually develop tools to study and combat the potentially polarizing influence of foreign agents in American politics.”

The polarization dictionary

Researchers studied inflammatory words used by trolls on social media.

Many of the words in this graphic obviously shouldn’t be used in a conversation with community members, but other words and phrases are more nuanced. The Associated Press Stylebook can help point out risky language and offer alternatives. Some examples from AP and others:

  • Do not use euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable. Mississippi has a history of racist lynchings, not a history of racially motivated lynchings.
  • “Death tax.” Do not use this politically charged term. Use inheritance tax instead.
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer made news when they refused to use the word “audit” in news stories about Republicans’ attempts to overturn election results. 
  • Avoid repeating the phrase “rigged election;” use “election integrity” instead. 
  • Avoid labeling issues and actions as “red” and “blue” because they’re often more nuanced than that. And don’t hesitate to point out intra-party disagreements where they exist — on abortion rights, the Jan. 6 investigation or whether a past president can store confidential records in his home. 
  • Should you use “the Big Lie” — even in quotation marks — in your politics stories? Sharon McMahon, a former government teacher who’s now a non-partisan podcaster with a million Instagram followers, isn’t fond of the term. “People will immediately stop listening to you” once the phrase “Big Lie” is uttered, McMahon tells API.


Up next: Protecting your journalists.

Share with your network

You also might be interested in: