The role of journalists: Lessons from community development

As journalists, many of us like to think of ourselves as being in the community business. We serve communities with information.

I’ve been talking to folks who come at this idea of community from other angles. Today, that road led me to Steve Jeanetta, who is on the community development faculty here at the University of Missouri Extension. I learned so much from Steve, and I’m thrilled that he’s agreed to be part of our conversations at the Engagement Metric, a workshop here at RJI May 4-5. Join us if you can!

Steve teaches his students to constantly question what their role is in working with communities. Are they experts? Impartial facilitators? Advocates? Trusted resources? Or just community members? As I listened to him talk, I was thinking about all the ways journalists seek to be both observers and participants in their communities, and how uncomfortable we get sometimes when those lines blur.

We talked about the principles of good practice for community development. (For a peek, scroll to the bottom of this website.) Things like “Promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.”

When it comes to evaluating engagement efforts, Steve talked about the importance of looking at the process as well as the outcome of a project. So in addition to looking at how many people contributed, think about how many people felt welcome and encouraged to contribute, and what foundations were built.

Steve echoed what I’ve heard from all kinds of disciplines: There’s no cookie-cutter approach to this stuff. We have to have specific goals, and matching strategies, for each project. No checklist can tell us how to interact with our communities, and no one-size-fits-all metric can help.

We talked about the importance of really knowing a community — knowing what baggage people bring to issues, and what the issues are really about. What’s the subtext? The history? Failure to understand that is one reason drop-in engagement by journalists is sure to fail.

Before we met in person, Steve guided me to an academic article called “Using Theory to Frame Community and Practice,” by Mary Domahidy. I don’t usually get academic in this space, but I need to share some of what I learned from this piece with you.

— Our word choices matter. Think about the difference between “community building,” which suggests a need to construct community, and “community development,” which implies that the community exists and is evolving. Journalists who think it’s their job to build community are arrogant. Journalists who take stock of the community and see how they fit in might be onto something.

— Focus on community listening. Journalists talk a lot about community conversations. This author points out that “the words discourse and discussion, though, hide the important work of listening. Listening provides the space in which to identify how people frame problems, to discover where common interests lie, where fear is, and where hope is.”

— Building networks of regular people. When it comes to how organizations and people relate, Domahidy writes that a “focus on formal organizations emphasizes authority and position, while community leaders must rely on informal networks and influence.” The world of community development is supporting the need for journalists to spend more time building relationships with regular people, and less time validating our existence with connections to important people.

— Observe first, then act. The author suggests a role for community developers that modifies “the image of a professional from one who enters the setting to solve problems with expert knowledge toward one in which the professional enters first, to understand, and then, to share his/her knowledge among those present.”

In other words, this takes time. Knowing a community takes time. It takes more listening than talking. It takes more understanding than being understood. Enter slowly and softly, then determine how you can be of value.

The possibilities at the intersection of community development and journalism have me lying awake at night, too excited to sleep.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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