Engaged journalism Insight

“News for All” – Week Note 8

We had an incredible second session of our participatory research last week, which threw up a range of exciting and thought-provoking insights, which I’ll come to later. But reflecting on the work in the days since, it’s also thrown up an interesting realisation. 

On one hand, our News for All project is trying to explore different ways of understanding the needs of the people and communities most marginalised or excluded by traditional journalism. I suppose maybe I’d been hoping or expecting that by doing that, we’d turn up startling new thoughts that might completely change the conversation. But I’m also very aware that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants when we do this work, so I’ve been reading a lot this week too. That’s reminded me that lots of the things that are coming up in our participatory research have come up elsewhere too. Initially, when it was just my ego talking of course, this felt disappointing to me. But as soon as I thought about it, I realised how much more powerful this kind of work is when it’s additive, when it doesn’t just come out of the blue, but instead adds to the growing evidence base that journalism needs systemic change if it’s to have an equitable and sustainable future.

I guess there’s a difference between “radical” and “new”. What we’re finding requires something radical, but that doesn’t mean everything we’re discovering is new. It just means that the industry hasn’t yet responded to what we’ve been finding. If that’s the blocker here, then adding to and reinforcing that growing body of evidence is exactly what we need to do if together we want to support the change we need.

That realisation also reminded me of an ongoing conversation I have with my brilliant and wise friend Nina Fasciaux from the Solutions Journalism Network. It goes something like, “If we took the ego out of journalism, then we’d solve a lot of its problems”. All true, but I’m glad I remembered that I’m not immune!


Luckily, I can still rave about last week’s participatory research session, because all the credit goes to our facilitators Rhiannon and Amira, who built and hosted it. In the huge “What Went Well” column, I’ve got:

  • The “rhythm” of the session. It built gently and beautifully towards a crescendo in which we really nailed down the insights we were after – in this case around “information needs”.
  • We were really struck by the importance of the 30 minutes both before and after the session. We provide a delicious meal (thanks to Cardiff icons Vegetarian Food Studio) beforehand, and ordering too much means that people can chat afterwards too as they fill up their tupperware to take home. The meal obviously helps people feel welcomed and comfortable and gives time for all the important relational stuff. The after time gives a bit of processing and decompression space after what is often quite deep and occasionally painful work.
  • We had time for everyone to write creatively about a place important to them, and this felt incredibly powerful. Firstly, it’s a beautiful way of showing how much the creativity and insight of our participants is valued. Secondly, it was really moving to hear from them in their own, authentic and eloquent, voices. Nobody hearing those pieces could be in any doubt about how much we can learn from each other.
  • Something that we’re starting to explore, but will continue to put at the centre of the work, is creating a feedback loop in which we can report back on how the work is already creating change. I relayed how I’d mentioned the idea of “journalism as oppression” in three separate presentations in the previous week, and how people had audibly gasped in each one. It felt important that the group know that their words are being heard, acted on, and that they’re having an impact.

Here are just a few of the highlights from what we heard in the session this week – where I’ve also highlighted some of the related stuff I’ve been reading, which will likely be of interest to many of you interested in this work.

  • On “trust” (see the linked articles for why it’s in inverted commas), there’s still a lot of anger and frustration from our participants because they are the victims of harm perpetrated by journalism, but don’t see a lot of accountability. As a side note, I’m always frustrated by how many mainstream legacy news organisations describe themselves as “trusted”, rather than, say, “trustworthy”. Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it so, particularly when that’s in direct conflict with all the evidence. I keep coming back to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report on this – where they found that only 41% of people trust even the news they use. But perhaps we’re looking for the wrong thing anyway.  
    • The Reuters Institute’s newsletter this week reminded me that, as they put it, “People from marginalised communities have very negative views about news coverage”. I highly recommend their report “News for the Powerful and Privileged” which in some ways states the obvious – people tend not to like organisations which routinely attack them. “Privileged audiences may be concerned about, say, sensationalism, but they rarely pay a personal price. Disadvantaged communities do. The lens through which many saw the failings of the news media in their countries was in large part (although not only) related to problems they saw in how people like them were portrayed in the media.”
    • I’ve always found the notion of having “trust” in news organisations to be confusing, but never quite understood why. Heather Bryant fixed that for me with her brilliant essay, “I’m never going to trust your news organisation”. The TL:DR here: “I cannot trust that which I cannot hold accountable. And I can never, not really, hold a news organization accountable. Not in the way that the notion of trust requires.”
  • The group wanted to see journalism being part of a feedback loop between the expressed needs of people and communities and policy makers. How might journalism play a more interesting role in civic society and help make policy more responsive to citizens. Going back to one of my earlier notes, remember by definition people from marginalised backgrounds and/or identities need systems change, and if we can’t provide a route to that, then perhaps we’re not offering anything of value.
    • On this, I was really taken by Richard Young’s recent article on how “Local News must help build a civic life worth participating in”. The central point Richard makes is that encouraging and supporting participation in civic life is not enough if our broader civic institutions aren’t fit for purpose. In a theme which has been coming up a lot in my work, encouraging engagement with institutions or services which promise power or agency but don’t deliver is, in some ways, worse than doing nothing. The promise broken is far more damaging than the promise never made. I also highly recommend the whole series on Civic Media which this article comes from.
  • Talking of broken promises, journalism often assures us that it’s “fact-based”, whilst simultaneously perpetuating damaging narratives. The call from our participants was for “information that’s transparent and factual, with no narrative around it and no adjectives”. While as journalists we often obsess about “the craft”, my own research has thrown up this insight over and over again. When it comes to news journalism, most users simply don’t want or need to know what a journalist thinks. My work also suggests that it’s in what I call the “interstitial” language which links factual information in news articles that the individual or organisational biases of journalists show up. The lack of interstitial language is one of the attractions for me of modular journalism. Perhaps another area where ego is getting in the way of what our audiences keep telling us they want.
  • Finally, the statement which struck me the hardest when we were talking about information needs was when Nirushan from the Grange Pavilion Youth Forum said, very simply, “The weather app helps you plan your day”. The killer insight contained in that statement is that we need information that helps us organise our lives – what I sometimes describe as the stuff which helps us get through today, tomorrow, next week. The weather app helps us do that – we rearrange our plans based on what the app tells us, even though we know that it won’t always be right. It’s still useful information. How might news do more of what the weather forecast does?

I haven’t yet got to all the Predictions but from the ones I have, I particularly recommend the ones from Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (which speaks to all the same things as News for All), Adam Thomas, Simon Galperin, Sisi Wei, Eugene Sonn (I love “Durable over Disposable”), Gina Chua, Laxmi Parthasarathy, Meredith Artley, Peter Bale, Bill Adair, Ruth Palmer, Jennifer Brandel and Victor Pickard.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.