Citizen reports can bring context, nuance and a broader range of voices to the news. But outside major emergencies, many news outlets still haven’t created an environment that fosters a high level of interaction between their newsrooms and the public.
Trevor Knoblich, project manager at FrontlineSMS, helps journalists and media outlets around the world improve their ability to gather, track and share news. He recently wrote for PBS Media Shift's Idea Lab about how newsrooms can cultivate more frequent interaction with citizens.
Here is IJNet’s summary of Knoblich's tips:
1. Crisis drives narrative
“Arguably, all journalism deals with crisis,” Knoblich says, “whether individual or shared, personal or a wide-scale emergency.”
A news outlet reporting on a concerning issue can ask people to report their personal experiences, or “crises.” Individual tales taken together illustrate a larger trend.
For instance, when Huffington Post was reporting how insurance companies decide which claims to approve or deny, they asked people to write in and describe their experiences. Journalists then curated (chose and shared on the site) the most interesting stories. These included stories about people who were denied coverage because of mental illness, or those who had faced delays in approvals for cancer tests and treatments.
2. What channels will make people likely to contribute?
Newsrooms should acknowledge that asking people to learn a new platform is a big hurdle, and people will gravitate to what feels comfortable.
Instead of using an in-house comments platform, a news outlet could ask people to report via SMS, Twitter, Facebook or other common platforms. Journalists and editors should engage on the sites readers are already using.
3. Offer multiple input channels
Some people are happy to leave comments on a web story; while others want the privacy of SMS or email. Newsrooms need to think through what information is most helpful, and then which platforms are most likely to encourage audiences to share that information.
If you only need photos, find multiple photo-sharing sites, and allow people to upload or email photos. If you need short bursts of information or data, Twitter and SMS are great. If you are in an area where broadband access is a challenge, accept voice calls and SMS.
4. People want to be heard
Is there a topic on which people don’t have many ways to engage? If so, think about opening up channels in your newsroom. People may surprise you with their passion and interest, and willingness to participate.
Knoblich notes that the human rights NGO Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe has used FrontlineSMS to converse with the community about human rights and civic education. They used it to mobilize and inform citizens during and after the 2008 Zimbabwean elections.
5. Consider 'bounded networks'
With a bounded network, you are reaching out to a specific network of people and asking them to weigh in on a particular topic. This requires a fairly long-term commitment for a specific group of people, as well as a relationship with a newsroom.
For example, Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists asked a specific set of scientists to report on their work in the Arctic and Antarctic. The scientists received multimedia training from PBS, NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle.
6. Make specific requests
Giving readers assignments helps frame the discussion and will generally give newsrooms more of the stories they need to round out their coverage. The request should be as specific as possible. “Tell us your story about poor health care” is more vague than, “Have you or a relative been denied benefits by a national service provider? Tell us your story!” Don't be afraid to be specific.
7. Take the time to draw conclusions
Obviously, it is important to make sense of the information you receive – whether semi-structured data or multiple narratives – for the benefit of the story. But highlighting good content will also encourage the contributors who created that content and send a signal about the kind of information that is most helpful for the future.
Jessica Weiss, a former IJNet managing editor, is a Buenos Aires-based writer.
IJNet’s partner, PBS MediaShift's Idea Lab is a group weblog by innovators who are reinventing community news for the Digital Age. Each author won a grant in the Knight News Challenge to help fund a startup idea or to blog on a topic related to reshaping community news.
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via ausnahmezustand.