The results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election brought the American media face-to-face with a harsh reality. Though news channels and newspapers covered the election for months, they missed its outcome by miles. As a result, many of the seminars and conferences I attended in the election’s aftermath dwelled on two questions: What went wrong while covering the polls? Could we have done things differently?
While a comprehensive answer is difficult, one thing is true: newsrooms need to find better ways to connect with their audiences. Here are some of the best examples of news projects that have successfully solicited audience feedback and integrated this feedback into their stories.
This Google News Lab-funded project was a social newsgathering experiment that took place on the day of the U.S. presidential election. According to ProPublica’s case study, Electionland was the “largest single-day collaborative journalism project in history.” The project brought together 650 journalism students across 14 universities to monitor and verify cases of voter suppression. Using leads from Electionland’s hotline, text messages and social media, the students sourced actionable story ideas which could be used by more than 400 professional journalists. The students used Krzana and Dataminr to analyze social media posts and Google's reverse image search to verify photos. The Electionland team generated 5,000 reports and 400 stories by the time the polls closed on November 8.
ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot
In 2015, these outlets came together to produce a series on the health effects of Agent Orange. Unlike the traditional method in which a reporter seeks out a story and then finds sources to support it, ProPublica did not start with a story in mind. Their 35-question survey targeted veterans, their children and grandchildren. This hugely successful outreach resulted in 6,000 responses and produced 32 stories. Today, ProPublica continues to pursue this kind of journalism. Through its Get Involved section, ProPublica asks the audience to join discussions, send tips, submit letters and share stories. When recapping lessons learned from the Agent Orange project, Terry Parris, ProPublica's engagement editor, noted that “it’s not the size of the community that matters. It’s about finding the right one.”
NPR’s 'Your Money and Your Life' Facebook group
In a time when the news industry measures digital engagement in likes, clicks and shares, this Facebook group shows that there are many other metrics for success when it comes to audience engagement. With a membership of more than 29,000, the platform enables people to discuss their financial issues and seek advice from other members. “With the looming economic uncertainty many people want to plan their future and retirement,” said Lori Todd, NPR’s social editor. “But most do not know how to start making better investments.” Besides approving new members, administrators have little role in managing the community’s day-to-day activities. NPR occasionally brings in financial experts for discussions with readers and follows up on story leads found in these discussions.
David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post
Social media is a great accountability and collaborative tool for journalists, as Fahrenthold demonstrated when he tweeted regularly on his investigations into President Donald Trump's donations to charity during his presidential campaign. He reached out to more than 450 charity organizations, asking if they’d received donations from Trump, and openly shared his progress on social media, helping him build a sense of transparency with his audience. His Twitter followers also took on an active role in his investigation, helping him gather information on Trump’s charitable dealings. They helped him locate a US$10,000 portrait of Trump at one his resorts. In April, Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Trump's philanthropy.
WBEZ’s Curious City
Who says everyday life is not worthy of a story? This project invites its audience to ask 140-character questions about their community. The questions often reflect people’s curiosity, such as “What's it like to live in a home that is directly adjacent to CTA [elevated train tracks]?” Listeners vote on each question to judge if the radio station should investigate further; successful questions are addressed on-air. Jennifer Brandel, the project’s founder, believes that “'questions” from the audience should become the “backbone of journalism.”
WNYC’s Clock Your Sleep
This radio station’s experiments in community data is another interesting example. Through its mobile app, more than 5,000 listeners volunteered to participate in a 20-question survey about their sleep habits. The survey data helped the radio station produce 28 user-generated stories from the community. Toward the end of this project, WNYC also held a small contest for those who improved their sleep during the program.
These are just some of the many scalable models that can be employed by media organizations to make newsrooms more receptive to audiences. Doing so would build a bridge of trust between audiences and journalists. But perhaps more importantly, opening up opportunities for audience participation will create many more story ideas and generate story collaborators and volunteers, both of which are equally critical for newsrooms to survive the waves of shrinking revenues and political uncertainty.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Hamza Butt.