Reporter as a “Connector” of Curious Citizens

by ChicagoPublicMedia (CC Flickr)

Figuring out what a journalist’s role ought to be leads me to ask this: What makes her work valuable (if it’s valuable at all) to society, and is that value aligned/misaligned with larger societal goals? Rosenstiel writes that a journalist ought to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” This seems true, given that we want to be free and self-governing (i.e. a democracy). But if providing information is the whole story, journalists can be replaced by automated data visualization tools. There’s software that can even contextualize financial and sports data. No journalist needed.

But providing information is only part of the story. I think that we also value communities. And although Rosenstiel writes that a journalist’s providing information becomes “the basis for creating community, making human connections”, he doesn’t say how that happens. I would go one step further than Rosenstiel and argue that a journalist’s role is not just to provide information, but to help form communities. What does that mean? By filtering and presenting information via narratives, good journalists can make abstract concepts and distant events relatable. If the story is compelling enough, they can extend the circle of people, events and ideas that readers care about. And that’s a pretty unique and meaningful position to be in. Unlike a novelist who connects readers to characters in history or the imagination, unlike a data scientist who connects audiences to facts, unlike a blog writer who shares opinions, the journalist contextualizes facts in new and interesting ways. She forms a connective tissue out of seemingly disparate parts.

The greatest example of informative, engaging and community-driven journalism that I’ve recently seen is WBEZ’s Curious City. The project features an online platform on which listeners can pose questions and then vote on them. The questions are then assigned to a team of reporters. The reporters first talk to the “curious citizen” to find out which facets of the question they’re more interested in. Sometimes, they take the community member on reporting trips and post reporting updates in real time. To come up with the most satisfying explanation, reporters talk to experts, post interactive maps, timelines and other types of media. For example, in a story in which a listener asked “Where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from?”, reporters teamed up with George Mason University linguist Corrine McCarthy. McCarthy wrote a script that’s supposed to draw out stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it. Then, listeners (361 of them) called in and WBEZ collected voicemail recordings of the passage they read. McCarthy wrote a listening guide for reporters who then evaluated the recordings and created visuals, text and listening tracks to summarize their findings.

In another story sparked by the question “What can you get in Chicago that you can’t from any other place?”, the Curious City team turned to Facebook and Twitter for input, made a list of the community’s “report” and then taped a Chicago musician to make a song out of the most credible suggestions, which they then posted on the site.

Jennifer Brandel, a lead Curious City producer, says that the project aims to flip the power structure of radio. Rather than an assignment editor choosing a story, listeners choose which story they’re most interested in. This defies the idea of radio as a one-way medium. It turns reporting into a community project. Here, the reporter’s job is not to simply provide information, but to connect community members with experts, with each other, with ideas.

This model for a reporter as a “connector” of community members’ questions, expert knowledge, and research seems much more satisfying to me than a reporter as simply a provider of information. Listeners are given agency by being involved in the question-asking, research and reporting process.

3 thoughts on “Reporter as a “Connector” of Curious Citizens

  1. Extremely helpful, both in terms of presenting a rich example worth our study, and in proposing a framework for thinking about what we’d like news to be: something communities can congregate around.

  2. I love this example. In your study of it, do you find that the public is still interested in the types of questions are ardent journalist might have previously had to push to the public? Or is it all fun stuff?

    • Just from browsing some of the recent questions, I don’t think that the types of questions asked are all just fun stuff. For example, recently a listener asked “Has the Deep Tunnel project delivered significant benefits other than employment, and at what cost to residents?” And currently, Curious City is investigating the question “Why do neighborhoods sometimes change from really good to really bad in the span of a block?” These aren’t really “newsy” questions, but I think they hint at the beginnings of deeper investigative pieces.

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