Story, photo and video by Richard Percy
“Research shows that reporting about Congress affects how constituents behave. Whether or not they decide to vote, for instance,” says Natalie Stroud, director of the Engaging News Project and associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Research also shows that how the media covers Congress influences the way in which congressional representatives behave.”
The Engaging News Project, an initiative of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life in UT-Austin’s Moody College of Communication, strives to find ways that the U.S. news media can more effectively empower the public to “understand, appreciate and participate in the democratic exchange of ideas” by testing web-based strategies for informing audiences, promoting discourse, helping people to understand diverse views and analyzing business outcomes, such as clicks and time on page.
Stroud’s message has struck a nerve with the news media professionals seated around the table. It’s Feb. 23, 2017, and they have come to the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center to workshop new ways to report on government and engage users. It’s a timely topic.
“We certainly have people around the table here who are exemplars in their political reporting and their engagement work,” Stroud concludes, “and I think that bringing together people with different perspectives on this might help us to generate some new ideas.”
Regina Lawrence, executive director of the Agora Journalism Center, takes the floor. “At the University of Oregon, the future of journalism, and the future of communication, and the future of media innovation is something we care deeply about,” she says. “So you can imagine we’re having some very interesting conversations these days about what the future holds for the coverage of politics in this era.” Around the room, audience members smirk knowingly.
“Both the Agora Journalism Center and the Engaging News Project have engagement baked right into them,” Lawrence continues. “It’s our essential mission to improve levels of engagement. At the same time, I think we’re all aware that the term ‘engagement’ is used in a lot of different ways. So what does the term engagement mean for you and for your users?”
The room sits pondering for a moment, before Greg Retsinas, director of digital media for KGW.com, breaks the ice. “A conversation with substance,” he says. “A conversation that brings meaning, a conversation that’s mutually beneficial, a conversation that makes storytelling better. I mean, that’s a valuable form of engagement.”
Sarah Rothenfluch, executive editor of news for Oregon Public Broadcasting and executive producer of the radio series “State of Wonder,” challenges the room: “Whether we like it or not, I think a lot of our newsrooms say, ‘Look at the engagement we’ve had on Facebook! We’ve had so many shares! And so many clicks!’ But … is that actual engagement?”
Aaron Mesh, news editor for Willamette Week, addresses that point: “The engagement that tends to interest me the most, and that I find is the most productive, happens in the story-finding process. To some degree, the only reason why I want to have a comment section at all is that sometimes it leads to new story ideas. Challenge your readers to challenge your expectations.”
By the end of the first day, event attendees are expressing an open-minded understanding of how their work can engage their users. And by the workshop’s final day, they have begun to put their newfound understanding of engaged journalism to the test.
They group into teams to brainstorm practical methods they can implement in their newsrooms to improve their political coverage in ways that represent their users’ best interests. Dann Miller, consumer experience director for the Statesman Journal, suggests an idea he calls “The Wall,” where reporters display lists of issues that concern users in their daily lives on a wall in the newsroom. By prompting users to complete the sentence, “The most important issue to me is…,” journalists can learn what’s most relevant to the communities they hope to serve. Miller notes that this practice would allow reporters to get an impression of how to better communicate with their audience by hearing how they frame issues from their individual perspectives and even the language they use.
Through a platform like the Agora Journalism Center’s soon-to-be-released Gather, lists from a network of diverse newsrooms could be collected and examined for consistencies across geographic areas. Journalists could then take issues that are important to many constituents to Congressional representatives, then track their progress and hold them accountable.
This is just one of the ideas that Stroud enters into a comprehensive spreadsheet during the brainstorming session. By the end of the workshop, the attendees are eager to return to their local newsrooms to begin engaging with their communities in new ways.
Richard Percy will graduate this spring with a master’s in multimedia journalism. He is a Portland-based filmmaker and writer who develops story packages for the UO School of Journalism and Communication. View samples of his work at www.richardpercy.com.