Teaching participatory journalism in COVID times: a tip from one of our members

By Dr. Jennifer Brannock Cox

When my textbook, “Feature Writing and Reporting: Journalism in the Digital Age,” published in time to adopt for my Advanced Feature Storytelling class in fall 2020, I was thrilled. Finally, I would be able to pair my class activities perfectly to the text and share new reporting strategies for community and citizen engagement with students.

Then I remembered the central theme of my book: Get out there and report!

Oops…

That message was a bit off-brand for 2020, as my students would be participating in the class remotely – many of them hours away from our Salisbury University campus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Asking them to get out into the community to engage citizens in the reporting process in the midst of a global pandemic seemed not only reckless but downright impossible.

But participatory journalism is possible in all forms and at all times, as long as you are willing to adapt. I scrambled to make my modes of audience-centric reporting feasible and effective for online engagement, and I was inspired when my students took up the challenge and produced quality work.

My chapter on community journalism centers around one of the Hearken organization’s models for participatory journalism. The company, founded by former WBEZ Chicago reporter Jennifer Brandel, creates strategies for news and other organizations to engage with their audiences.

One strategy that I have used in previous classes is a hands-on activity wherein students get permission to set up tables throughout the city and engage citizens by asking them what questions they have about their community. Students took dog treats to the local dog park, set-up shop in front of the city library and fanned out in other high-traffic areas to learn more about the town they call home only nine months of the year.

From the questions they gathered, students produced fascinating stories about the history of our community and got answers to burning questions plaguing residents today on issues from traffic to gravesite maintenance to food truck regulation.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the same technique this semester, so I borrowed another page from the Hearken playbook. The company has worked with newsrooms to create online question submission sites, where citizens can submit questions and vote on which ones they would like reporters to answer. Reporters can connect with question-askers over the phone, keeping them updated on the reporting process and including their reactions in the finished news piece.

My students adopted a similar strategy, using their existing social media platforms to ask the simple question: “What do you want to know about Salisbury?” They received a variety of responses and were able to catalog the questions into a viable list of story ideas.

One challenge we faced was the use of friends and family members as sources. Because most students don’t have separate professional and personal social media accounts, most of their questions came from people who would be considered conflicts of interest as sources.

I have an unflinching rule against such conflicts, which prohibited them from using question-askers in their finished products, but it did not hinder their reporting process otherwise. They were still able to produce quality journalistic articles from a distance that were inspired by community participants. In this climate, I consider that a win.

While we are facing new challenges in having students engage with citizens during the pandemic, we are also seeing opportunities to move their reporting processes into a more modern, professional format. Social media journalism is a requirement for everyone going into the field, so why not use this moment to have them start?

This semester, my students will continue to conduct interviews remotely or from a safe distance. They will produce those stories on a variety of platforms, and they will use social media to publish and promote their work. This new way of thinking may ultimately benefit them, as it will not just be me who sees their work; it will be public.

In these trying times for journalism education, we cannot back down our expectations for their work. We have to help students use innovative social media techniques to report and build their brands – just like they will do in professional newsrooms.

-Jennifer Brannock Cox is an associate professor teaching multimedia journalism in the Communication Department at Salisbury University. She is the author of “Feature Writing and Reporting: Journalism in the Digital Age.”

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