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Journalism for Navigating Uncertainty: The Engagement Principle

Engagement increases respect, appreciation, and partnership between journalists and communities.

NewsEco-Journalism-as_croppedIn 1775, the American Revolution launched an experiment in engagement called “democracy”. That sparked a critical need for an informed public and ignited a mass literacy movement.

Today’s technological wonders are generating a “media literacy” movement that is fueling a new level of engagement. Journalism is no longer a one-way communication from journalist to audience. It is a conversation. News and information is created, published, curated, used, archived, influenced and more by anyone.  And many use social media to communicate and make meaning from news and information with friends, family, interest groups, and strangers.

As the founders knew when they shaped the First Amendment to guarantee free speech and a free press, engagement is essential to democracy and to vibrant community life. As Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow, Mike Fancher, puts it, public trust grows through public engagement.

The Lawrence Journal World’s WellCommons.com, is a great example. Its chief architect, Jane Ellen Stevens invited the public to help define it.  According to Stevens, they set a goal to be the go-to place for news and information on health and wellbeing in the region. Half of the content comes from community members and half from professional reporters. The site has changed the community’s conversation about health and caused a more solutions-focused style of reporting.

Like many other professions, journalists are renegotiating their roles and responsibilities as professionals. Among the new roles: community hosts, data wranglers, and beat bloggers. Consider some shifts in who provides content:

NewsEco-Journalist-as_croppedPersonal storytelling. Schools, libraries, and even journalism organizations are teaching skills to the public to help them discern quality, reliable content and to support people in creating their own stories. For example, through the “Living Textbook”, Arab American seventh graders learn journalism skills and tell stories about identity and how they see the world.

Community and organizational storytelling. With fewer professional journalists, communities and organizations are taking charge of their stories.  For example, the Colorado Health Foundation created the Colorado KaleidosCOpe, a “statewide storytelling campaign designed to shine a bright light on the good work of our grantee partners and the people whose lives they impact.”

Professional journalistic storytelling. Professionals still contextualize, deepen and amplify stories.  They can tell complex stories that take dedicated research and do the analysis and communication to help tackle tough subjects. They can help us make sense of the overwhelming amounts of information by showing us patterns and trends that shape society.

Because of these shifting roles and cultural changes, both journalists and the public they serve are asking a key question:

What is newsworthy? 

No longer solely controlled by journalists, how shall we –journalists and the public – discern what stories are critical for our communities and democracy? Journalists want to be relevant and trusted. The public wants important and trustworthy information. Imagine a full partnership: journalism of, by and for the people. That requires engagement.  The principles that follow speak to how to make that happen, where you are in the system.

Tips for Engaging

Whether online or in face-to-face conversations, some strategies to remember:

  • Invite the people who care about the issue, then welcome who and what shows up.
  • Ask real questions — meaningful ones for which you don’t know the answers and are genuinely curious.
  • Make it simple and easy to get involved. Consider accessibility. In person, handle parking and daycare.  Online, be crisp, brief, and able to participate with one click.
  • Make it fun. We’re more creative and collaborative when having a good time.  In person, have food.
  • Make space for individual expression and connection with others. We all crave to be authentic and to belong.  Support both.
  • Work in cycles. Offer context and a question. Invite a response.  Feedback or reflect together on what you learn, likely triggering another cycle.
  • Treat disruptors with compassion and respect while being firm and clear about appropriate behavior.  They likely have something important to contribute but lack the skills to communicate it.  Welcome the message while handling bad behavior.

Just as engagement is key for successful system change, diversity fuels innovation and a sense that we’re all in it together.  Stay tuned for more in the next post.

In the spirit of sparking engagement: enter a word or phrase on how you decide what is newsworthy in the comments below.

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Journalism for Navigating Uncertainty: The Possibility Principle

Journalism can help us envision and move towards a world that works for all.

Journalists have a unique role as storytellers, influencing the cultural narrative that weaves society together. Through my work in organizations, I know that when the stories people tell about the organization change, so does the culture.  The same holds true on the scale of a society.

JTMNW-Jan2010-Day4-1_Conf-Close-outcomes-cropPossibility-oriented stories generate new options. Research on the relationship between positive image and positive action by David Cooperrider, Case Western Reserve University professor of Social Entrepreneurship shows that we create what we can imagine.  Uncovering possibilities feeds our imagination, which is key to journalism that informs and also engages, inspires, and activates.

Though much of our current narrative is filled with stories that increase polarization, journalism educators and professional journalists are re-thinking dualistic — us versus them — models of storytelling.  Even investigative journalism, with its gotcha reputation, is increasingly including solutions.  InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative news organization born when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed, includes solutions as part of its approach.  Their groundbreaking story on the hazards of chemotherapy exposure for health care workers resulted in passing two laws improving worker safety in Washington state.  According to Rita Hibbard, executive director at the time, what made the difference were the possible solutions in the story.

This story demonstrates that even when the situation seems dire, other storylines are possible. In fact, conflict and struggle placed in a larger context become challenges to overcome rather than reasons to despair. They spark creativity and innovation.

Possibility-oriented storytelling brings journalism into the heart of community life, and supports a vibrant democracy. J-Lab executive director, Jan Schaffer, highlighted several examples in a Nieman Journalism Lab article.  Journalism That Matters gave the idea a practical twist by building on the traditional journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how, suggesting a sixth “w”: What’s possible now?

News organizations have emerged that are committed to a possibility-oriented perspective.  YES! Magazine has been at it since 1996.  Axiom News is of a similar age.  Both are growing. What’s Good 206 involves youth in telling stories of compassion and success.  David Bornstein’s weekly Fixes column in the New York Times explores solutions to major social problems.  And Bornstein’s newly formed Solutions Journalism Network is committed to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Tips for Telling Possibility-oriented Stories

I offer a few pointers gathered from those who have been at it for a while:

  • Turn a problem into a possibility by asking: What might it look like if things were working?
  • Ask questions to discover the best of what is, to imagine what’s possible, to uncover ideas, and to spark action.
  • Cover what’s already happening to improve a situation.
  • Provide “handles” for audience to learn more or to get involved, for example, pointing to resources and organizations.
  • Report on new ways that are struggling to be born with the same attention and rigor as on what is dying.
  • Tell stories that present alternatives to dominant beliefs about “how things are”.
  • Turn victims into protagonists, for example, by following a story those affected make sense of their experience.
  • Make the system visible.  A vs. B stories miss the complexity of interactions involved.  Making nuances that transcend sides visible can bring about unlikely partnerships.
  • Invite audience to offer ideas about what they see as possible and what actions they will take to make it so.

Possibility-oriented storytelling feeds a cultural narrative that helps us to navigate uncertainty by focusing attention on creative ways forward.  Another critical complement for equipping us to be free and self-governing rests in engaging the diversity of people who care about an issue. The next post sheds some light on engagement.

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Follow up on last week’s post, An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

Email was still the primary vehicle of choice for responding, though Facebook also brought some comments.  Jane Stevens, Founder, editor of ACEsTooHigh.com, offered the example of WellCommons, Lawrence Journal-World’s local social journalism health site.  I’ll be saying more about the award-winning WellCommons in the next post in this series.  So stay tuned!


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An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

What does a re-vitalized, economically viable journalism that meets the needs of communities and democracies look like? 

Imagine a news organization that invites the public to become sources to “add context, depth, humanity, and relevance” to news stories.”  That’s what American Public media is doing through its Public Insight Network.  In Cleveland, Rita Andolsen left her news director job at WKYC-TV to become the station’s director of advocacy and community initiatives.  Now she hosts community conversations and looks for issues where this commercial station can ethically advocate on behalf of the community to improve the city and its neighborhoods. Or what about publishing a series making visible the widening economic and social gap between minorities and whites in the state and then convening statewide conversations to do something about it?  Laura Frank, executive director of the I-News Network in Colorado, led the way through “Losing Ground.”  (Crockett, 2013).

These examples of involving the public before, during, and after stories are published demonstrate an expanded purpose for journalism.  Not just informing, they also engage, inspire, and activate the public to create solutions. They help to recast attitudes of frustration, anger, and despair by calling forth resilience, curiosity and determination.  Journalism becomes a system that involves journalists and the public in shifting cultural narratives about what’s possible.

Drawn below as a framework for thinking holistically about journalism, telling the story is part of a system of interactions that help us to navigate through uncertainty.  This model emerged from a conversation that I had with Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute when he attended JTM’s 2008 New Pamphleteers conference in Minneapolis.


A System of Purposes for Journalism, Tom Atlee


I spoke with Mike Fancher, retired executive editor of the Seattle Times, asking how such a model might have influenced the way the Times did its work.  He began by saying that the newspaper did all of these functions to some extent.  What excited him about this framework was that it treated journalism as a system.

He mentioned a story of a state crime lab that documented cases of innocent people going to jail and guilty ones going free because of system problems at the lab.  It was an important story that did its job of informing the public.  Yet nothing happened.  Mike reflected that traditionally, journalists don’t feel any obligation to help make something happen.

“With a more holistic approach, we probably would have built in elements that were move effective at motivating, mobilizing, inspiring and activating.”

This type of journalism could provide the public with the agency to work together to ask more complex questions about our prevailing cultural narratives such as: Who decides whether our systems – education, health care, governance — meet our needs? What do such systems look like? How do we create them?

Our society faces a dynamic tension.  An old media system that we understood, whether satisfied with it or not, is declining.  A new ecosystem filled with experiments and unanswered questions about how it operates and who and what to pay attention to, is emerging. Journalism organizations that work holistically with their communities are building authenticity and trust, moving beyond serving consumers to creating people and communities in action.

Such a journalism ecosystem requires changes in mindsets, skills, and activities.  Based on my work in organizational systems, I offer three keys in cultivating such a system: possibility-oriented storytelling, engaged constituencies, and diversity, in voices, forms, and funding. I’ll explore one of these each week over the next three weeks.


Got something to contribute?

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Unless you explicitly request otherwise, I will post comments sent via any of the above in the comment space on this page.

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Follow up on last week’s post, What do we need from journalism?

Most respondants emailed me.  Some replied via Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.  Responses came from the U.S., the Netherlands, Korea, Brazil, Jordan, and Israel. Tom Atlee was inspired to post an article: Journalism to Energize Citizen Deliberative Democracy.  An Israeli journalist offered a story that I hope to share soon.  Wout-Jan Koridon suggested The Intelligent Optimist (formerly ODE Magazine) as an example.  My favorite comment came from Detroit-based information architect and Journalism That Matters alumni Mary Ann Chick Whiteside, who said: “Interesting idea to put hope as a benchmark of good journalism.” More of what you offered can be found here.



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What Do We Need from Journalism?

Given the pace of change today, we need journalism that helps us to navigate through uncertainty.

If the purpose of journalism is to support us in making sense of our world, providing the news and information we need to be free and self-governing, what does that tell us about stories that help us find our way in times of change? It calls for an expanded purposejournalism that not only informs, but also engages, inspires, and activates us to be free and self-governing.

Such journalism involves:

NewsEco-Journalism-purpose_med_res.jpgMy perspective comes from thirteen years of working with journalists through Journalism That Matters.  It is also influenced by consulting to organizations facing upheaval and as an author of two books on system change. I have seen that the stories we tell matter. They shape our actions.

As cultural storytellers, journalists influence our collective story.  In his groundbreaking work, The Image of the Future, social scientist Fred Polak tells us that cultures without a positive image of their future die within a generation.  Think about that.  Our future depends on positive images.  So cultural narratives – the stories we collectively tell ourselves – are more critical than most of us realize.

Likely unconsciously, most traditional media have approached their mission by telling stories that tend to keep our institutions stable.  They treat the functioning of our educational systems, political systems, healthcare systems, governance systems and other basic systems of society as a given.

When our institutions cease to serve us well, it shows up in the complexity of the issues we face and conflicts over how best to handle them. At such times, journalism that helps us to navigate through uncertainty can inspire and equip us — the public — to engage with complex challenges, taking charge of the well being of our communities and our democracies.

Such a focus raises some essential questions, like: Who decides what is newsworthy? And how?  And even: who decides whether our systems are meeting the needs of the people they are intended to serve?

In that light, consider how much journalistic storytelling uses conflict to make a story compelling. Even if it makes a good story, for many of us, it creates a sense of hopelessness.  Think about how differently you respond to a story about our education system failing and one about education innovations that are making a difference. One story leaves most of us in despair, believing there’s nothing we can do. The other can spark action, motivating us to get involved.

Inspiring and engaging stories don’t need to ignore conflict. They succeed by contextualizing them via big picture aspirations that provide positive images that inspire action.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll elaborate on these ideas in posts on an expanded purpose of journalism, and three principles: possibilityengagement, and diversity. The series ends with some suggestions on what you can do to support a re-vitalized, economically viable journalism that meets the needs of communities and democracies. As a companion piece, I’ll offer a draft functional map of the news and information ecosystem.

Got something to contribute?

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Living Textbook Gets Funding from Ford Foundation

The Living Textbook, funded out of JTM-Create or Die last June in Detroit, has recently received a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation to continue its work.

Co-directed by Emilia Askari and Joe Grimm, this project sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association, is produced by seventh-grade students in Dearborn, Mich., who have a unique take on what it means to grow up Arab American in post-9/11 America. They are among the first generation of Americans to have no memory of what life was before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The students’ photos and stories were created with a class of seventh graders at McCollough-Unis School. The idea was to help the students learn about journalism and capture stories about their Arab American community.

The students told stories about bullying and the school track team and the Detroit Tigers. They wrote and took photos about sitting down to big, American-style Thanksgiving dinners – with sides of hummus and tabouleh. Most of the kids are Muslim. Some of the girls, but not all, wear headscarves. Some wore green headscarves for St. Patrick’s Day and clipped shamrock antennae onto them. For USA Day, they wore red, white and blue.

For them, the Middle East is a local story. Most of the students’ families come from Lebanon, but the class also has students with ties to Kuwait and Syria. One boy labored over the story of the uprisings of the Arab Spring and what that is doing to his parents’ families in the Middle East. His mother stays up late at night to talk on the phone, losing sleep and weight. They live that story in their home here in the United States.

A video about the project was created by journalistic filmmaker Bill Kubota:

A photo exhibit of the students’ work opened on July 2, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. The students would be thrilled if you left them a comment or two on their work. So check it out!

“It is our hope that these young storytellers will gain the skills and confidence they need to continue telling about their generation in words and pictures,” said project co-director Joe Grimm.

“We think that the digital literacy skills the students are learning will help them succeed – – in school, on the job and in their 21st century communities,” co-director Emilia Askari added.

Seeded by a small grant from Journalism That Matters-Create or Die, this project is funded by the McCormick Foundation and The Ford Foundation. Kodak, Target, and Costco have also donated in-kind products to support the program.

The project co-directors, Emilia Askari and Joe Grimm, have been working with the students weekly throughout the 2010-11 school years. Askari is a journalist, who just completed her master’s degree at the University Of Michigan School Of Information; she has spent about two decades as a reporter at newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald. Grimm is a professor at the Michigan State University School of Journalism and an adjunct faculty member with the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute; he previously worked for more than 30 years in newsrooms, spending a quarter-century at the Free Press.