Building Engagement: A Report on Supporting the Practice of Relational Journalism

This report is the outcome of a collaboration between the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. It reflects the melding of our respective missions—the Agora Journalism Center’s mission of supporting and researching the intersections of media innovation and civic engagement, and the Engagement Lab’s mission of designing for civic learning and action.

In these pages, we describe what we learned from collaborating on the Finding Common Ground project. That initiative brought together seven teams of journalists from across the U.S., U.K. and Europe who aimed to create meaningful dialogue around pressing public problems, ranging from affordable housing to prisoner reentry, and from a diversity of geographies, spanning rural Kentucky to post-communist Lithuania. Working with these remarkable projects provided a unique opportunity for us to design a framework for journalists who are engaging people in face-to-face conversations, sometimes difficult ones across lines of political and cultural differences – a piece of journalistic practice often ignored or misunderstood. A key concept guiding this work is the notion of relational engagement: journalism that focuses on engaging with people as members of communities, not just as “audiences.”

In this report, we present the Reflective Practice Guide, a methodology for documenting and reflecting on community engagement efforts and impacts, so that journalists and the organizations they work for will be better able to assess the value of doing relational engagement work. The guide grew out of a previous study by the Engagement Lab that looked at how a range of practitioners from government, NGOs and news organizations sought to build trust with their changing constituents. Here we refine that work to a specific community of practice, highlighting the unique challenges and opportunities engaged journalism presents. We strongly believe that the future of journalism will hinge on the way organizations build and maintain relationships with communities. And managers and funders need to take notice because this work often requires different skills than traditional journalistic practice. The insights in this report and the tools we provide do not solve the problem, but they are building blocks towards pushing the institution of journalism to recognize that there is a problem.

At a time when journalists are grappling with eroding trust in media and finding new ways to build connections with the communities they serve, we offer a concrete way of talking about and documenting relational engagement. We hope that these tools are valuable to journalists, academics, and engagement practitioners. Please take a look, try things out, and start the conversation!

— Regina G. Lawrence, Executive Director, Agora Journalism Center
— Andrew DeVigal, Associate Director, Agora Journalism Center
— Eric Gordon, Faculty Director, Engagement Lab

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