Ethical journalism for community engagement: A guide for journalists

By: Hannah Cissell

pew graphic

Graphic made by Hannah Cissell with data is from a 2011 Pew Research Center study about how the public views the news media.

Journalists have had a set of ethical guidelines to follow for over 100 years, thanks to Society of Professional Journalists.

However, the public is still skeptical about journalists and the accuracy of their coverage, according to a series of studies done by the Pew Research Center.

Part of the public’s skepticism is due to the fact that many communities feel like they are being left behind when it comes to news coverage, studies show.

Now that journalists are becoming more aware that community engagement is a key to succeeding and appealing to news consumers, the question that arises is whether journalists can become close to communities and engage with them while remaining ethically sound.

I spoke to a few experts on ethics and community engagement who have seen firsthand how community engagement and ethics correlate. Here are tips they suggest for journalists to follow:

Be Humble

Journalists may think that they know exactly how a community feels about certain issues, but they should never assume without going out and asking first.

Mike Fancher, a Reynolds Visiting Chair in the Ethics of Entrepreneurial and Innovative Journalism at the University of Oregon, said minimizing harm while doing community engagement is one of the more important ethical standards.

Fancher recommends that in order to do this journalists need to go into communities to do engagement and remain humble and have humility. Journalists never know what someone might be going through, so it’s important to be sensitive to people and their feelings.

“When approaching people in communities, ask yourself, how can I understand their experience?” Fancher said.

“People want to tell their stories but are a lot less willing to do so to someone who acts as though they know everything about the story already,” said Fancher.

Be mindful of negative past experiences

It’s our job as journalists to tell people’s stories in the most effective way we can. However, the most effective way doesn’t always provide the most positive experience.

There are some people in communities who are afraid of journalists because of past [negative] experiences with the media. “Non-journalists are very apprehensive about the media because they don’t want to get burned like they have in the past,” Fancher said.

In order to do so, Fancher mentioned that it may be helpful to some journalists to set ground rules and expectations between themselves and the community when doing community engagement.

“As a journalist, if you know there have been incidents in the past in that community and with the news media, be prepared for apprehension from some people,” said Fancher.

Don’t be afraid to engage

Some journalists today are so afraid to become too close to communities and the people they cover that they avoid them altogether.

It’s important of course, to remain unbiased, but it’s also important to reach people who you normally don’t talk to.

Peggy Holman, co-founder of Journalism That Matters, noted that the obligation of journalism is to serve the public, but some journalists are taking that to new heights and avoiding any activities or relationships that may create a conflict of interest.

Community engagement is centered around relationships that journalists should be building, and it’s easy to see why some are still skeptical because they want to remain as ethically sound as possible.

Holman noted that some Experience Engagement participants said, “You don’t need to advocate for a specific method or solution, just show what’s out there.”

“Distancing yourself is not the only way to remain ethical and relate to community,” she said.

Be clear about who you are

Joy Mayer, an engagement strategist at the Missouri School of Journalism, said that as journalists the relationships you build are important.

“One of the most important things about community engagement is being clear about who you are,” Mayer said.

Journalists, especially those who do community engagement, do a lot of work that involves listening and building relationships. This is where it gets tricky. Mayer noted that community members want to be approached and asked what they think the story should be but don’t always like the pressure of being asked for a sound bite.

That’s okay, she says, not everyone is going to be willing to open up. Don’t let that discourage you from telling people who you are a journalist and what your intentions are.

“I believe more in transparency than objectivity when it comes to community engagement,” Mayer said.



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