Community engagement is crucial to the reporting process

Derrick Cain

Building meaningful community relationships builds trust at the same time.

Many Philadelphians distrust media outlets, and journalists lack knowledge when it comes to the communities they report on. It is mainly for these reasons community engagement is so crucial to the reporting process.

As Community Engagement Editor, I’ve focused my role on cultivating trust with local communities through the development of accountable and honest relationships. This can be in the form of attending community events, speaking at community events, hosting community events, etc. While there are several challenges, the opportunities to overcome them yield far greater gains. 

The way I approach  community engagement in journalism is both a Process (how we do things) and an Outcome (what we want to achieve). It’s important to build relationships with communities but it’s just as important to build relationships with journalists as well. In my work navigating  complex relationships between communities served and newsrooms, I’ve found that neither party is really familiar with how to authentically engage  with each other. Authentic collaboration is something that often goes unnoticed, and without it, the gap of distrust, accountability and trustworthy reporting continues to widen. 

It’s no revelation that communities of color don’t frequently interact with the media and are largely unfamiliar with the process a reporter goes through to put together a story. Historically, communities of color often don’t trust journalists because of the way some “parachute” into their communities to get a quote about a horrible incident in the community and are never seen again (unless something terrible happens again). Typically, the only time residents interact with the reporting process is when they’re a part of a journalist's story and are approached to participate in the interviewing stage. Many of these interactions  are transactional after the first introduction.

Journalists are taught to report on the “facts” and community engagement is an afterthought. Very few journalists go out in the communities they report on to build relationships  (without a story to report on).  This practice risks residents not having the information they need for full autonomy, a balance of power and mutual understanding of the story they’re a part of while interacting with the journalist. 

 It's important to our team to build in dialogue with the processes, successes, and best practices gleaned from engagement with communities, applying these takeaways to a solutions journalism model we work in engaged ways to highlight community-driven solutions to local and specific issues in Philadelphia.