In 1994 I was a foreign correspondent covering the genocide sweeping Rwanda. My radio stories shared the voices of people — Hutus and Tutsis alike — who were caught up in experiences and emotions that wrenched the hearts of listeners.
This was before social media, texting and even global access to email. So when I returned home to Kenya, piles of letters and messages were waiting from people who wanted to do something, anything. They wanted to help the survivors, they wanted to push the US to get involved, they wanted to show support for my coverage, and they wanted to share information and burning questions.
Yet all they received from me were more stories, as I returned to my travels and reporting.
That left me frustrated and disappointed in myself. Was journalism only about bringing people into a story without offering a path to let them travel further?
New opportunities for engagement
Since 1994, newsrooms, and the world, have come a long way toward engagement, thanks to the rise of social media, crowdsourcing and other collaborative platforms. We journalists are more effective than ever in tapping far-flung sources and moving audiences with our powerful writing, audio, video and graphics. Fundamentally, though, we still don’t use our skills to help people who are touched by our coverage, who heed our call to pay attention to an issue and who then want to do something.
It isn’t enough for us to leave our audiences “informed, but ineffective,” argues Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. “If we’re stuck in a paradigm where we inform citizens, then declare our work done, we’re failing in our public service duties.”
In a world where news and information now streams past everyone in an endless torrent, journalism excels when we help people to stop the stream, even for a moment, to consider how they might use our information in their lives. And when the only option we give them is a “like” or “share” button at the end of a story, we fail them.
Digital natives use news for more than information
Today’s digitally-connected audiences use the web all the time to take action in ways large and small. They support startups on Kickstarter, provide microloans on Kiva, join groups on Meetup and organize protests on Twitter. Digital natives are not consuming the news to be informed citizens; they use it to build connections, start conversations, make decisions and take actions that benefit their lives or the world.
So at Public Radio International (PRI), we are exploring how journalism can better serve our audience by bridging the gap between articles and action. We want to use our skill at gathering and vetting information — and providing context on issues — to make it easier for people to engage with the world.
The challenge, as journalists, is to stay true to our ideal that we empower people through truth-telling and not promotion, through honest reporting and not persuasion. We aim to help people find paths they want to take, without pushing them into specific actions.
Beyond the “like” button: unfamiliar territory
Thanks to a Knight Foundation prototype grant, we have developed tools to place actions within the context of stories on PRI.org and track what people do. Over the next few months, we will test different types of actions.
For most newsrooms, moving their audience engagement beyond the “like” button is unfamiliar territory. But some early explorers have entered it. The Guardian invited people to help review expense records of members of parliament as early as 2009 to find malfeasance. More than 20,000 responded.
ProPublica invited people suffering from medical errors into a Facebook group in 2012 to share experiences and discuss options together. The Christian Science Monitor recently started a “Take Action” page that helps people start conversations within their social networks or support specific projects.
PRI will test actions that help people dig more deeply into a story, share their knowledge or partner with us in creating coverage. And we’ll go further into less familiar, and comfortable, terrain for journalists — helping people join local meetups, experience stories first hand or get involved with groups working on solutions.
Straying into advocacy?
We’ll explore this territory in partnership with our journalists,PRI.org’s registered users and organizations that share our focus on empowering people through information. I expect some will criticize our attempts to help people move from stories to action and will argue that we are straying from reporting into advocacy.
But journalism is not stenography. It is more than the cataloguing of history as it occurs. Every time we highlight a problem, an issue or a possible solution, we are advocates for a better future.
If what we report is not important or relevant enough to make people pause and consider action — and if we don’t use our investigative skills to help them find meaningful actions — then all we are doing is adding to the relentless stream of information. Worse yet, we may be sending the message that little can, or should, be done.