Tell me more

As part of my Community Media Innovation Project class (we’ll be blogging our progress at Local Fourth) I got to attend the Block by Block conference, a gathering of members of the online local news ecosystem.  I heard from a lot of interesting people about their experiences interacting with their communities and trying to make their news startups economically sustainable.  The day before, members of Chicago’s online news community gathered for Advancing Chicago’s News Ecosystem: A Community News Summit.  While Block by Block focused on anecdotal experience from practicioners, the Chicago-focused summit presented more formal research.  I was particularly interested in research by Rachel Davis Mersey, Vivian Vahlberg and Bob LeBailly into community information needs in Chicago and the health of the city’s news ecosystem.

The research included interviews and focus groups with both members of the general public and community leaders. The survey results revealed  information priorities in Chicago and disparities in information access.  What was most surprising, however was that a majority of the surveyed members of the public as well as community leaders felt like they didn’t have enough opportunities to hear the views of others.  Furthermore, the problem seemed less one of access to media to add voices, and more one of discovering or navigating media to get diverse perspectives – a majority of respondents felt like they had ample opportunity to express their own views.

Not enough opportunity to hear the views of others
A majority of respondents to a survey about information needs in Chicago said they wanted to know more about the views of others. Source: News That Matters slideshow

A full report on the research is forthcoming.  I’m excited to understand more about this dynamic and also tosee how Chicago media tries to approach this audience need.  The modern media landscape is full of opportunities for people to create content, but how does one build media that facilitates listening?

View slides from the News that Matters presentation.

Embedded in a neighborhood

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau features a depth of coverage of many communities and issues that isn’t always accessible. Over the summer I spoke with Gordon Walek and Patrick Barry about the site. Our conversation quickly shifted from online news to the way reporting can be used in service to communities and organizations working with communities and some of the challenges posed by this model.

The Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau looks like an elegant aggregation of news from local news organizations, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations – which it is. But it’s just one face of the relationship between reporting and community development for neighborhoods throughout the city.

The idea for the site came from the overwhelming amount of information available on the web, said Patrick Barry, a contractor with Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago, or LISC/Chicago, the organization that sponsors the site. The organization brings together financial and technical resources to support community-building groups to develop infrastructure, housing, employment and other assets in Chicago neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood News Bureau site aggregates news from organizations supported by LISC/Chicago, ones reporting on neighborhoods where LISC/Chicago sponsors programs, and news outlets covering issues related to community development. Barry said he had used aggregator sites that help collect and filter online news, but there were no such sites that focused on news for low-and-moderate-income communities.

Topics in Chicago's News Ecosystem
The need for aggregation. A recently released study of Chicago's local news ecosystem found that community development was the second most covered topic by local online news sites. However, many of these sites may be small, new or otherwise unknown to a broad audience.

“Our thrust is to identify interesting stories in the neighborhoods where we work,” Gordon Walek said.

Walek is the communications manager at LISC/Chicago and manages the neighborhood news aggregator. He said the kind of urban affairs coverage collected by the site has been largely abandoned by the city’s newspapers. Even in the heydey of daily newspapers, Walek said, many of the communities and issues covered in stories aggregated by the site lacked coverage.

Barry said the site’s audience was interested in the process or neighborhood development and issues affecting developing neighborhoods like affordable housing or violence and includes professors of community development and urban studies, reporters, developers and bankers. Former community residents can also use the site to stay informed about their old neighborhood, he said.

While the site continues to suck in news feeds from a range of Chicago sites, further development of the Neighborhood News Bureau site has been limited by a lack of funds, Barry said. But the news site is just one part of LISC/Chicago’s ongoing use of reporting in the community development process.

Walek said LISC/Chicago’s involvement in reporting came out of a need to make the development process transparent to the communities where development projects were happening. The development corporation hired journalists to report on community meetings about development projects. Rather than simply take minutes of the meetings, Walek said, the journalists were tasked with writing stories about the implementation of development plans and how the plans were received by community members.

“Straight journalism can be a very powerful tool to inform people about community development,” Barry said.

Reporters covering neighborhood development plans for LISC/Chicago are known as “scribes.” Barry, the organization’s first scribe, said the name implies a role as a servant to the community rather than being independent from the community. Barry said that while a traditional reporter might attend a community meeting about development plans in search of a good story, a scribe’s goal is to reflect the issues that were surfaced at the meetings in a way that is useful to community residents in understanding what was happening or planned to happen. Scribes were also tasked with contributing to quality of life reports that helped drive neighborhood development projects. Because the scribes listened closely to voices from the neighborhood, “writing as an insider using the voice of a neighborhood,” Barry said, neighborhood residents felt ownership of the development plans.

In order to write with the voice of the neighborhood, scribes, who mostly live outside of the neighborhoods they report on, had to rethink their impression of the neighborhoods and the language they used to write about those places, Barry said. While a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood may be of a “bombed-out ghetto,” Barry said, the reporter had to quickly learn that residents didn’t appreciate that description. More importantly, it wasn’t how they thought of their neighborhood. LISC/Chicago reporters, he said, have learned a lot from neighborhood residents about how to talk about places.

Barry said working to document development projects with LISC/Chicago has given many reporters a deeper perspective of neighborhood dynamics than when they covered neighborhood issues for traditional media. Traditional reporting only allows journalists to perceive a neighborhood through controlled interactions such as a public meeting or a scheduled interview with a key stakeholder, Barry said. Spending more time in the community allows journalists working for LISC/Chicago to see a more nuanced and often more difficult view of community decision making. Barry said being embedded in the community gives reporters access to the egos or duplicity of neighborhood figures, internal squabbling, friction over gentrification and ethnic tensions. Often, Walek said, scribes are able to see such aspects of the neighborhood in a way that managers of programs operating in the neighborhoods can’t.

While LISC/Chicago scribes have a long-term relationship with neighborhoods, sometimes spanning eight years, and get a comprehensive view of the communities, they must balance their access to unflattering aspects of the neighborhood with the needs of the community. Scribes may write about internal conflict in the neighborhood, Barry said, but only if it’s constructive.

Scribes must also balance covering problems facing the neighborhood while recognizing that crime reports dominate traditional media coverage in some areas such as Englewood or North Lawndale where LISC/Chicago supports programs. Walek said crime is an “800 pound gorilla” when reporting on these communities because it is present, but the organization wants to offer a more diverse view of the neighborhood. Walek said reporters for his organization might cover community events like street fairs, neighborhood sports programs or programs that integrate teen health and education needs.

A video slideshow about the “B-Ball on the Block” sports program shows how LISC/Chicago’s reports acknowledge problems like violence and segregation, but ultimately focus on community-based responses. Walek said reports forefront “innovative solutions to what seems like an insurmountable problem.”

“There’s a lot of human capacity in these neighborhoods,” Barry said.

While stories tend to have a positive focus and highlight LISC/Chicago-supported programs or partners, they also give considerable space and agency to neighborhood residents or neighborhood dynamics that aren’t usually addressed in the media, such as conflict between Latino and African-American communities in Humboldt Park, the subject of a recent story. The focus on supported programs is in part to offer program funders a way to evaluate programs in a way that is more engaging than a traditional report, Walek said. Stories, photographs and multimedia can sometimes better record the impact of a program’s work and how it was received by the community.

Photographs are also important for giving readers outside of profiled communities a more nuanced idea of the neighborhoods that emphasizes similarities between diverse communities, Barry said. He cited how photos of well-maintained houses in Little Village might challenge outside perceptions of the neighborhood.

Over time, Walek said, LISC/Chicago reporting has created an unintentional record of how some neighborhoods have evolved. However, like many new models for reporting, LISC/Chicago is dependent on foundations to pay journalists, Walek said, and he’s not sure how reporting will get funded after foundation money runs out.

Memo for the week of August 22: Coffee shop newsrooms and name games with mosques and SEO

Me this week

Last week, I talked with Rhonda Jones-Gillespie, news editor at the Chicago Defender and I feel like I need to follow up with her.  It wasn’t until after our conversation that I realized why there seemed to be a disconnect around some of my questions.  While the Defender does report about African-American communities in Chicago, a big part of what they do, and what I didn’t really get, is ground city and national news stories in the African American experience in Chicago.  While I’ve been most interested in looking at how a story local to one community might connect with a broader audience, I’ve overlooked the opposite, but equally important, trajectory.  It’s one that journalists have been doing for a long time (though perhaps less so as news organizations become more resource bound) – taking a story and picking out the most important aspects for a local audience or looking at a broader policy’s impact on a particular community.

This week, I  was finally able to sit down with Icoi Johnson and Samuel Vega, the recipients of WBEZ’s Prizker Fellowship, which I had written about previously.  I found the fellows’ backgrounds and  outlooks to be pretty different, which was interesting and probably a good thing for WBEZ.  Vega, who is from Humboldt Park and seemed pretty involved in the community offered some interesting insight into WBEZ’s bureau in the neighborhood.  Vega said he  had noticed the storefront bureau, but had never been inside it until he toured it as part of his training for the fellowship.  He said it often appeared closed and that he was more familiar with the reporter who runs the bureau because of his coverage of events in Humboldt Park.  Vega’s anecdote indicates that connecting with different news  communities may be a little more complicated than simply setting up shop.

Coffee shop newsrooms – a cool idea but you have to pick the right shop

Perhaps a better approach might be the coffee shop newsroom experiments that Poynter wrote about extensively at the beginning of this month.  Placing a reporter in an already trafficked space like a coffee shop may make reporters more accessible to the general public than a space exclusive to the news organization.  Some of the benefits of putting reporters or “newsrooms” in coffee shops seem pretty cool: more transparency/accountability, more audience understanding of the reporting process, developing new sources, getting new framings for stories or new dimensions for stories of which the reporter is already aware and recruiting citizen journalists.

This week I had my own experience with reporting and coffee shops.  I often work in coffee shops because I find them more convenient, and often less distracting than heading down to the Medill Newsroom.  While I use them primarily for convenience, they can still be a good way to connect with sources.  However, you have to go to the right coffee shop.  In reporting a story about LGBTQA youth of color in Boystown and a parking policy proposed by some residents designed to deter the youth, I did a lot of writing in Lakeview coffee shops.  I usually went to one close to my house a little east of Boystown or one close to Boystown but seemingly catering to a more particular customer demographic.  I liked the coffee shops I chose because they were locally owned and independent, there was interesting art on the wall and employees sometimes seemed like they were hanging out with friends or family as much as they were serving customers, creating a casual, comfortable atmosphere.

But, because they were somewhat more expensive and closed around 10 p.m., they didn’t really attract customers who were young people of color coming to hang out in the neighborhood.  The night I spent writing at the Starbucks at the corner of Belmont Avenue and Clark Street, a wide range of customers came in, including folks who could have been sources for my story.  While I could have gone out on the streets searching for people who could tell me their experience of coming to the neighborhood, a common thread in what youth I had interviewed told me is that they often feel profiled by police and neighborhood residents.  Both residents and youth described sidewalk confrontations that escalated and didn’t lead to a productive dialog.  As a reporter, I didn’t want to contribute to these dynamics. Spaces like coffee shops are important for reporting across dynamics like the ones in Boystown because they’re more neutral.  People from a variety of backgrounds can be on equal footing in the coffee shop as patrons and engaged in the same activities, like working on a laptop.  Had I spent the entire quarter working at that Starbucks, I might have been able to meet some sources with a good insight into the dynamic in a way that developed out of a more organic conversation, over music or helping someone reach a power outlet) rather than cornering people on the street.  Also, the public nature of the coffee shop could have attracted other people into the conversation, adding multiple perspectives to the reporting and perhaps even bridging the resident/visitor divide.

My experience with diversity and neighborhood coffee shops may be more universal.  Kim Feller, author of “Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino“, wrote about diversity and coffee shop clientèle on the Colorlines website:

While there are still funky independents eking out a living on the retail margins, most coffeehouses and designer roasters are niche markets, like purveyors of artisan cheeses, hand-painted T-shirts and limited-edition sneakers. They appeal to those on the trendy, cutting edge and survive by exclusivity—by pleasing a small, loyal and financially privileged. Starbucks, on the other hand, has been able to risk expansion from urban business cores and upscale suburbs into more modest settings, where it often provides the only meeting place that is neither a noisy fast-food restaurant nor a bar and that is often surprisingly multiracial.

Mosques and SEO

In terms of stories that sit across a cultural divide, nothing’s been bigger, or representative of journalism’s struggles to bridge those gaps, than reporting about the controversy over plans for a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.  One idea that’s likely inflamed the debate is the use of the phrase “ground zero mosque” in the media, which suggests, incorrectly, that the community center is being constructed at the site of the former towers.  Mark Coddington at Nieman Labs has a good rundown of what a number of media critics have been saying about the use of this term.  While some blame cable news, others point to SEO.  As a term gains traction with the public, online news websites have to choose between using an incorrect term or making their content more difficult to find.  Coddington wrote:

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Coddington also pointed out that Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns as the culprit for the proliferation of incorrect terms for things.  As we move more quickly from media to media, terms like “ground zero mosque” have more sticking power than Park51 or the Cordoba Center.

The tough choice of deciding between content discovery and accuracy is the same one I wrote about regarding the phrase “sissy bounce” and New Orleans artists’ distaste for the term.  In a pretty interesting, but unrelated thread, Anthony Neal, a scholar who studies Black popular culture, posted some tracks from New Orleans in the 1960s that refer to a dance called “The Sophisticated Cissy.”  Still, even if the term “sissy” may have some interesting connections to New Orleans musical history, it’s important to remember that contemporary artists don’t use the term to identify their work.

Reporting beyond the familiar

In the first of a two-part report about Chicago Public Radio’s Pritzker Fellowship, President and Chief Executive Officer Torey Malatia describes the limitations of niche broadcasting, the journalism challenges that motivated the fellowships and his hopes for how the fellows will change WBEZ’s newsroom. In the second part, I plan to explore the perspectives of nominating community organizations and the fellows on reporting across boundaries.

Icoi Johnson, Torey Malatia, Samuel Vega
Pritzker Fellows Icoi Johnson (left) and Samuel Vega (right) with Chicago Public Radio President and Chief Executive Officer Torey Malatia. DONTE DEMONE TATUM

Reporting public affairs stories across a city as large and diverse as Chicago is no easy task, but new initiatives at Chicago Public Radio aim to meet this challenge.

President and Chief Executive Officer Torey Malatia said the station has established neighborhood bureaus and is providing journalism training to citizen journalists to both expand the station’s news coverage and audience and change the way its journalists report.

As a broadcaster, the station has always been tasked with serving its coverage area, Malatia said, but given the size and broad interests of this population, the station has chosen to target listeners who are active in their communities, grounded in the region and seeking information about what is happening around them. Even with this focus, the station’s potential audience spans a wide spatial and social geography, though its measured audience doesn’t necessarily reflect this.

“If you look at the makeup of our audience, it leans just dramatically towards white,” around 83 percent, Malatia said, “which the city does not reflect.”

While the information needs for other groups in the city could be served by media targeting ethnic or geographic audiences, Malatia said super-serving such niche audiences has drawbacks. “They tend to reinforce the particular views of the audience that they’re attracting,” Malatia said of specialized media coverage or politics and public affairs issues. While specialized media often provides complex, nuanced coverage of issues within a community, he said, coverage of issues crossing communities, or placing them in conflict, becomes over-simplified.

“People then perceive issues as confrontational, us versus them or difficulties that can’t be bridged,

Malatia said. “You have to somehow find a way to be a broadcaster that is offering a much more inclusive discourse.”

While the station has recognized this need and seeks diversity in its board of directors, management, staff and story selection, inclusive reporting hasn’t always been successful. Trying to understand its audience, the station hired a research firm to talk to people who fit the station’s profile of grounded and community-engaged, but didn’t listen. A frequent response, Malatia said, was that non-listeners found the station’s coverage to be problematic.

“They hit the heart of it right away by just saying we really didn’t know what we were talking about,” Malatia said, explaining that some non-listeners said even award-winning reporting only scratched the surface or didn’t reflect a community’s understanding of an issue.

“There’s nothing worse you can hear from an audience member than you’re just hitting kind of like the Cliff Notes of a story,” Malatia said, “You don’t want that.”

Malatia said this problem stems from a combination of human nature and the parameters of reporting.

“We’re coming from the assumption that, as human beings, we tend to know what is familiar,” Malatia said. “As professionals who are in journalism – which has a kind of rhythm and a kind of process to writing and delivering stories, deadlines, things like that – we tend to also lean towards those techniques that have yielded success in the past.”

As an example of this tendency, Malatia explained that a reporter covering a new story on a topic that the station has covered extensively in the past, such as public housing, may be inclined to contact the same official and expert sources that have been used for past stories.

“If you actually are thinking about it, there’s probably a hundred different ways to cover that story that you’re not going to think about when you’re under pressure to get something done,” Malatia said.

One strategy to break out of reporting patterns is storefront neighborhood bureaus in Englewood, Humboldt Park, West Ridge and Northwest Indiana. Malatia said by starting and ending their days at the neighborhood bureaus, reporters can more easily build relationships with the communities they’re covering.

Just as the station has moved to create a more accessible presence for its reporters in Chicago’s neighborhoods, it is also trying to bring community members into its newsroom. Starting at the beginning of July, Icoi Johnson and Samuel Vega began an intensive mentorship with an experienced reporter. Johnson and Vega are the first recipients of the Pritzker Fellowship, which is offered to those interested in reporting but who have no formal journalism training or experience. The recipients of the fellowship were selected from a pool of people nominated by Chicago-area nonprofit organizations. “Everybody was very excited about the pool of candidates,” Malatia said. Chicago Public Media plans to begin accepting nominations for the next group of fellows in March 2011.

Working toward producing a long-form, in-depth report, the Pritzker Fellows report stories and work with editors in a similar manner to interns from journalism schools, but at a faster pace, Malatia said. While one goal of the fellowship is to offer journalism training to future reporters, he said, he also hopes the fellows will change practices in the newsroom.

“We’ll not only be building journalists who have a very different perspective of how to handle a story, approach a story and what is worthy to be a story. We will also learn from them and expand our horizons about that too,” Malatia said. Journalists from diverse backgrounds, Malatia said, may know of key sources in their communities that a reporter from outside the community would overlook.

Malatia acknowledges that these efforts are an experiment. “We don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but we just felt we needed to try,” he said. The station will evaluate the impact of the fellowship program by looking for audience demographic changes and polling non-listeners to see if their perceptions of the station have changed.

But evaluating the impact of journalism on communities is difficult, Malatia said. “Can you prove that journalism, even well-done, really makes a more informed citizenry that’s making better decisions? Only history can tell you whether the decisions are good or not. But I believe that and I think a lot of people do.”

Related links:

Memo for weeks of August 1 and August 8

The last two weeks haven’t been very productive for my independent study as I’ve had stories or projects due for other classes.  Though I was too late to shadow youth reporters covering teen depression as part of a Community TV Network summer program, I was able to watch the youth film their introduction sequences, get a sense of the group dynamic and talk to some of the youth who produced this summer’s report.

This week, I plan to follow up with the community organizations who nominated people for WBEZ’s Pritzker Fellowship and finish synthesizing and writing stories based on the reporting that I’ve already done.  I still need to connect with news organizations focused on African-American communities such as WVON, the Defender and/or some south-side bloggers writing about community news.

On the topic of African-American news coverage, I took a look at a Pew Research Center report titled Media, Race and Obama’s First Year, which analyzed media coverage of African Americans during the past year.

Events and Individuals Dominate African American News Coverage

This graph shows the way African Americans were covered in the media, “as a group, African Americans attracted relatively little attention in the U.S. mainstream news media during the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency — and what coverage there was tended to focus more on specific episodes than on examining how broader issues and trends affected the lives of blacks generally.”

According to the study, African-American angles to broad national stories were covered as part of reporting on health care reform and the economy, though these topics made up less than 10 percent of coverage focused on African Americans.

The Pew Research Center also did analysis on coverage of Gates’ arrest in the African-American press.  According to Pew’s analysis:

the discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S.  It was also evident that these papers saw themselves as a voice of the black community.  Even within the opinion columns, there was a clear sense of providing an African American perspective to the story. The tone, however, in many cases, came across as less “us” versus “them” and more of an assessment of steps needed from all sides.

This report gives me some background context for asking about coverage of Chicago stories, such as the slaying of Derrion Albert and how it was covered in different media.  I would love to see similar media analysis just for Chicago, but I think that’s beyond the scope of what I’m able to do.

On Tavis Smiley’s radio show this week, Smiley and CBS correspondent Byron Pitts discuss the need for more diverse news coverage.  Pitts said he was optimistic that the changing demographics of the U.S. would compel news organizations to have more diverse coverage and reporters that reflect the country’s diversity.  When I talked to a team of Tribune reporters, they offered a very nuanced account of race in the newsroom that I’m excited to write up.  The Tribune reporters said that race sometimes mediated their reporting but that a good reporter should be able to navigate racial boundaries on her beat.  Having a similar experience with race, the reporters said, could help connect with sources, but experiences with class could still be dramatically different, and were sometimes masked by assumptions about experiences tied to race.  One reporter said she still found a lack of economic diversity in the newsroom.

On a final race and reporting note, Colorlines analyzed some data about mentions of race in the news and argue that conservative publications explicitly mention race with greater frequency than other news organizations.  The data suggests that race gets mentioned across the media and Colorlines seems to think that controversy over, rather than experience with race gets the most coverage.  It makes me want to take a second look at how or if race was addressed in the Tribune’s reporting on youth violence.

Whose line is it?

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of reporters about reporting outside of their neighborhoods or experience.  One common theme that I’ve heard is the importance of using people’s own language to describe places and institutions in their communities.  Patrick Barry, a senior scribe working with LISC/Chicago, said journalists documenting community development projects had to rethink their use of language when reporting on the low-to-middle-income communities that were the focus of the organization’s New Communities Program.  Even if a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood was that it was a “bombed out ghetto,” Barry said, they needed to be aware that neighborhood residents didn’t use that language to describe their neighborhood and didn’t necessarily think of their community with such an exclusively negative framing.  “We have learned a lot from neighborhood people about how to talk about places,” Barry said.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about New Orleans rappers Big Freedia and Katey Red.  The print version of the story about Freedia ran under the clever headline like “Neither Straight Nor Out of Compton” (I can’t find my copy of the magazine to confirm the exact title).   However, the web version uses the (apparently) search-engine-optimized title “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” in the title of the web page (the text that shows at the top of one’s browser window) and “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” on the page itself.  These different versions of the title reflect, perhaps, reflect the contentious use of the term “sissy bounce” to describe the music of Big Freedia and other gay, transgender, lesbian or bisexual rappers who perform New Orleans’ signature hip-hop style of “bounce.”

Jonathan Dee, the story’s author describes bounce like this:

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

Katey Red is quick to point out that LGBT artists in New Orleans are part of the larger bounce music culture, not a separate genre.  “Ain’t no such thing as ‘sissy bounce,’ ” she said. “It’s bounce music. It’s just sissies that are doing it.”  In this video interview from Fader Magazine, Freedia expresses a similar sentiment:

Bounce music generally is just bounce music in New Orleans and you may have a gay rapper that does bounce music and you have straight rappers as well.  So I just really want to clarify that bounce music is not sissy bounce it’s bounce generally and you have some sissies that represent bounce music, you know, like myself, Sissy Nobby, Katey Red .  You know, there’s a few more.  It’s not called sissy bounce at home, it’s called bounce music.

The story does explain that most artists object to the phrase.  “They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not,” Dee wrote.  And it also explains the origin of the label “sissy bounce,” New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock.  Still, the nuanced perspective of how the artists view gender and sexuality as part of their identities and the identity of their musical community falls under a web page title that acknowledges “their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.”  Even if the artists eschew the term “sissy bounce,” the Times seems aware that people may search for information about this music using this term, and they want to make sure that people can find the article.

This forefronts a challenge for journalists when choosing words in their stories – should one use the language of those most involved in or affected by a story or terminology that may be more widely used?  Does using the popular language for something legitimize language that doesn’t accurately frame an idea?    The best approach is probably the one Dee took in the story about New Orleans rap, to explain disputed language, its origins and how it reflects the nuance of the subject.  This is possible, and even adds depth to a longer article, but can a writer do the same thing in a daily news article?

Being aware of and taking the time to explain complicated stories behind language are important obligations for journalists that will only become more difficult in the age of online news.  As more and more people seek news and information on the web and find it through search rather than visiting the news organization’s web site directly, there is greater pressure for journalists to include widely-used language in stories to make the stories discoverable.  One solution may be to link phrases in the story to pages that describe the origin of the phrases.  The New York Times website already allows users to access definitions of words in articles by clicking on the word.  Linking such functionality to user-contributed content, like urban dictionary, may give added insight into the origin of language used in stories, though it could make it more convoluted.

Photo by Incase via Flickr. It’s captioned as a photo of Big Freedia, but the performer more closely resembles Katey Red.

When “humanizing” leads to judgement

Children facing food insecurity

Data can give important insight into what’s happening in the world, but charts and numbers alone aren’t always resonant.  One way that reporters ground the numbers in a story is by finding people whose experience matches the trend.  This was the case with “A Daily Fight To Find Food: One Family’s Story,” a report that was aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”  The story profiles the Williamson family of Carlisle, PA as an example of the growing number of families who struggle to meet their nutritional needs.  The Williamson family, the report said, “is among those who struggle for food. They’ve been in and out of poverty for years.”  The report goes on to describe a family whose experience includes limited education, teen pregnancy and joblessness due to health issues.

While the report tells the challenges facing the family and the mechanics of how they use a combination of government support and social services to meet their food needs, it doesn’t go very deep into the connections between the different elements of poverty beyond statements like this one from a woman who runs a food pantry in the Williamsons’ community: “But Livas, of the local food pantry, says a good diet is especially important for the poor, as a first step toward addressing their other problems, with things like work, health care and education. She says it’s hard to make good decisions when you’re hungry.” Unfortunately, this left a lot of room for listeners to speculate.

Devon Mann was one of the people who questioned the food the family bought and how they used it:

“Am I the only one that has a hard time believing that you can’t feed 5 people healthy home-made meals with $600/month in food stamps? I know exactly how much I spend on groceries (food only) each month–I buy local produce when available & strictly organic meats. I buy very little canned and essentially no processed/prepared foods. What exactly are these people cooking & eating? Why is there chocolate or pop & ice pops to choose from? We choose water in our home, & yes, we often add lemon to my toddler’s delight. I’m troubled by the ignorance and waste.”

Katherine Bittner made a similar observation that was also echoed in letters responding to story that were read on the air:

“I do not fill [sic] sorry for these people. I think the story would have benefitted [sic] from finding another family where people are really struggling to with food. $600 a month is a lot of money. My family makes six figures and we don’t buy juice (water is free), rarely buy brand name products, and junk food or sweets. We stick to generic store brand food at the local supermarket and clip coupons. Maybe instead of looking for the lean cuts of meat go for the cheaper cuts of meat that you can stretch out to make stews or for less than $20 you can buy 20 pounds of rice. It’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken or whole fish. You can make more meals out of them.”

These comments are judgmental, but also show listeners struggling to understand questions left unanswered by the story.  Did the reporter fall short of an obligation to the listeners and the Williamsons to address these questions?  By anticipating some of the listener responses, the  reporter could have gotten the family’s perspective on the perceived contradictions described in the story such as growing vegetables in a household while giving their thirsty child soda or having a full refrigerator yet sometimes needing to rely on a soup kitchen for meals.  This inquiry may have offered a deeper look into the problem of hunger, not just as a gap in food resources, but also in information and lifestyle.  Asking questions about this could have helped explain this situation instead of letting comments make assumptions about these dynamics.  Given, the emotional tone of some of the comments, it is easy to see how comments can steal focus away from the initial report.

Kathryn Geiszler, another commenter, exposed another challenge with using a single example to depict broader trends:

“I am surprised they need so much food. And, I agree with another commentor [sic] that if she is able to spend so much energy driving around with her food gathering routine, how come she can’t work? I am a single mother of two kids. We get by usually on $50 per week on food. We have no TV servie [sic], no HDTV, old video game consoles, ripped clothes, and taking the car anywhere depends if the gas gauge is near the bottom or half full. My little boy has Autism, so I stay home to school him. Not much luck even if I was a PhD looking for a job. 20% unemployment in my rural county. Moving to a better area would require thousands of dollars I don’t have. Therefore – I make do with the situation I’m in. It would be nice to get government help, but for some reason, I don’t.”

One role of the news is to help  the person reading or listening place herself within the events of the day.  From Geiszler’s description of her experience, her children may be very well be counted in the 17 million children living in households where getting enough food was a challenge.  However, because the report was framed in the Williamsons’ story, she may not feel the Obama administration’s request to Congress for $10 billion in additional spending on child nutrition programs, also mentioned in the report, as something she should engage in, either as a supporter, critic or inquirer.    Listeners may have been better served if the story was told through the lives of more families with different experiences with food insecurity to make it easier for listeners to identify with the issues instead of differentiate their experience from that of the Williamsons.

However, comments like Geiszler’s makes it easy for the reporter to talk to additional sources to get a deeper understanding of a complex issue like poverty.  While it may be unrealistic for reporters to get framings right the first time, it would be unfortunate to fail to take advantage of opportunities to report the stories or nuances that were missed.

Photo by Pam Fessler/NPR.

Memo for the week of July 18

This has been a busy and productive week for my independent study.

On Tuesday, I interviewed Gordan Walek and Patrick Barry, who are involved with the Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau, a project of  Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)/Chicago’s New Communities Program.  The program promotes development in 14 low-to-moderate-income communities in Chicago andnews bureau website aggregates news from these 14 communities as well as Chicago-wide news that intersects with community development issues.  Talking to Walek and Barry, I learned that the site is a visible face to reporting that has been ongoing since the start of the New Communities Program.

Our conversation surfaced the nuanced role of news produced by or in conjunction with community organizations instead of news organizations.  The news produced by lead agencies working with LISC/Chicago and by writers working for LISC/Chicago has the dual purpose of informing community members about the development projects happening in their neighborhoods and reporting the progress of these efforts to funders and the broader community interested in neighborhood development.  I thought it was interesting how Walek and Barry spoke about trying to factually report what was going on in the neighborhoods even when the stories are meant to serve specific goals.  As a result, this reporting produced some of the first web content about the communities in the New Communities Program and for communities affected by problems such as violence, some of the only stories about community response or resilience in the face of problems.

During the interview, Barry told me that he and other reporters try to use the language of  neighborhood residents to describe what’s happening there and how spending a considerable amount of time in the communities that they cover gives them a much deeper understanding of community issues and dynamics than reporters covering only the occasional story and even agency program managers.

I thought their initiative showed an interesting example of journalistic practice being applied outside of traditional media institutions and being able to serve information needs and provide insights into communities that don’t always get sustained engagement from the media.

On Thursday, I spoke with four reporters at the Tribune who wrote stories as part of the Seeking Safe Passage project.  They challenged my assumption that the Tribune would automatically cover youth violence in the wake of the street brawl that resulted in Derrion Albert’s death.  Instead, they felt that the Tribune made a very intentional decision to devote resources to in-depth, solutions-oriented reporting on youth violence in the city.

The reporters told me how they were conscious that the audience of the stories they wrote would be read by Chicago residents very far from areas most affected by youth violence and made a point to identify threads in their subject’s stories that the reporters felt were more universally resonant.  They also spoke of being very conscious of the language they used to describe youth and in being sure to describe violence in terms of the actions of the youth rather than being an innate quality of the youth.  As with the writers working with LISC/Chicago, the Tribune reporters also said they tried to use the language used by community members when writing about those communities.

Another thread of conversation in the interview that I found interesting was that most of the reporters said they could identify with some aspects of the experiences of the youth they interviewed but that other aspects were completely foreign.  I wonder if this offers the best possible perspective for a reporter, where someone is able to connect at a human level with the communities they’re covering but also able to maintain a critical perspective.  Deborah Shelton, one of the Tribune reporters, sent me a link to “Cross Cultural Reporting: Pairing Mainstream and Ethnic Media for Better Health Stories”, which describes how a collaboration between two reporters writing about mental health in immigrant communities used the different orientations of the reporters around the story to produce a nuanced story.

Finally, the Tribune reporters, a multi-racial team gave me a really interesting and nuanced account of how race mediates their reporting experience.  They said that a good reporter can get the story independent of racial barriers but that race did play a clear role their experiences reporting.  They also described how being able to spend considerable time reporting in a community gave them the opportunity to learn what they had missed in previous stories.

Preparing for next week, I e-mailed Cliff Kelley about an interview.  In particular, I’m interested in talking to him about cross-media collaborations like the Tribune-sponsored Seeking Safe Passage community forum which Kelley moderated along with his general perspective on his radio show’s role in meeting community information needs.  I also took a peek at the New News report by the Chicago Community Trust.  This report is from last summer, but a new version should be available soon.  It gives a good overview of innovators in the online media space, some of which I’ve already spoken with and some that I should follow up with.  Finally, I plan to get in touch with the coordinators of the youth reporters in the Community TV Network program to shadow the youth as they do their reporting.

Photo by Calsidyrose via Flickr.

Putting neighborhood change on the radar of the Pitchfork set

On face, “Who is Logan Square?”, which appears in this weeks Chicago Reader is a nice piece of arts reporting.  Rather than just informing readers about and promoting  the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, it describes conflict between event organizers over how the event represents Logan Square’s diversity.  But, it’s the context of the article within the particular issue of the Chicago Reader that makes it really interesting.

The story quotes artist Victor Montañez over his concerns about the geography of the fest:

And he really dislikes the way the fest map and program divide the approximately three dozen exhibition spaces into two groupings, south and north. “Art should bring people together,” Montañez says. The arrangement looks to him like a “divisive strategy” to create a Wicker Park-esque hipster scene in one area while concentrating people of color in the other. The list of curators and artists showing in the north section is heavier on Hispanic names.

Montañez is also critical of I AM Logan Square, a public-relations centered nonprofit-organization started by Ald. Rey Colón (35th) that was granted the key role in organizing this year’s fest.  In the story, Montañez said the organization’s leadership, from outside of Logan Square, contributed to organizing an event that doesn’t equally reflect different neighborhood demographics.  “This year we got I AM Logan Square – which is a studpid name because there’s no such thing, it’s we are Logan Square,” Montañez said.

Criticism by Montañez is balanced with quotes from the alderman and a volunteer who organized shows on the main stage who both say fest organizers took great steps to prioritize diversity in the event.

While reporting on gentrification and changing neighborhood demographics is done regularly in various Chicago publications, it’s really interesting that it was run in this particular issue of the Reader.  Since the event is next weekend, the article could have still previewed the event had it been run next week.  However, the story appears in the same issue as “The Reader’s Guide to the Pitchfork Music Festival.”

While writer Deanna Isaacs uses the phrase “alleged Pitchforkification” to describe Montañez’ concerns that Latino artists and musicians are downplayed in the Logan Square events lineup, the story clearly appears in a publication that includes readers who are interested in this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival and may be attracted to similar aspects of the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.  This confluence of a story about neighborhood conflict and interest in a certain kind of art and culture puts information in front of readers who may attend the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival without examining it through a critical gaze.  It is unclear, however, whether this framing reinforces or challenges the idea that Latino residents of Logan Square and people who enjoy Pitchfork-style programming are mutually exclusive.

Whether or not Montañez is right about his concerns over the arts festival’s organizing, Logan Square is a neighborhood undergoing demographic change and the accompanying identity crisis that often comes with these changes.  The Reader’s reporting and editing do a good job of helping residents and visitors see how this struggle to define neighborhood identity can be reflected in events and entertainment.

Photos via the Chicago Reader.

Ignoring the hyperlocalness of an issue

Full disclosure: I love libraries and they been a big part of my life through childhood. So, it’s hard for me not to find fault in Fox News Chicago’s story “Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?” simply on the grounds that it questions the relevance of libraries.

Both the state and many Chicago-area municipalities are facing severe budget problems, so it’s a legitimate role of the press to ask tough questions about how the government spends its money, even though there seems to be some issues with the framing and the balance between information and provocation in this particular report. In the context of this independent study, however, I want to look at how this report fails to acknowledge that libraries (in function and to a lesser extent funding) are local institutions and that what libraries look like and whether their benefits outweigh their costs may vary dramatically between communities.  Given that structure, it’s important to report on libraries as a more local issue or take great caution when reporting about them more generally.

“With cash-strapped states behind on so many bills, it’s quietly, and not so quietly, being debated,” the report begins.  The web version of the story identifies it as part of a special report on the Illinois Budget Crisis.  The story goes on to explain that 2.5 percent of property taxes go to fund libraries, but perhaps makes the assumption that all the viewers understand that property taxes fund local government infrastructure like libraries or public schools and that these funds are largely independent of state money.

The Chicago Public Library 2009 annual report shows that over $92 million of the library’s revenue came from the City of Chicago while around $8.4 million came from the State of Illinois.  Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget recommends about $19.5 million in general fund grants for libraries, down from over $27 million in fiscal year 2009.  So, the elimination of libraries has a much more profound direct impact on local budgets than the state budget.  So, a more appropriate framing for the story would be whether a given municipality should reduce funding for their library system.  Or, the report should draw any link between reducing local budget expenditures to reducing state budget expenditures.

The report included a debate with Jim Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, weighing in on the side of reducing library funding, at least through property taxes.  One of his arguments for de-funding libraries is that new technologies (first lower-cost paperback books and now the Internet) are making libraries obsolete.  Again, the framing of the story doesn’t acknowledge that the role and value of libraries may differ, not just from library system to library system but from neighborhood to neighborhood.

According to a report released in July 2009 by the City of Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, one-third of Chicago residents used Internet access at a public library.  The same report cited that one-third of these users cited lack of computer at home as a reason for accessing it at a library.  However, library Internet use is not distributed evenly across Chicago’s population.  Young people and African Americans are more likely to use the Internet at a public library.  Furthermore, as this map from the report shows,  residents of some areas are more likely to use the Internet at the library than others.

Library Internet Use by Chicago Community Area from Digital Excellence in Chicago: A Citywide View of Technology Use.

So, while the rise of the Internet as an information source may make libraries less relevent (and funding-worthy) in some communities, it may make their relevence greater for others.  I feel a more useful framing of the story, taking into account this and other differences in the role of library resources for  different communities, could be to ask, “does this neighborhood need a public library?”  or “how do we  best use library funds?”