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.”

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