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As an organizer with News Voices, my aim is to shift the culture surrounding local news and journalism so that both reporters and people who aren’t reporters can work together to inform their communities and create a better world.

Part of that cultural work involves changing the narratives embedded in the news: narratives about what’s happening in our communities and what the causes and solutions are.

This kind of culture shift requires us to change the relationships between journalists and community members from one that’s transactional — where residents and reporters interact only when they need or want something from one another — to one that’s rooted in a sense of community.

To support that work, I spent time last month building community, strengthening relationships, and developing skill sets at the NC State Police Accountability Network’s (NC SPAN) Network Gathering & Summit.

NC SPAN has a wonderful vision of what police accountability means — a vision of safety beyond policing, of restorative justice, community control and transparency. Achieving that vision requires us to shift the public narrative surrounding policing in our communities.

The NC SPAN Gathering & Summit was a multilingual space that brought together community leaders from across North Carolina: organizers from Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh and more were present throughout the convening.

Across the state, these organizers and activists are fighting for civilian review boards to investigate complaints about police, an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, the decriminalization of transgender bodies, stronger support and safety for immigrants, and the abolition of cash bail.

Reinventing how people and newsrooms interact

During the convening, I facilitated a workshop on engaging the media called “Who is Your Media Strategy?”

In this workshop, participants moved from talking about the power of relationships and how we build relationships with friends and family to how we can apply some of those strategies to building connections with journalists.

In this particular iteration of the “Who Is Your Media Strategy?” workshop, participants had two surprising realizations:

  • They didn’t realize that they could initiate meetings with journalists.
  • They didn’t realize that they could hold journalists accountable.

While it would be delightful if these realizations were unique to this gathering, they’re not. News Voices has been holding community forums with local organizations and residents in New Jersey since 2015, and we launched a similar effort in North Carolina in 2017. We’ve heard similar reactions at our gatherings in both states.

Every time we hold a workshop, we open with simple tips on how to reach out to journalists, including emailing and calling them or setting up a time to talk. Every single time we’ve held a workshop, someone raises their hand and says they didn’t know it was that easy to reach out to a journalist.

We’ve also heard stories from community members about how they relate to journalism. The story usually goes something like this:

A news story runs, and community members feel like they’ve been misrepresented, but they don’t challenge the reporter or news outlet. They just stop reading or watching or listening. They don’t reach out to them with information. They simply tune them out.

This happens because people in our communities don’t feel like reporters will actually listen to them when they reach out to the newsroom, either with information, to build a relationship or to create accountability. Oftentimes, the public interacts with journalists only when reporters “show up” to cover a story.

The relationship is extractive: Reporters appear when they want something, and they take it. It’s understood within our communities that there’s a power imbalance, with news outlets holding power and our communities holding little to none.

People who work within newsrooms don’t perceive the situation this way. Journalists view their work as essential to informing communities, and there’s an expectation that the public should trust the media.

The problem with that expectation is that newsrooms aren’t always willing to do the work necessary to building trust.

When reporters violate trust

At the workshop in Greensboro, a participant shared a story about how a newspaper covered the fatal shooting of a young man.

A reporter visited the man’s mother, who sat and talked about his life and the trauma of his death, sharing family photographs she hoped and expected would appear with the story. Instead, she was surprised to see the front page of the paper featured a large photo of his empty burial plot, not the images she’d provided.

Seeing that image on the front page of the paper was traumatizing, as was the sense that the newspaper had dehumanized her son, focusing the public and the historical record of his death on the land that would hold her dead son’s body.

This and other conversations evoked the notion of consent. The mother had consented to the interview and to the use of her son’s image, but on the condition that the story would honor his memory. Whether or not the news outlet violated any ethical standards, it certainly violated the interpersonal trust between the reporter and the grieving mother.

This failure of trust, and the lack of informed consent at the heart of it, are missteps in the vital work journalists and newsrooms do. And this sort of violation is just one way in which journalists’ practices can harm vulnerable people.

If consent is something we seek to practice in our personal relationships, should journalists not aim to practice consent in relationships and interactions between them and the people whose stories they tell?

Strengthening communities

News Voices is working toward revitalizing, strengthening and building trust between newsrooms and the communities they serve — especially among communities the media have historically misrepresented or ignored.

When my colleagues and I enter a space where people are scarred by negative experiences with the media, we emphasize that it’s important to try again, to talk to journalists and to engage with the media because it’s imperative that narratives of communities be told for and by communities — and because the journalism told about us today becomes the history learned of us tomorrow.

Trust and relationship building are key to that storytelling. But the work of building trust cannot fall only on grieving mothers and community organizers struggling for justice. Trust and strong relationships cannot exist without honesty, accountability and some real reckoning around issues like consent.

My hope is that this workshop at NC SPAN, and the subsequent relationships community members begin to forge with journalists and newsrooms, can be one small step toward building the narratives and power our communities need to be strong.

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