Agora Journalism Center: Engaging Communities and Students

SOJC offers 5 community engagement tips for journalists

According to the tenets of civic engagement, those who live in a community are best qualified to identify its problems and most invested in finding solutions.

Apply that idea to reporting, and you get “engaged journalism,” an emerging practice that’s a primary focus of the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s Portland-based Agora Journalism Center. To start regaining the public’s waning trust in the media and improve the relevance and accuracy of the news, journalists are beginning to ask community members what they should cover and how they should cover it.

“We're bringing back the notion of beat reporting, where the job requires building rapport and trust with sources over time,” said Andrew DeVigal, Chair in Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement in the School of Journalism and Communication and co-director of the school’s multimedia journalism master’s program.

Over the past four years, the Agora center has been collaborating with media partners and nonprofit foundations around the world to launch a variety of initiatives to support journalists and others who practice civic engagement. The center is also bringing UO students into the mix by offering hands-on learning opportunities.

Here are five lessons faculty, students and partnering journalists have learned from engaging with communities:

1. To learn, you must first learn to listen

Journalists frequently ask, “How can I get better at engagement?” The answer is simple yet often overlooked: You need to listen better.

That’s why the Agora center just launched the Listeners Podcast, a free audio series about the craft and practice of listening.

“The podcast explores how committed, skilled listening develops empathy, maintains civility, builds trust and strengthens our democracy,” said DeVigal, who hosts the series.

Weekly guests include top names in engagement journalism and others whose jobs require deep listening, such as clergy and mediators. Two multimedia journalism master’s students, Jack Fisher and Patty Torchia, are producing the series with the help of Alex Ward, an outside podcast consultant and graduate of UO’s international studies program.

“The Listeners Podcast gives students a very hands-on experience,” DeVigal said. “They own the project from start to finish, from setting up interviews with industry leaders to producing, editing and distribution.”

2. If you want to know how to improve a city, ask its residents

In winter term, students in DeVigal’s Reporting Within Communities multimedia journalism master’s course collaborated with the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s citywide pedestrian plan, PedPDX. Their goal: create a series of videos to start a dialogue about walking in Portland and inform the city’s pedestrian planning process.

“This collaboration was exciting because it fits this model of convening communities for dialogue and helping the public make sense of the conditions around them with the shared purpose of finding solutions together,” DeVigal said.

The students followed eight Portland pedestrians around the city with their cameras, revealing their walking abilities and challenges. The community members’ narration highlighted the importance of walking in their lives and their hopes for Portland’s future as a great place to walk.

DeVigal plans to build on the framework developed in the class to collaborate with other community organizations and government departments in future courses.

3. People will trust you if you’re transparent, hire locally and report on what’s working

When researchers and journalism instructors Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn heard that only 32 percent of Americans trust the media to report factual, honest and bias-free news, they decided to do something about it.

Funded by a grant from the Agora center, the team spent the summer facilitating conversations in libraries around the country to find out why people trust — or don’t trust — the media and identify strategies for producing more trustworthy journalism. 

They compiled what they learned in the Agora Journalism Center research report “The 32 Percent Project: Exploring How Citizens Define Trust and How Journalists Can Earn It.” The free, downloadable report includes six key findings from the public discussions — highlighting themes such as diversity, authenticity and transparency — and four recommendations to journalists for regaining public trust.

4. The first step in establishing civil dialogue is finding common ground

This spring, the Agora center selected seven community-minded projects from across Europe and North America to take part in its Finding Common Ground initiative. Each program received a 10,000-euro grant from The Robert Bosch Foundation and the News Integrity Initiative to facilitate community conversations around important topics.

The projects’ shared goal, according to the Agora Journalism Center website, is to “get people to look up from their devices, meet people with different opinions, listen and engage in meaningful and civil dialogue across silos and polarized positions.”

School faculty members, staff and students traveled to Perugia, Italy, in April to kick off Finding Common Ground with a full-day workshop at the International Journalism Festival. The workshop’s purpose was to build the skills of the project leaders, who hail from as far west as Alaska and as far east as Lithuania, in fostering collaboration and community engagement.

Four graduate students enrolled in the multimedia journalism master’s program, the School of Law’s conflict and dispute resolution master’s program and the College of Design’s community and regional planning master’s program also made the trip to Italy to assist and learn.

“Finding Common Ground and IJF allowed me to better understand how journalism can be strategic for the development of a community,” Torchia said. “My experience as a reporter has always been focused on asking questions I or my company wanted to get answers for. In Perugia I discovered how much more useful journalism can be if we let the public contribute actively to the news-gathering process.”

5. A thousand heads are better than one

To support the growing global civic engagement community, the Agora center developed Gather, a virtual platform where more than 1,200 engagement practitioners and researchers are connecting with and learning from each other.

“We aim to help the community of practice of journalists, educators and students who have a shared mission to make journalism more responsive to the public's needs and more inclusive of their diverse voices,” DeVigal said.

Anyone can sign up for Gather, which hosts a library of case studies on engagement projects, provides a weekly newsletter summarizing the latest news in the field, and organizes monthly “lighting chats” where members can present ideas and solicit feedback.

“Many engaged journalists are working in jobs that barely existed five years ago, and this work often unfolds in separate newsrooms, in isolation,” DeVigal said. “It's lonely work. The projects we're initiating or fostering at the center allow us to create digital ‘Agoras’ as well as in-real-life, face-to-face ones so we can grow the movement and help communities thrive.”

—By Jeff Collet and Andra Brichacek, School of Journalism and Communication