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Citizen Journalism 101: Meeting Your Community’s Needs

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Many journalists make the incorrect assumption that only the smallest newspapers engage in community journalism. I can only guess they make this assumption based on the notion that “community” refers only to a small town, suburb, or neighborhood.

In reality, there are many different forms of community. If a group of people share a particular interest, hobby, or profession, they are just as much a community as a small, rural Iowa town with a population of less than 10,000 people.

And, journalists should be meeting the needs of their community — their audience — every day.

What is a community?

The textbook definition of “community” is: a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. It also can mean: a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.

The word is derived from the Latin word “communio,” which means “to share in common.” The Greek version of the word means “fellowship.” So, as you can see, although the word “community” could certainly refer to a small municipality, it can just as easily refer to a group without a distinct locality.

This is an important distinction to keep in mind as we move forward.

What is a community journalist?

A community journalist is, first and foremost, a member of said community. It’s difficult to report upon something if you don’t have a basis from which to report. I would humbly suggest this is why mainstream media outlets have such a hard time covering Middle America.

For the most part, they’ve never lived there. They’ve never experienced life there. And, given the chance, they would avoid doing so with every ounce of their being. With that kind of disconnect, it’s easy to see why they can’t possibly report upon it effectively.

So, if we’re talking about a community in its most common application — a small municipality — a good community journalist would be an active member of the community. He would be a part of local civic organizations, a member of a local church, and would attend local school activities, both curricular and extracurricular.

But, this also applies to the less-common definitions of the word community. For instance, if you were a member of the plumbing community, writing and reporting about said community, you would not only have to be a plumber, but you would have to be an active plumber, engaged in the profession, and a member of the profession’s guiding society.

This can also apply to politically motivated organizations, groups, and communities. For instance, I once was hired to be the editor of a conservative news magazine in Wisconsin. I was led to believe the owners were conservatives themselves, but in reality, they were merely looking for a profitable niche to explore.

The project ultimately failed, for a good number of reasons. But, the primary cause of its failure was because the publishers were not members of the community. They didn’t have a stake in its success and viability, therefore, they had no idea when they were treading in dangerous waters and should turn back.

Ten rules to live by

I have often been asked about my newsroom philosophy. That is, what are the guiding principles by which I lead any news organization? To answer the question simply, I refer to Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code,” replacing the word “cowboy” with “journalist.”

Here’s a rundown of the 10 points of the code, with a little explanation after each:

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy. Trained journalists know the rules by which they operate, but the general public does not. They have no idea there is no such thing as “no comment.” It’s easier to operate by the rules as your source/subject understands them than it is to operate strictly according to the unwritten rules of journalism.

2. A cowboy never betrays a trust. He never goes back on his word. This is key. If someone confides in you with the expectation you will not divulge the information without their permission, you must keep that trust, even under penalty of prosecution.

3. A cowboy always tells the truth. This is another vital point for community journalists. Even one small white lie, if discovered, will destroy your credibility with your readers. You must always be honest, both with yourself, and with your readership/community.

4. A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals. As the old saying goes, ‘You get more flies with honey than vinegar.’ If you have a reputation of being easy to work with, it is far easier to find sources/subjects to interview and write about.

5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances. Keep in mind, this only goes as far as No. 3 will allow. I place heavy emphasis on the first part. In the case of the second part, I believe the truth is well established, and I will not compromise in that area… but I also believe No. 4 requires you to address differences of opinion with love and compassion in your heart.

6. A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble. Render aid, then get the story… it should never, ever, be the other way around.

7. A cowboy is always a good worker. Your work ethic speaks almost as loudly about yourself as No. 3 or No. 4 will. The best stories require a lot of hard work to dig beyond surface appearances. No story is what it seems to be on the surface.

8. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation’s laws. The first two are pretty much no-brainers, so I always focus on the third. Many “professional journalists” want to pattern themselves after Woodward and Bernstein, not realizing how many laws were broken in the effort to get “the dirt” on Richard Nixon. The story needed to get out, but always remember that two wrongs never make a right.

9. A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed. This one works well in tandem with Nos. 3, 4, and 7. If you show up for an interview in torn-up blue jeans and a Metallica T-shirt, don’t expect your source/subject to take you seriously. The same is true if you’re cussing it up like a sailor, or you have half of your lunch smeared all over your clothes.

10. A cowboy is a Patriot. While this is the last entry on Gene Autry’s list, I often tell young journalists this is the most important rule. A patriot is one who loves his country and works diligently to ensure it maintains its greatness. He understands his role and responsibilities as a citizen, and actively works to ensure others do, as well.

Summary

So, in summary, I would like you to take from this class that communities aren’t just small towns and cities, and that every journalist should aspire to serve his community to the best of his ability. A good community journalist is engaged with his community, and highly involved and invested in its future success.

Community journalists need to operate on a simple set of principles that emphasize truthfulness, trustworthiness, service to others, and respect for those around him, especially those who might disagree with him. Moreover, a community journalist must be a good citizen and a patriot.

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Written by bfranklinjournalism

February 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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