You’re Not Really Listening

How journalists can talk less and listen more, to serve communities better

(Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.)

Most journalists think they are pretty skillful listeners—particularly reporters and others who interview sources for a living. But often when we’re listening, we’re really just looking for that next opportunity to ask another question. We think we know why we’re talking to this source, usually an expert or a community member, and our job is to get the information that will help us construct the most accurate story we can, often on a tight deadline.

But what if that isn’t always our job? Or what if we’ve done such a poor job representing communities or understanding their experiences (or even ignoring some communities altogether) that our old ways of listening form a barrier to sharing important, diverse stories? That’s when we need to change our mindset and broaden our view of what listening really means.

At SRCCON 2018 in Minneapolis, David Plazas of the Tennessean in Nashville and I facilitated a session (“Talk Less. Listen More.”) on listening and how it can help journalists begin to repair relationships with marginalized or neglected communities. (You can read the transcript of the session here.) Our session was based on work that the American Press Institute, where I work, has done in this space. That includes a series of essays on what four different newsrooms have done to explore what we call “focused listening”—efforts to hear from particular populations newsrooms recognize they need to better understand, reach and serve. Our belief is that anyone in a newsroom can—and should—learn how to listen to the many varied communities that they serve, no matter which communities they personally identify with. Diversity is the work of everyone in the newsroom, not just a few.

What Focused Listening Looks Like

David, the Tennessean’s opinion engagement editor, works with his colleagues to plan and facilitate events with different community and affinity groups, including young American Muslims, veterans, and older gun owners. This work is part of a larger effort by the Tennessean’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which David leads. Through their listening and engagement efforts, they have not only invited community members into their space but also partnered with community members to host events and conversations.

Other non-traditional ways that news organizations are listening to their communities (pulled from a series of essays commissioned by the American Press Institute):

  • The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism set up pop-up newsrooms in neighborhoods around the city and at community events to hear from different groups of people about the issues affecting them. They showed how listening efforts don’t have to cost a lot: They started out with just a desk, some chairs, a box filled with minimal office supplies and a carpet.

  • The Richland Source put on a community baby shower to provide new and soon-to-be parents with resources about healthy pregnancies and babies. The event was an outgrowth of the news organization’s coverage on the high infant mortality rates in Richland County, Ohio. As part of the event, they set up a Listening Post to capture two kinds of information — 1) from expectant mothers: what they were most nervous about and what they were most looking forward to and 2) from experienced mothers: what advice would they give to new mothers. So they were able to serve their community with valuable information and resources at the same time as they were able to learn more about participants’ thoughts and feelings about motherhood.

  • The Alabama Media Group set up a news deputy program as a way to diversify their sources throughout the state, using GroundSource’s text messaging platform. The texting-based system allowed Alabama Media Group to reach people where they are a lot of the time: on their phones.

Across the four examples we discussed, several themes emerged about how to engage and listen to communities more effectively, especially for journalists who are not members of those communities:

  • Sometimes, you need to say you’re sorry. At first, you might need to approach a community by apologizing for past coverage (or lack thereof) and owning past mistakes, even if you specifically did not commit them. Remember, you’re never walking into a community with a clean slate, particularly if you are coming from a legacy news organization with a long history.

  • Partnering can help, whether it be with an existing community organization or with a tool to gather information from community members. Going it alone isn’t always the best way. Also, there are ways to partner that don’t include a heavy lift at the beginning. Sometimes, you might just seek partnership for space use, for example. Other times, a partnership might be more in depth and require deeper collaboration.

  • Get out of your comfort zone. Part of doing this type of work is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. We need to demonstrate humility and be willing to live in discomfort. (Journalists make people uncomfortable all the time, even when we’re trying not to, so it’s good for us to experience that ourselves.)

  • Use tech wisely. Do test runs. Know your limitations. Make any interactions a community has to have with technology as frictionless as possible. Offer human support for when things go wrong.

  • Be mindful of the power dynamic. In any of these situations, journalists wield a lot of power just by the nature of what we do. We need to make others comfortable before they are willing to talk with us. Sometimes that means no notebooks, no cameras, etc. And all of the time, it means we need to be humble. (Notice a theme here?)

  • Show how the listening changed YOU. In each of the examples, the news organization changed its coverage either by including new voices or covering different subjects than they would have before.

One simple question

For journalists wanting to try these methods of listening, you might want to start by asking the simple question, “What audience or community do you want to listen to?” Brainstorm on this question on your own or with colleagues, and reflect on your current coverage as well as the multiple communities in your coverage area (whether topic specific or geographic specific).

At SRCCON, session participants came up with a wide range of answers to this question. Here are a few of their answers, to inspire your own brainstorming:

  • Renters

  • Trans/non-binary folks

  • Migrant workers

  • Asian American folks on “non-traditional” trajectories

  • Low/no income people

  • Folks from small rural towns

  • Kids in the foster care system

  • First-generation college students

Answering this question may also open up a good discussion about how you track the diversity and breadth of your story topics and sources. What do you do now for these groups? Do you have regular contact with them? Should you consider a source or story audit to define a baseline for this work? Knowing where you are starting from can help clearly point out areas for improvement and growth.

What’s the impact?

As with all things journalism-related these days, we want to know the impact of the work that we’re doing. With focused listening efforts, it can be difficult to come up with clear-cut goals that are anything akin to page views, time spent, social shares, digital subscription numbers, and rates, etc. But it’s just as important to define what we think success looks like for listening and engagement work and to come up with tangible ways to measure that success.

Our participants came up with a solid list of both qualitative and quantitative ways to measure the impact of a focused listening project. Some of their thoughts included:

  • Qualitative surveys with the community before and after an event or project that ask about whether participants felt respected and heard. The questions should allow you to answer the general question, “How did we do?”

  • A demonstrated shift in coverage topics and sources, based on quantitative data

  • The length of new relationships created by the listening engagements

  • Tracking whether other news organizations copy your efforts or build on what you learned

Taking it further

The work of focused listening is not something that can be completed like a task on a to-do list. It requires sustained effort over time, which includes organizational buy-in and a strategic commitment, as well as a willingness to adapt to the needs and desires of the communities you’re trying to serve. We’re interested to see what others at SRCCON and beyond will do in this area and what we can learn from them.

For some further reading, you might want to read a piece by P. Kim Bui for the American Press Institute that looks at how journalists can employ empathy in their work, which also involves focused listening. The activities in this SRCCON session were also inspired by an API summit in the spring on listening, the takeaways of which appear in this report on creating a culture of listening.



  • Amy L. Kovac-Ashley

    Amy L. Kovac-Ashley is the director of newsroom learning for the American Press Institute, where she focuses on newsroom culture, professional development, leadership and diversity. She has experience both as a professional journalist and a journalism educator at the collegiate and graduate levels. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.


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