Editor’s note: Our friend Jake Batsell has a new book out called Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences. It “explores the changing relationship between news producers and audiences and the methods journalists can use to secure the attention of news consumers.” Lab readers will find it covers some familiar ground: events, audience development, community engagement. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of its chapters.
Where was God in Aurora?
It was a frank, arresting, and painful question to ask in the days following the macabre shooting spree that left 12 people dead and dozens of others injured at a screening of a Batman movie in Colorado on July 20, 2012. Still, the question struck a nerve for hundreds of thousands of readers of CNN’s Belief Blog.
The blog aims to intertwine religion with news. But in the shocking aftermath of Aurora, Dan Gilgoff, religion editor of CNN.com, and his colleagues in Washington, D.C., were struggling with how to bring perspective to such a senseless tragedy. “It was actually a little bit desperate,” Gilgoff said. “The thought occurred to me, ‘Where is God in this tragedy?’ — which is this age-old question in religion. So I just put it out there.” He first posed the question on Twitter, then summarized the emotional array of responses a few hours later in a blog post that itself attracted more than 10,000 comments.
Gilgoff’s question triggered a week’s worth of impassioned, generally thoughtful debate as readers argued about the notion of divine sovereignty versus human free will. The episode showed how journalists can create community by actively involving the audience in the stories they cover. An engaged journalist’s role in the 21st century is not only to inform but to bring readers directly into the conversation through digitally powered techniques such as real-time coverage, alternative story forms, crowdsourcing, beat blogging, user-generated content, and comment forums.
In the days following the Aurora tragedy, Meredith Artley, managing editor of the Atlanta-based CNN Digital, watched in amazement as the post featuring Gilgoff’s question attracted 2,000 comments during the first six hours after it was published. The comments quickly grew to 5,000. Then 10,000. Over the next week, “Where was God in Aurora?” became a fervent but largely civil conversation, driven by the audience. “It’s not our job to say, ‘OK, everyone, we’re done,’ ” Artley said. “We just kept it going. People kept on wanting to talk about it.”As the original post gained traction, “it was not only a conversation — it was a unique conversation that CNN provoked and was starting to own,” Gilgoff said. To keep the momentum going, he said, “we wanted to do something that was educationally meaningful that would showcase the conversation, and do it in a way that would show more depth.” So the next natural step, Gilgoff said, was to bring in other voices. He invited a religion scholar, Stephen Prothero, and a Colorado pastor, Rob Brendle, to write columns explaining their take on the where-was-God question. That’s another opportunity in convening a community like this, Gilgoff said: connecting experts and the masses. “It allows you to kind of give the keys to someone else, as opposed to calling them to get a quote,” he said.
Days later, as the conversation began to wane, Gilgoff wrote a recap post noting the strong presence of atheists during CNN’s where-was-God conversation, demonstrating how the Internet can serve as a “de facto global church” for nonbelievers during times of crisis. In all, Belief Blog’s Aurora-related posts drew about 2 million pageviews during a single week. Earlier in his career, when Gilgoff worked for U.S. News and World Report, “we had no window into who was consuming our content, other than newsstand sales,” he said. Had he been assigned a reflective piece like the where-was-God story during his days at the magazine, Gilgoff told me, he might have interviewed ten or twelve sources for a seven-hundred-word story that left 90 percent of his reporting on the cutting-room floor. He also probably would have moved along after writing that single story. “Before, you would think a story has come and gone,” he said. “What the Internet allows you to do is see that people are still talking about it. We didn’t know that a few years ago.”
However, tapping into the power of a digital community requires shedding some of the work habits of a traditional reporter. Today’s journalists can’t just gather facts and quotes and dispense them to the public; they must actively seek out their audience and create opportunities for interaction. “If you don’t hear from your readers, the tendency is to have a very insular notion of your beat,” Gilgoff said. “If you open it up, there are a zillion angles that wouldn’t have otherwise” come to light.
Plenty of journalists remain wary of the onslaught of social media and audience interaction — even CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, has called Twitter a “frenemy.” But by asking questions that respect readers’ intelligence, journalists can raise the quality of the dialogue surrounding their stories, as evidenced by the Belief Blog’s where-was-God discussion. “When you start a conversation like this, the comments tend to be a lot more thoughtful and constructive,” Gilgoff said. “If the comments were lame or less than meaningful on that post, we wouldn’t have done it.” With each new Aurora post, Gilgoff said, the goal was not to generate easy clicks but rather to listen and react to the Belief Blog community, moving the conversation forward: “It had a lot of integrity and substance. It wasn’t advancing the conversation in an attempt to ride the wave. We were harnessing what our readers were saying to teach them something, too…It’s not as cynically done as, ‘Can we get 250,000 more clicks on this?’ That’s the effect, but it’s not the cause.” (The Aurora experience would later inform the Belief Blog’s news coverage when another tragedy occurred in December 2012. This time, a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, left twenty children and six staff members dead, prompting Belief Blog readers once again to openly question, defend, and debate the presence of God.)
For Gilgoff, the provocative reader-driven conversation that followed the Aurora tragedy demonstrated the value of interactive journalism. “Our whole mission is meeting the audience,” he said. “For the moment they are caring about that, we want to meet them. We can shed light on what everybody’s thinking about today. I think that’s the primary goal of journalism.”
After three years as CNN’s religion editor and coeditor of the Belief Blog, Dan Gilgoff left the network at the end of 2012 to become National Geographic’s director of digital news. In his farewell column, published on New Year’s Eve, Gilgoff linked to the “Where Was God in Aurora?” coverage from six months earlier and ended his column with a plea to readers:
In the world of digital journalism, your voice matters more than ever. With the proliferation of reader comments, social media and instantaneous metrics on what our audiences are clicking and how they’re responding, your choices and opinions are shaping our coverage more than ever. Some of our best content from the last year was more about conversations happening around the news than about the news itself. We choose to do certain stories and skip others partly based on whether you’re engaged in those stories or not. Use your power wisely.
The comments beneath Gilgoff’s farewell featured the usual smattering of trolls and religious arguments but also a genuine sense of gratitude from readers. “A big THANKS to you and cnn for letting the discussions flow so freely on your site,” one commenter wrote. “I cannot tell you all how interesting and important this blog is to me and i read it every day,” added another. Like a good pastor, rabbi, or imam, Gilgoff had convened a vibrant community, and the congregation kept coming back.
Jake Batsell is an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, where he teaches digital journalism and media entrepreneurship.