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More access, but not that kind

“It’s about shifting from thinking about conversation mainly as a reaction or afterthought to making it more central to how we conceive of and tell stories.”

“Access” in journalism has long been used to describe the relationship between reporters and their sources. But in 2019, it could come to describe another journalistic relationship that’s growing in importance: the one between journalists and their audience.

The pathways for news consumers to have more meaningful access to journalists are proliferating — beyond social media comments and mentions. It’s easier for newsrooms to tell stories by texting with their audience, more people are getting news via chat apps, and now journalists can get feedback, opinions, and questions from the audience through interactive video features, such as with Instagram Stories’ question feature (not to mention DMs).

And you might have noticed that access to journalists emerges as a theme when you look at efforts aimed at rebuilding the American public’s trust in journalism. I’ve long considered two-way conversation between journalists and news consumers one of the fundamentals of digital best practice, but the idea of direct access really hit home for me last month, when I interviewed Twitch users about climate change. Well, really, I was interviewing them for a research project about a Twitch channel that deals with climate change: ClimateFortnite, where climate scientists share their knowledge while streaming their Fortnite play.

Although I completed only seven interviews, I was struck by a unanimous agreement among my interviewees: They all named the channel’s text chat space as the biggest advantage of the channel as a vehicle for information about climate change, mainly because it allows users access to an expert who speaks credibly and directly about climate change.

Yes, newsrooms have tried many iterations of content aimed at conversation: comment sections, Reddit AMAs, Facebook Live discussions, etc. But many of these efforts are packaged into one story or project, or are left to certain teams instead of becoming a collective and sustainable responsibility of the whole newsroom.

Unfortunately, we all know all too well, as did some of my Twitch interviewees, that some channels for two-way conversation between journalists and their audience can become toxic or threatening. That is always part of the concern and equation when considering access to journalists, especially in today’s climate. But some of the avenues becoming increasingly available encourage more directed and less amplified conversation, which could help mitigate some of the risks.

The shift for newsrooms in 2019 toward this type of access doesn’t have to be drastic. It’s about shifting from thinking about conversation mainly as a reaction or afterthought to making it more central to how we conceive of and tell stories. As part of the continual evolution of storytelling that the internet has brought us, it’s now time to ask whether more stories can be conceived as a back and forth, or to consider two-way conversation part of the routine, rather than a bonus.

Laura E. Davis is an assistant professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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