Journalism schools emphasize listening

“It’s not just about what reporters need for a story, or what journalists think they need from our communities — it’s about what communities need and deserve from journalists.”

In 2021, community listening and engagement will spread in journalism education because to truly serve our communities, it must.

Last August, at the start of the fall semester, I confronted the challenge of teaching a course called “Engaging Diverse Communities.” I was terrified. At a moment when we were all largely confined to our homes, communicating via tiny squares on screens, how in the world were we going to engage with one another, let alone communities? Without being able to send students out to talk to people, to interact with them in person, how was I going to succeed in showing my students the critical nature of the work?

And yet, somehow, it worked. In our last class, students presented their final projects via Zoom. One student asked: “How can we actually understand these community members and their needs, and what can we do to amplify their voices? I think a lot of the time, we’d go into it with this mentality that, ‘Oh, we know best,’ or, you know, ‘We’re just going to share what they have.’ But we never actually learn about their history, about what their goals are, and what the community needs.”

Her project focused on better serving communities affected by food insecurity in Los Angeles, and as she spoke, tears welled up in my eyes. Despite all the challenges we’d confronted over the course of the semester, the message at the heart of the course had made it through: Her question was personal, and it also showed that she had nailed the principles of community engagement in journalism.

Many of my students told me that these concepts were different from what they’d learned in other journalism classes they had taken. It wasn’t just about making the deadline, having a minimum number of sources, or getting the quotes or sound bites they needed for a story.

“What I realized and went on to learn is that it is not enough to have the heart and desire to help the community and that you need to be intentional with your work,” another student said. “The fact that we were able to ask more questions about how we can be more involved was certainly uplifting for us as journalists, because we were able to take the temperature of the community and get a little sliver of hope that, if we listen, then we can turn things around.”

I wiped my eyes as the presentations concluded and tried to avoid my Zoom camera. I was overcome with the importance and relevance of teaching students to report with communities, not from a distance. I knew this was critical, especially now.

The “Engaging Diverse Communities” course focused on several areas central or related to community engagement. These include empathy, community listening, identifying fault lines, human-centered design, critical issues pertaining to diversity and inclusion, solutions journalism, building trust in news, examining power and privilege, and ultimately taking concepts related to these issues and implementing journalism engagement projects that work directly with the community to address their needs. Central to much of this was listening.

In the process, students saw for themselves the need for newsrooms to better reflect the communities they serve. We examined and discussed the systematic racism that exists in newsrooms and that affects our communities.

As educators and students, we make up vital parts of our communities we aim to serve. We must focus on practices in journalism to better serve communities in more meaningful ways. We can begin through deep listening.

Next year, more journalism educators will embrace the fact that it’s not just about what reporters need for a story, or what journalists think they need from our communities — it’s about what communities need and deserve from journalists. Not what we think they need, but what we’ve asked them they need. We build these practices into every student journalist’s educational experience.

In 2021, we teach ourselves and our journalism students to pause…and listen.

Amara Aguilar is an associate professor of professional practice at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

In 2021, community listening and engagement will spread in journalism education because to truly serve our communities, it must.

Last August, at the start of the fall semester, I confronted the challenge of teaching a course called “Engaging Diverse Communities.” I was terrified. At a moment when we were all largely confined to our homes, communicating via tiny squares on screens, how in the world were we going to engage with one another, let alone communities? Without being able to send students out to talk to people, to interact with them in person, how was I going to succeed in showing my students the critical nature of the work?

And yet, somehow, it worked. In our last class, students presented their final projects via Zoom. One student asked: “How can we actually understand these community members and their needs, and what can we do to amplify their voices? I think a lot of the time, we’d go into it with this mentality that, ‘Oh, we know best,’ or, you know, ‘We’re just going to share what they have.’ But we never actually learn about their history, about what their goals are, and what the community needs.”

Her project focused on better serving communities affected by food insecurity in Los Angeles, and as she spoke, tears welled up in my eyes. Despite all the challenges we’d confronted over the course of the semester, the message at the heart of the course had made it through: Her question was personal, and it also showed that she had nailed the principles of community engagement in journalism.

Many of my students told me that these concepts were different from what they’d learned in other journalism classes they had taken. It wasn’t just about making the deadline, having a minimum number of sources, or getting the quotes or sound bites they needed for a story.

“What I realized and went on to learn is that it is not enough to have the heart and desire to help the community and that you need to be intentional with your work,” another student said. “The fact that we were able to ask more questions about how we can be more involved was certainly uplifting for us as journalists, because we were able to take the temperature of the community and get a little sliver of hope that, if we listen, then we can turn things around.”

I wiped my eyes as the presentations concluded and tried to avoid my Zoom camera. I was overcome with the importance and relevance of teaching students to report with communities, not from a distance. I knew this was critical, especially now.

The “Engaging Diverse Communities” course focused on several areas central or related to community engagement. These include empathy, community listening, identifying fault lines, human-centered design, critical issues pertaining to diversity and inclusion, solutions journalism, building trust in news, examining power and privilege, and ultimately taking concepts related to these issues and implementing journalism engagement projects that work directly with the community to address their needs. Central to much of this was listening.

In the process, students saw for themselves the need for newsrooms to better reflect the communities they serve. We examined and discussed the systematic racism that exists in newsrooms and that affects our communities.

As educators and students, we make up vital parts of our communities we aim to serve. We must focus on practices in journalism to better serve communities in more meaningful ways. We can begin through deep listening.

Next year, more journalism educators will embrace the fact that it’s not just about what reporters need for a story, or what journalists think they need from our communities — it’s about what communities need and deserve from journalists. Not what we think they need, but what we’ve asked them they need. We build these practices into every student journalist’s educational experience.

In 2021, we teach ourselves and our journalism students to pause…and listen.

Amara Aguilar is an associate professor of professional practice at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

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