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March 8, 2021, 11:53 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Network mapping is a concrete method to include more voices in your reporting

It gives a framework and place to begin, recognizing that no outreach plan will work for everyone so it’s necessarily an iterative, step-by-step process.

A deadline can bulldoze the best of intentions. For me, that intention has been to include a greater diversity of voices and faces in daily news coverage.

That’s been my newsroom’s stated goal for years. But deadlines are relentless. Without a clear strategy to change the way we work, the best of intentions slip again and we quote the first sources to pick up the phone.

That’s why I’m encouraged by a new network mapping technique taught by Hearken at their Engaged Elections workshops on Jay Rosen’s Citizens Agenda last summer. We put it to work through an engagement project on schools and Covid-19 last fall. It’s not a cure-all solution, but it’s a strategy. It overcomes inertia and moves the needle.

I’m a columnist and engagement journalist at the Edmonton Journal, a mainstream commercial newspaper for a city of roughly one million people in western Canada. I got the chance to study with Hearken during a leave of absence last year, while helping an independent media outlet adapt Rosen’s approach for a municipal election.

Rosen’s Citizens Agenda is about rooting election coverage in what the electorate believes the main issues are, which is refreshing. But what really captured my attention was the practical exercise written by Hearken’s Bridget Thoreson to help reporters find that electorate.

She calls it network mapping — the process of literally drawing out the many groups who have an interest in the topic being covered, including those normally outside a media outlet’s existing audience.

“It’s so easy to forget that everybody who cares about your work is not everybody who you’re currently reaching,” said Thoreson, when I reconnected to ask about the origins of the tool.

It was adapted from a course she took while earning her Masters in Integrated Marketing and Communications and is also commonly used by public engagement professionals.

“We call it a map and it really does become a map to inform your work,” she said. “People seemed to find it really valuable. What people seemed to most appreciate was having a place to begin.”

It’s so simple, it’s almost crazy to be writing an article about it. This fall, I started our engagement effort on schools and Covid-19 by writing down the topic in the center of a large sheet of paper. Then I drew a large dotted line encircling it.

I was pretty confident I’d hear from professionals with children in the public school system and grandparents just by issuing a typical callout in the newspaper and on the web, so I listed those groups inside the circle.

But I wasn’t sure I’d hear from school children, recent immigrants or parents from BIPOC communities. They went outside the circle.

Then, because it was now a written down and specific part of the plan, I picked one group at a time and set out to connect. In each case, I approached someone I knew had influence in the community and they helped gather a few others for a larger video call.

Those voices blended with the voices of more than 300 parents, teachers and students we heard from through a general call for input through surveys. We used the questions and frustrations expressed to shape a series of 10 articles on Covid-19 as students returned to school for the first time during the pandemic.

It moved the needle and better reflected the community. But more than that, investing in these relationships led to other stories, closer to the communities’ heart, such as writing about a way to keep children in their homes and move the parents during a child welfare intervention, a new effort to partner Black children with university-student mentors, and an effort to build restorative justice circles in a community hard-hit by crime.

More than 130 journalists from 63 newsrooms took the Engaged Elections workshops last year, and from survey responses and informal feedback, organizers could see the network mapping technique was a favorite. It gives a framework and place to begin, recognizing that no outreach plan will work for everyone so it’s necessarily an iterative, step-by-step process.

Katherine Nagasawa, audience engagement producer for WBEZ in Chicago, took the concept and then combined it with a geographical map. Her team wanted to ensure at least half of the submissions they got for the Citizens Agenda were from areas hardest hit by Covid-19. So they mapped data on virus case rates, fatalities and unemployment claims.

Then they found ways to focus on those neighborhoods — a different constellation than the normal north-south Chicago divide. They partnered with community organizations residents normally turn to for information and also turned up at food or school supply distribution events. They easily met their goals, collecting 2,200 submissions.

“It was a good, challenging exercise for our newsroom. These were all communities of color that have been frankly underserved by media, including us,” said Alex Keefe, WBEZ’s deputy politics editor, crediting Nagasawa for patiently building relationships.

In Cincinnati, too, the network map was an important framework to start the team thinking critically about who they wanted to reach. WCPO reporter Larry Seward said he soon had more than 14 groups listed and his boss added more. That gave him a road map.

As part of his efforts to engage on the Citizens Agenda, he partnered with two voter registration campaigns, getting them to hand out a WCPO question form to first time voters. An election worker informally helped by soliciting questions on election security from several co-workers and emailing him.

Looking back, it’s clear the simple process of mapping out the diverse groups with a stake in an issue expands perspectives in a newsroom generally. It gets away from the habit of letting those few perspectives in the news meeting drive coverage, he said. “It makes
us more responsible and more self-aware.”

“It’s not just about race. It’s also about other life experiences,” said Seward. “It’s a 360 view, religious experience included. We need to take a good hard look and make a really strong effort at including some of those voices. That is not easy.”

Elise Stolte is a columnist and engagement journalist at the Edmonton Journal.

WBEZ’s Katherine Nagasawa, WBEZ audience engagement producer, surveying residents in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Photo by Vin Reed.

POSTED     March 8, 2021, 11:53 a.m.
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