Winner: Washington State University

Washington State University is one of the 2015-16 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 11 winners and the Honorable Mentions.

Project Title: Improved Newsgathering in Traumatized Communities

Partners

Team

  • Carolyn Robinson, Clinical Assistant Professor, Washington State University, @carolynworld
  • Ben Shors, Clinical Assistant Professor, Washington State University, @bshors
  • Robert Frank, City Editor, Everett Herald, @RFrankHerald
  • Jesse Hardman, Media Developer, @JesseAHardman

Describe your project as a tweet

Respecting communities traumatized by disaster or violence through “listening posts” so people can answer questions without media intrusion.

What are you going to test?

This project explores new ways to effectively and sensitively handle newsgathering needs in traumatized communities, and examines how journalists who are intimately involved in a story maintain their own balance, mental health and objectivity for months or even years. The Everett Herald was the centerpoint of coverage for two major tragedies in their backyard, also reported by many national media – the Oso mudslide and the Marysville/Pilchuck school shooting. While most media left when interest waned after a few weeks, the Everett Herald has remained with the community to provide continuing updates on the impact of these devastating local events.

How will the experiment be conducted?

Reporters from the Everett Herald will work with WSU researchers and students to produce continuing news follow-up stories on the two major tragedies that hit the area in 2014: the Oso mudslide and the Marysville/Pilchuck school shootings, using a new style of newsgathering better suited to the particular needs and sensitivities of traumatized communities.

Rather than using traditional news techniques of directly interviewing victims, our team will use listening stations set up in local communities to gather information from people at their convenience. Microphones placed in public areas will allow those who have something to say to do so in their own time, rather than responding to a journalist on a deadline.

Students and reporters will collate and curate responses for news value, and follow up with those who wish to be interviewed in more depth. The stories produced by this method will be qualitatively analyzed for content compared to those done by traditional methods, and a post-project survey will ask community members whether they appreciated the new techniques and how they viewed the quality of the stories produced in this way.

How will you know if it worked or not?

We plan to survey the affected communities at the end of the project to ask them directly how they viewed our special newsgathering techniques in their community, and whether we managed to tell these local stories accurately and in a timely manner while still respecting the sensitivities of the victims.

WSU students reporting on journalism and trauma onsite at Oso, Washington, mudslide disaster area

How is this project unique and innovative?

This is an unusual approach to newsgathering in traumatized communities in the hopes of respecting both the individual needs of victims and the professional needs of reporters. It addresses a very common problem in disaster reporting – how to respect victims and still get the news – and eases the burden of reporters who are traditionally expected to be intrusive in order to get the information they need, regardless of the sensitivities of the situation.

What technology platforms will you use?

We will be placing microphones in popular gathering spots of traumatized communities along with posted questions for them to answer in their own time without the direct involvement of reporters, then collate and curate the information to use in news stories. We will also use text messages to do the same thing in more remote areas.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

It will provide the basis for a new course in reporting in disaster situations and handling the emotional trauma faced by journalists in covering these events on a long-term basis.

What could go wrong?

Although research suggests otherwise, these traumatized communities might not respond to unfamiliar newsgathering approaches. Reporters are keen to try new and more sensitive techniques to tell their stories, but they may not have sufficient patience to accept gathering data for their stories in new and potentially slower ways, or be able to wait weeks, months or even years for victims to tell their stories in their own ways and on their own timetables. All parties are committed to getting the experiment off the ground, but whether results will come in as quickly as expected is an open question. Both institutions in this experiment, the Everett Herald and Washington State University, are well-established organizations with the capacity to continue beyond the initial timetable if needed, and to revamp the project if results are not as expected.