The American Press Institute’s second Inclusion Index cohort members attended their first community listening session in December to get acclimated with the process of organizing one before conducting their own. Community listening is a crucial tenet of improving community engagement, along with asset mapping and collaborating with other local news outlets — all part of the cohort’s efforts toward better engaging communities of color.

Led by API’s Letrell Crittenden Ph.D., director of inclusion and audience growth, and Modifier’s Derrick Cain, director of community engagement, a diverse group of about a dozen community members spanning Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods convened with the cohort at the Clemente Museum. There, they networked and engaged with questions that prompted constructive conversations and opinions about local media coverage in their communities.

“A community listening session is an opportunity for residents to express how they feel about their everyday lived experiences,” Crittenden said. “They can talk about things that they think are great, they can talk about things they wish could be improved, but it just gives an opportunity for folks to really express their concerns on a variety of issues.”

Rich Lord, managing editor of PublicSource and Inclusion Index cohort member, said listening instead of talking at the session made it more enlightening and refreshing — it was a needed opportunity to absorb the community’s input. “When the formal ‘listening’ stopped,” Lord added, “vigorous conversations between media members and community members began, and that was also of value.”

Creating space for community members to have their voices heard is imperative to not only build trust with news organizations that are willing to listen but also to identify potential sources who have been overlooked, as their experiences are necessary additions to local coverage. Community listening sessions allow participants to share what their local news is missing, what it’s getting wrong and how it can better cover their communities.

API’s Inclusion Index team shared the best practices news organizations should consider when shaping community listening sessions.

Comprehensive planning is key

Location: The location of the community listening session should comfortably accommodate the estimated number of attendees and be easily accessible to all, including people with disabilities. Make sure the site has plenty of parking and, if available, is near public transportation. Ensure the location is on neutral ground; avoid spaces that could be controversial to the community.

Agree on the setup of the space with the location partners to ensure that the arrangement of tables, seats, food and beverages does not interfere with the flow of the session and how the community engages with the organizers.

Recruitment: Reaching out to community members with whom your news organization doesn’t have direct relationships may prove futile when recruiting attendees for your listening session. Engage collaborators who know the community and can assist with individual invites and posting in relevant social media groups. Building trust with the community begins at this stage, and it’s imperative to be clear about the intentions behind the session.

“One of my recommendations is to join activities, groups, meetings and spaces you don’t frequent,” said Amber Thompson, cohort mentor and founder of de-bias. “That’s where you make sure you let them know you’re a guest and that you’re here because you share the same interests as them and are here to support.”

Compensation: Show the community that you appreciate their time and contributions to the session by providing a meal or refreshments, as well as monetary incentives.

“Everybody received a $50 gift card, and we fed them [at the first Inclusion Index listening session]. You should make the people in the room feel that you value their time,” Crittenden said. “Those are two things that will help relax the room and acknowledge that they’re taking time away from their busy schedules to give information.”

Scripting: Draft and develop the discussion questions and prepare a script to connect each piece of the event. The community members are experts, and they should feel motivated to share what they know. They should also feel included — like they belong there because they do. Your listening session script should be more about them than you and the news organization. You want to avoid language that creates a transactional relationship, and instead, use inclusive language that doesn’t presume you already know the answers.

“Think about the best starting question that can get the engagement within the community,” Cain said. “Oftentimes in these situations, community members are coming in and not really knowing what to expect. Asking what the newsroom can do for them, how they feel about news, etc. opens them up and gives them the feeling that the newsrooms are here to learn from them.”

Other questions API likes to ask during these sessions include:

  1. What words do you see that cause you to distrust the work?
  2. For  Pittsburgh Media to earn my trust as a source the following would need to happen _________________________.
  3. Is there anything about your local [describe] community that you’re really passionate about and like to tell other people about?
  4. What are one or two things about [name community] that you find difficult, worry you, or keep you up at night?
  5. What immediate decisions are you considering right now?
  6. In an ideal world, what would make you value news media in your community?
  7. What issues or topics do you wish local news outlets talked more about?

Facilitating active listening and meaningful conversations

It’s imperative to consider facilitation methods that will bolster active listening for not only the session leaders, but also the community members present. AmyJo Brown, cohort mentor and founder of War Streets Media, trained the cohort on facilitation and shares best practices on how to lead substantive listening sessions:

  1. The openness of the participants and the quality of the feedback shared are dependent on who leads the conversation — choose with intention.
  2. Consider leading in pairs, and prepare to include more if the number of attendees exceeds a dozen people.
  3. Reflect on the purpose, desired outcome and any power dynamics. Does the community trust the facilitator and the space enough to share critical feedback?
  4. Before the session begins, present the session’s agenda, the why and expectations — and don’t forget to get creative.
  5. Ask straightforward, open-ended questions that can be grasped quickly.

Guiding the conversation in real time

Listening sessions should be structured to prioritize the voices of community members. Avoid testing out ideas or gleaning information for a story by being ready to receive both positive and negative feedback that can be later shared in your newsroom. Being a sounding board for the community to air out any frustrations and taking note of relevant feedback to apply to your newsroom are ways to put active listening to practice in real time. If you feel the urge to get defensive, take a breath and listen deeply to what’s being shared — rather than trying to control or sway the conversation.

“You’re getting people to share with you how they perceive what [your newsroom is] doing,” Crittenden said. “What they say may not be accurate or fair, but you need to hear that to go back [to the drawing board] and address some of these concerns and really build trust back with your communities by simply listening to what they’re saying. In many cases, what they say may be correct.”

As the community engages with the questions asked during the session, some participants may be more comfortable fleshing out their ideas on paper versus expressing them aloud. Keep poster boards, Post-It notes, or index cards handy so people have the opportunity to make their points, maintain rapport and continue feeling included.

“You’re not going to get through 15 questions,” Crittenden said. “We only prepared a select number of open-ended questions to be discussed aloud. We also had the community write down their thoughts in consideration for the less vocal folks in the session.”

What’s next for the cohort

Since the December session, Inclusion Index cohort members have built their respective asset maps, which provide more reliable research for the communities and allow news organizations can target better sources.

“They really got into the community, talked to a lot of people, and now they’re going to prepare their scripts and logistics for the listening sessions,” said Crittenden. “Better sources result in better listening sessions because you can bring in a greater variety of voices and information. That ultimately leads to better trust and content that you’re producing.”

The cohort has been running listening sessions in the Northside and Southside Hilltop communities in February and March. The insights they gather from the listening sessions will inform their engagement products as part of the program. The insights will also inform their editorial approach and highlight underserved communities moving forward.

To ensure community engagement and dialogue endures, the cohort members will continue following up and connecting with the participating community members. A community advisory group will then be formed with key community stakeholders, where they will provide newsrooms needed feedback and opinions on local coverage on a more consistent basis. The group will consist of residents from different neighborhoods throughout the city.

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