By Malinda Miller (Engl, Jour’92; MJour’98)
How do journalists connect with audiences? What are the biggest challenges they face? Has social media changed how they report a story?
As news media have fundamentally changed over the years, the Pew Research Center has regularly tracked audience media consumption and gauged the public’s perceptions of the industry. But in an effort to “capture the other side of the story,” last spring it surveyed almost 12,000 journalists, said Amy Mitchell, the center’s director of journalism research, in a Q&A.
The Pew study found that 77% of journalists surveyed would choose their career again but identified several areas of concern, including political polarization and the impact of social media. Researchers also found that journalists think the pandemic has permanently changed the news industry.
CMCI Dean Lori Bergen had many of the same questions. She talked with three alumni from across the country—John Branch (MJour’89), Jackie Fortiér (MJour’13) and Vignesh Ramachandran (Jour’11)—over Zoom last summer about their day-to-day experiences as journalists.
Bergen: As we’ve been talking, it’s great to hear the differences in the work that each of you are doing. There’s this common thread of storytelling and the way each of you have applied your interests and skill sets in ways of connecting. I’m curious, what are some ways you engage with your audience?
Ramachandran: The last two years the number of in-person interviews has dramatically dwindled. A lot of it has been sourcing engagement through social networks. This year I’ve been experimenting with the audio function on Twitter to host conversations and see what issues people want to talk about. Some of the discussions ended up being more substantive and more engaging than I had expected, so it’s been a good experiment so far.
Branch: Most of my connections are still pretty traditional with readers. It’s the usual social media and reader comment kind of channels. I’ll give you an interesting quick story, though. We did a big multimedia piece on a story I wrote about 18 months ago about the threat to some of the iconic tree species—the redwoods, the sequoias, the Joshua trees in California. A musical director at a pretty big concert hall here in California was moved by it and was trying to figure out how to connect arts to climate change. He commissioned several composers to write pieces off of that story. They’ll be performing unique and original works based off something I wrote, which has never happened to me before.
Bergen: Amazing. Whoever thought you’d be the muse to an orchestral performance? Jackie, has social media changed how you engage with your audiences?
Fortiér: I’ve never not had social media as a journalist, so it’s not that different than what I was doing before. (The pandemic) has meant a lot of over-the-phone interviews that I would really have preferred not to do over the phone, but that’s just the way it had to happen. It’s been really difficult to have patients, family members, nurses, doctors crying to you on the phone, talking about how difficult it’s been treating people or going through COVID, and you’re not there in person. A lot of them didn’t want to have video on while we were talking. I think that has been the hardest part of the pandemic for me.
Bergen: That’s interesting. I brought my generational perspective to this because I wanted to delve into how social media may have changed some of your work, but you’re reminding me that this has always been part of your reporting.
Fortiér: I covered the Planned Parenthood shooter in Colorado Springs. None of the institutions were on Twitter so I couldn’t pull any information from that. I was doing live updates because there was this shooter on the loose in Colorado Springs, and it was when people were traveling. It sounds morose to say, but we’re going to have another breaking news situation, and so now that institutions are actually putting that information out there, it helps from a journalistic perspective.
Ramachandran: In some ways it’s broken geographic barriers to reach people around the country or world. But in another sense, particularly when trying to reach marginalized communities, are we self-selecting the sorts of people who would want to speak out anyway or who are comfortable with engaging on those platforms?
When I was doing a lot of reporting on the pandemic spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents, there were a lot of folks on the forefront talking about the issue on social platforms. But when talking to some of the folks who have been personally impacted by these issues, it’s trying to build rapport with someone whose child has been stabbed in a parking lot because of a hate crime. Trying to do that interview over Zoom is just a very different dynamic versus really ingraining yourself in the community and trying to understand the story and all its nuances and complexities. I think in some ways (Zoom) is such a useful tool, but in other ways, I think it’s a means to launch a conversation in a traditional way.
Branch: I think it’s just a different conversation when you and I are looking at each other, even if it’s through a camera. But I do worry that media companies will use it as a crutch and not send people out because it’s too simple and much cheaper to do it this way. I still think the best reporting is face to face, in person, not face to face over a monitor. It’s a totally different dynamic. I mean, I can see you in your little box right now, but I don’t know what the environment is around you. There’s not a whole lot of spontaneity when you and I are talking like this. There’s no, “Let’s just jump in the car and go get coffee somewhere,” or I can’t see what you have posted on your refrigerator that might elicit a whole line of questions.
Bergen: Good point, John. I’m curious, what form is most of your content being created in and how is it distributed to audiences?
Fortiér: Everything I do is multiplatform, from a 20-second spot to a full-fledged feature. If I go out to do a story, it’s pictures, tweets while I’m there, video, hopefully, depending on what’s happened. We create content specifically for TikTok. Usually I’m trying to find sources, but sometimes just to engage audiences. I kind of feel like the legacy journalists are just kind of catching up, to be honest with you, now that The New York Times and The Washington Post are like, “Oh, audio is a thing.”
Bergen: Well, that sounded like you guys need to respond to that one.
Ramachandran: Honestly, the last 10 years have been everything from print to writing for the web to audio work to video work to data analysis. I think the best editors have always given me the advice to just tell the story in the medium that tells the story best.
Bergen: I love that. It’s what we try to teach our students, but it always sounds so much better when somebody else says that.
Branch: I’ll say that what has been one of the changes post-“Snow Fall” is we have had a lot more conversations about the best way to present the story. Now, it’s like, what if this is nothing but a photo essay? What if this is actually a big, dynamic graphic? What if it is text? What if it’s video?
I’m working on a story now that we hope to make a full-length documentary. Some of my stories they’ll have me read so we can deliver them to podcast and audio audiences.
I think it has kind of exploded the environment and the imagination that we have for what’s the best way to deliver this to people. It’s exciting times to be a part of it.
Making a difference
Bergen: Could each of you talk a little bit about your experience with how journalism has made a difference?
Fortiér: I was the only health journalist in Oklahoma. We had a huge opioid lawsuit against Purdue (Pharma) settled, but Johnson & Johnson was the one that actually went to trial.
The trial happened to be in the town that I lived in, Norman, Oklahoma. I did a bunch of stories leading up to it, and then I just filed and filed and filed with NPR’s newscast. I was the only reporter that was there every day.
Because I tweeted the whole thing—and that was really the only way that people knew it was happening because it wasn’t being broadcast live—I had a ton of people following me on Twitter, both for and against opioid companies, which was interesting.
It showed me how important local journalism is because I was there. I had other journalists telling me the only reason they came was because their editor heard what I was doing and thought, “Oh, we better get over there.” Parachuting in has its merits in some cases, but most of the time you need local people who know the ins and outs and the subtleties of what’s going on.
Bergen: Although my question was, how does journalism have an impact, what you’ve really underscored is, journalists have an impact.
Ramachandran: Before the pandemic, I worked for ProPublica’s Chicago office. We were local reporters living in the communities that we were reporting on. There were tangible impacts of laws changed. We had colleagues who did investigations on the tax assessment system there; the corrupt assessor who ended up getting voted out the next election; how they were targeting Black and brown communities of Chicago in disproportionate ways; and then how those policies were kind of changed in Chicago.
In my own reporting on Asian American communities, it’s interesting to see a different sort of impact. I did a few stories on how South Asian Americans have a higher risk of cardiovascular ailments, and I got emails saying, “Hey, I signed up to get a heart scan,” or, “I’m going to be talking to my primary care doctor.”
Branch: One theme I’ve had the last 10 years has been stories about CTE, the chronic brain disease caused by repetitive hits in a lot of sports. I’m here in Colorado right now, and I just saw a friend the other night who said, “I can’t watch hockey the way I used to anymore, thanks to you. I can’t watch football the way I used to because of the reporting that you and your colleagues have done.”
You know, anytime you hear somebody talk about political news or sports news or celebrity news, or on global news of some sort, I want to say, “You realize that’s media, right? You’ve been bashing the media, but you realize everything that you talk about, everything that connects us through conversation is media.”
I just want people to remember, there are real people behind this news.
Moments of joy
Bergen: I’m just curious, are there moments of joy in your work?
Ramachandran: I think when you tell the stories that you want to tell, tell the stories that impact folks, that kind of stuff is what keeps me going.
Branch: I find joy in small places, like when I’ve written a nice sentence. Most of my joy comes in very private moments: When I’ve received a callback that I’ve been waiting for, or just got off the phone on a really good interview, and I can’t wait to tell my editor what I’ve just found out.
Fortiér: I think I find the most joy when I get to take a listener somewhere that they don’t normally go or hear from someone that they wouldn’t think to speak to. What I really love about audio is that I can take 20 seconds and let that quote breathe. It has a pacing to it. It’s very experiential.
Trust and credibility
Bergen: What are the biggest challenges you face as journalists?
Branch: Credibility and maintaining trust with audiences that are as fractured as ever. I work in what’s derisively called the mainstream media. I worry about how we get that mainstream news to a wide swath of people, across socioeconomic lines, across political lines, across racial divides, so that we’re all working with a core set of facts. That’s become trickier and trickier as the years have gone by.
Bergen: And that’s probably not going to change in the future.
Branch: Our goal at The New York Times is to keep delivering truth as we believe it should be told and hope that people come around, and not try to bend to certain people, not just play to your audience. I think that’s what the original journalism tenets were—deliver truth as unbiased as possible and let people absorb it as they absorb it, but don’t try to steer your news to an audience necessarily. That’s tricky, because you get into conversations about bias and unintended biases and so on. We’ve been doing it for 170 years. We’ll keep going and hope that more people keep believing what we’re delivering.
Fortiér: I would add to that: staying relevant. In order to be consumable by younger audiences, we really need to get more Black and brown people in newsrooms and in positions of power within newsrooms. You know, I can think of one public radio station that has a woman as the CEO or president off the top of my head. So, we talk about diversity all the time. We talk about diversity in sources, but we really need more diversity
Ramachandran: I feel like earlier in my career, I would’ve said it’s the economics of journalism, which I think is definitely a concern, but it feels like we’re going to figure that out. But to John’s point, I’m personally very concerned—and I feel like it’s a challenge for journalism—this credibility and trust question. I think that’s just the biggest thing we’re going to be grappling with for many years.
Fortiér: I will say having been a reporter in Oklahoma at a public radio station where people don’t really like journalists, that as I consistently did accurate, solid reporting, I got respect. It took a little while, but as I kept doing the good work, people realized that I wasn’t biased.
Bergen: Just a good reminder how much relationship building can have an impact on this.
Branch: To what Jackie said, that’s my mission, just keep doing the good work. I don’t know what else we can do.