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Working with journalists to promote civic discourse not civil discord 

Media is an important lever in creating the social norm of safe and sound civic spaces. Best-Case Scenario, a Spitfire project, recently held two sessions exploring ways to work effectively with the media to prevent the normalization and glamorization of violence in civic spaces as well as promote accurate coverage of civil discourse with the same frequency and depth journalists cover discord. Here are the top tips and insights we found.  

What to know about journalists 

Reporters are humans with a job to do. Their role is to inform, but also to grab their audience’s attention — and conflict makes for a great hook. They have limited time, space and resources to tell stories so they shorten and condense, sometimes losing important context.  

Your job is to help journalists tell stories accurately within their constraints and in mediagenic formats.   

The oldest, most fundamental conversation in newsrooms everywhere is: Is this newsworthy? Journalists can be interested in covering positive, constructive dialogue if organizations share the right story ideas with them. Showing things functioning well in a dysfunctional time is breaking news. 

Civil discord like screaming matches at a school board meeting or protesters at a library’s drag story hour are ready-made for media coverage. Civil discourse stories like parents working together to develop age-appropriate reading lists and communities working out how to run fair elections aren’t as easy to write, but just as important. Find ways to bring these types of stories to reporters’ attention to widen the lens on what they are covering. 

It’s important to remember that covering news is more dangerous now (and for some reporters it has always been a high-risk activity). Reporters are thinking about what to take for personal protection before they leave for an assignment. In potentially violent situations like covering a white nationalist march or contentious meetings at city hall, reporters can be targets for violence themselves.   

Doing the pre-work 

Remember the questions: Is this newsworthy? What is a compelling media hook for your story?  

Be critical in your assessment of whether something is newsworthy. Ask yourself: Why would I care as a journalist and as a person scanning the news? How does this impact lives? One reporter asked: Why would my mom care about this? Answer these questions in your pitch.  

Think broadly about news outlets. It isn’t all about the big national newspapers and network outlets. Go to all types of news sources. Think about neighborhood publications, blogs, podcasts, online platforms and digital content creators. Where are your priority audiences and communities getting their news? 

Often the best reporter is a local one. Polling shows that trust in local reporters and news outlets is higher than in national outlets. That means you also must find the local angle.  

Don’t speak to “the media.” Tailor your pitch for success. You have your press release down, but it may need to be tailored to the different interests of each individual outlet, the reporter or even various levels of the same newsroom. A television or radio morning editor outreach/release is a little different than the note or release you send to an evening editor. Morning shows typically cover lighter news subjects. They are more positive. Evening news generally focuses on heavier topics. Show that you understand that and can approach each on their terms. Or you may decide that strategically, you want the coverage to go in the morning rather than later in the day.  

Sometimes, the best journalist isn’t a reporter at all but political or cultural columnists and editorial writers. They can have a more straightforward point of view. Make sure to include them in your pitching. Work to build relationships with them as well, don’t just offer a one-off pitch.  

Help them help you with stories and sources. Find ways to help the writers you reach out to by providing them with sources to interview. Not only make yourself and your team available for their stories but help them find the right people to interview. Reporters are storytellers, so give them an interesting character with a story to tell — not just a talking head with opinions and statistics.  

Make sure your sources are ready to speak. Train spokespeople in how to work with reporters not only during the interview but “off camera” by helping reporters with background and context that can help shape the story. This might involve taking them on site visits such as showing them how a mediation meeting happens or demonstrating techniques that de-escalate conflict.  

Show your strengths. Point reporters to local mediation and peacekeeping groups. They are the experts. They know the community, the people and the culture. They are also trusted messengers who can provide invaluable access and insight.  

Education happens in advance. Your role is also to educate the media. Do this in advance with journalists covering civic spaces whether it’s the inside story of a local drag story hour, school board meeting, polling location set up or facilitation of a town hall meeting. Some form of a media guide is often useful. Give journalists guidelines and talk about why it is important that they not normalize violence or present it in inaccurate and irresponsible ways. A media guide or conversation may include: 

  • Working with journalists to cover an event accurately by not use anxiety-producing words like “battlefield.” 

  • Encouraging journalists to cover extremism accurately with specific terminology and descriptions. It isn’t fair or useful to paint swaths of people with an inaccurate brush.  

  • Moving reporters away from the idea of “both sides are equal” coverage, because extreme ideas shouldn’t get the same airplay as mainstream ones.  

  • Urging them to resist the temptation of the juicy story: civil discourse (often seen as boring) vs. civil discord (thought of as exciting and attention-grabbing). 

  • On a larger scale, you may want to make presentations on covering conflict at journalism conferences where journalists are ready to listen, learn and discuss different ways of reporting.  

Building relationships with journalists is a key component of educating the media and you may find allies for your issue in the newsroom. There are a huge range of conferences and professional association meet ups where journalists and editors go to learn. These are great places to start critical conversations about coverage. Of course, it helps if you can present at these meetings with a journalist. A selection of professional organizations to consider is below.  

  • Online News Association 

  • Investigative Reporters and Editors 

  • National Association of Black Journalists 

  • National association of Hispanic Journalists 

  • Society of Professional Journalists 

  • Asian American Journalists Association 

  • South Asian Journalists Association 

  • Arab American and Middle Eastern Journalist Association 

  • Association of LGBT Journalists 

  • Frontline Club 

  • National Press Photographers Association 

  • Etc... 

Don’t feed the outrage cycle. Watch for reporters’ questions that encourage an emotional response. Don’t take the bait. While it may be tempting to say something titillating during an interview to get coverage (or to get it off your chest), you might be normalizing violence when you don’t mean to. Model dialogue and civil discourse and be careful not to repeat misinformation or disinformation

Watching the results and follow up. Always respond to a story. If it’s done in a way that focuses on peaceful discourse in civic spaces, send a note thanking the reporter and highlight what you think they did correctly. Offer them more resources on the topic of peaceful exchange of different and difficult ideas. Amplify the positive stories through your social media and give the reporter credit.  

When a story is covered in ways that normalize violence, reach out to the reporter and respectfully point out issues with their coverage that they may want to reconsider in future stories.  

If the journalist continues to inaccurately normalize conflict and violence, considering going to their beat editor or the outlet’s standards and practices editor and raising the ongoing issues/trends with them. Going above a reporter’s head should always be used as a last resort. Carefully weigh whether it is worth the potential backlash.  

Proactively, if you have ideas for how to cover discord or discourse, reach out to editorial boards and standards and practices editors who might issue some newsroom-wide guidance. If editors make decisions about which stories are covered and how — and they do — meet with them and make your case for better, more accurate, coverage.  

 Follow-up is important. Put more civil discourse stories in play. Collect and compile your success stories as well as your networks and contacts and use them to build your relationship with journalists by making your group a trusted resource.  

  • Civil discord stories are ready-made for today’s media. Keep these accurate by using the tips above. It’s less about removing violence from the news cycle and more about giving violence its place and balance.  

  • If situations become violent, place the violence in context, don’t blow it out of proportion, and provide a counternarrative that shows how it could have gone a different way if alternative preparation and actions had taken place.  

  • An important strategy is to get more civil discourse stories in the mix. You want to package these not simply as fluffy, good news stories but important hard news that is preventing violence. You should: 

  • Know who is covering these topics. Keep a media list of who is writing the stories about conflict and controversies in your area and on your issues and where those stories are showing up and keep the reporters and the editor in your contacts. For example, there is a democracy desk at The Guardian newspaper.  

  • Present the story as a mystery. Reporters are looking for interesting angles. Look for sources you can offer who changed their mind on a topic or who don’t know what to think and are conflicted about the issue. This makes for good television and interesting reading. Present a puzzle or difficult question: How does government function in a nonfunctioning state? Imagine if the story is: this effort was successful despite the circumstances. How did that happen?  

  • Present the situation as a counterintuitive story. For example, despite predictions of tension and possible violence, zero cases of intimidation were reported. What caused people to cool down? 

  • Create your own press. Post and distribute your own blogs, reports and visuals. Demonstrate how reporting on conflict can be done well. Reporters are also looking for inspiration and stories to cover. Your site could be where they find it.  

Understanding more about how the media and journalists work and how reporting decisions are made can make you an effective media player. You can be an advocate and a resource in changing the way stories about civic conflict are covered — from stories emphasizing violent encounters to ones featuring peaceful norms and positive social engagement.  

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2024 at 11:04 am and is filed under Media relations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.