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Fifteen years ago, I flew to Nairobi, Kenya as Africa
correspondent for National Public Radio, a non-profit radio network in
the United States. On the way, I stopped in Paris, where a Rome-based
correspondent passed on a large bag containing a bulletproof vest and
helmet. Within two days, I was in Somalia. Being a foreign correspondent
back then meant seeing for yourself what was happening on the ground –
and having a Rolodex of experts to explain what it all meant.
When it came to stories about Africa, those expert
analysts were nearly always white and non-African, and most were getting
their information second-hand, often from foreign correspondents like
me. During four years of reporting in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, South
Africa, the former Zaire and elsewhere, I grew skeptical of those
Increasingly, my reporting featured Africans explaining
their concerns, their dreams and their world from direct experience.
Yet, my stories and those voices were typically lost in the din of
expert explanations in other news reports. And the experts were often
Coverage of the Rwandan genocide was one example. Most
people still believe that the genocide was caused by deep ethnic hatred
between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. That was what the experts
“Will those Hutus and Tutsis ever get along?” my father
asked me once when I returned to the U.S. for a visit. I had been
reporting that the Rwandan genocide was not about deep ethnic
hatred between the Hutus and the Tutsis. In interview after interview in
Rwanda, I heard that intermarriage between the two groups was common.
I reported that there was too little land in this most
densely-populated country in Africa. Rwandans told me how the Hutu
government and its militias had incited the genocide through fear and
the promise that Hutus would get new land as the countryside was
cleansed of Tutsis.
My father had listened to my stories. Yet, the voices of
those living the news in my reports lost out to the more frequent
voices of experts elsewhere citing tribalism as the root of the
Today’s journalism has lost its connection with people
I fear that today’s journalism, like the journalism I
saw emerge from Africa, is more about experts than about people. The
voices of direct experience and the questions that matter most to the
audience are often sidelined by the authority of experts and the
judgment of journalists who see themselves as arbiters of the news.
Some news organizations even brand experts as
their own, and feature them again and again in reports and
interviews. In the current U.S. election, journalists seem more
comfortable asking pundits what Americans think about an issue, rather
than asking citizens themselves.
The irony is that in today’s increasingly
Internet-linked world, it has never been easier for journalists to
connect with people around the globe through blogs and social networks,
chat rooms and bulletin boards.
I certainly don’t mean to paint journalism, which I
have been part of for 25 years, as all wrong or all bad. In the U.S.,
journalism has exposed scandals like Watergate, told us why the poor of
New Orleans suffered most from Katrina, and explained everything from
climate change to credit fraud. There is a great deal of excellent
journalism happening, and it does reach people, inform them, and add to
their lives. But, on balance, much of the news does not.
I believe journalists have become disconnected from the
people we are meant to serve and that is dangerous in a free society.
The news media, when independent and connected to the public, is the
foundation for government by the people. Ideally, journalists are
trusted truth-tellers who enable people to come together to learn from
each other and solve common problems.
But when journalists become disconnected, the public
becomes distrustful and disdainful of newsmakers and news gatherers
alike. The weakening connection between journalists and the public in
the U.S. has led to twenty years of declining public trust in the media.
The Web is changing our culture and the media
Our poor relationship with the audience wasn’t as
problematic or obvious when there were no alternatives to mainstream
media and no easy ways to get information from different voices and
perspectives. But the rise of the Internet has changed all that.
The Web has broken the monopoly of mainstream news. In
the U.S., big city newspapers and national TV news are struggling to
survive as the audience, and advertisers, go elsewhere. In the emerging
information-sharing, open-source culture of the Web, people expect to
share what they know and be engaged in a conversation.
They expect to learn from a huge range of sources, many
informal and expert by experience, rather than by title. And they expect
this from their news. Mainstream journalism, as a priesthood whose role
is to determine the news that is fit to print and inform the uninformed
masses, seems outdated, arrogant and disconnected.
A new journalism of partnership
What we need is a new journalism – one not handed down
from the pulpit, but built on a partnership with the public. It’s a
journalism that asks, listens and engages with the public and taps the
widest possible source network, while still preserving the hallmarks of
quality reporting: verification, independence and powerful storytelling.
It’s a journalism that values collaboration and diversity, while still
filtering for truth. It’s journalism that’s relevant because the
audience is deeply involved.
Quality journalism, as a trusted truth-teller that helps
create shared understanding, is more needed than ever. Our world is
growing more complex and more interdependent, while the understanding
and tolerance needed to tackle common problems seems to be shrinking.
This new journalism is long overdue.
You can already see the first drafts of it. It’s there
in crises, like the South Asian Tsunami of 2004 or the Hurricane Katrina
disaster in the U.S., when people living the news shared their
knowledge and questions on hastily-created Web pages. It’s there in the
BBC’s interactivity desk that vets thousands of photos, videos,
information and comments from the public every day and distributes them
to its editorial staff.
It’s there in sites like Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonline.org)
by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which find
diverse voices and sustain conversations with a worldwide audience. It’s
there in the collaboratively-written encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and South
Korea’s online OhMyNews service and other experiments in citizen
journalism. And it is spreading in America’s non-profit, public radio
The rise of Public Insight Journalism®
For the last five years, my colleagues and I at American
Public Media have worked to create a set of principles, practices and
tools for this new journalism of partnership. American Public Media is
the largest owner and operator of public radio stations in the U.S. and
produces national programs that reach over 15 million people each week.
We call our model Public Insight Journalism®, and we are using it daily
to create stronger local news coverage in our Minnesota Public Radio
newsroom, and national coverage on our shows such as Marketplace,
Weekend America, and Speaking of Faith.
Public Insight Journalism is about tapping the
knowledge, experience and insights of a vast network of people who have
expertise, but are rarely recognized as experts by the media. These citizen sources
have knowledge from their training, their work, their passions, their
community life, and their personal and professional contacts. They also
know what questions, issues, emerging trends and stories are most
relevant to their lives.
Public Insight Journalism creates a partnership between
people willing to share their knowledge with the press, and experienced
journalists willing to listen. It relies on communications and knowledge
management technology to maintain and tap relationships with tens of
thousands of people in hundreds of communities. Public Insight
Journalism harkens back to an earlier age when reporters spent time at
community meetings, cafes and coffee shops, bars and pub building
hundreds of relationships with people and reporting based on those
We start by asking people on the radio, over the Web, in
person or by e-mail to share their knowledge on issues or stories our
news programs are exploring. We ask people to share their knowledge, not
their opinions. And we promise we will not share their personal
information or their comments without their permission.
A network of 50,000 citizen sources
Those who respond become part of our Public Insight
Network®, which is growing daily and now includes more than 50,000
sources in over two dozen countries. After people register, we ask them
for information about their lives, experience and expertise, so we can
ask them questions that are relevant to their knowledge. We learn more
about their expertise and experience every time they respond to a
request for help with a story.
We gather this information in a database using knowledge
management tools we have built and fine-tuned over time. The system is
automated and efficient so that a few journalists, called public insight
analysts, can quickly identify those people most likely to have
knowledge on a topic, contact them through e-mail or phone, and then
rapidly review and synthesize their responses. These journalist-analysts
check the information provided by public sources, follow up with them,
and pass the vetted information and sources to reporters and editors for
use in shaping our coverage.
A typical request for help, or an e-mailed “query,” goes
out to 500-1,000 people and responses start arriving immediately. We
also invite those in the network to contact us whenever they want with
information, changes they notice in their communities, and story
Several times a month, we gather groups of our sources
to help us think through an issue, such as immigration, health care,
crime or education. Often, we reach out to under-represented groups –
ethnic minorities, youth, religious minorities – to inform our coverage
and deepen our understanding of the stories that matter most in our
The public insight analysts are the connectors that make
Public Insight Journalism a real partnership. They ensure that our
relationships are real rather than virtual. They welcome new people into
the network and send thank you’s to all those who share their
knowledge. They ask follow-up questions and call people. They invite
people to meet with reporters. And, most important, they close the loop,
letting people know when their ideas, contacts and knowledge have
informed our coverage and providing a link to the stories that result.
Serious games as a tool for public partnership
We also complement these more personal requests for
partnership with broad invitations to share knowledge with many
others. We are a pioneer in creating online “serious” games and new
social discussion tools that engage many thousands in public knowledge
sharing and help us gather insight broadly and understand differing
perspectives on major issues.
During the U.S. presidential election, we offer a game called Select A Candidate (www.mpr.org/selectacandidate)
where people can see how their stands on issues match or don’t match
the positions of candidates. The game shows each player the candidate
that most closely matches their positions and then allows players to
compare their matches and the issues they find most important with those
of other players of different ages, U.S. states, economic classes and
American Public Media has created budget games that
allow Americans to create their own budget plans for the government and
compare them with politicians and other players. And we recently created
a game called Consumer Consequences (www.consumerconsequences.org)
that invites Americans to weigh how their lifestyles impact the Earth’s
resources. Our games record the choices and comments of every player
and our public insight analysts study the results to understand how
people think through these issues and to help guide our coverage.
Partnership produces stronger, more relevant reporting
Public Insight Journalism is now a part of our daily
news process, informing our reporting and the choice of stories to
cover. The result has been a greater diversity of voices in our coverage
and an increased ability to spot stories and trends that matter to our
audience. In a world where news organizations face shrinking audiences,
our news audience continues to grow.
And this new journalism of public partnership helps
ensure, first, that news organizations have the most complete
information possible from the widest array of sources. And second, it
can help ensure that news coverage, rather than being disconnected from
the audience, focuses on the stories and issues that matter to them.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and author of the Pressthink
blog, calls this a pro-am model, mixing professionals with amateurs. I
see it as journalism that’s deeply connected to the public it serves.
The future of news
In July 2006, American Public Media created the Center
for Innovation in Journalism to share this model with other newsrooms
and to lead our work in creating genuine partnerships with the
public. Four other public radio newsrooms are now using the Public
Insight Journalism model and we are in talks with other news
organizations to share the model. To learn more about the range of our
work, you can visit the Center’s site at www.americanpublicradio.org/cij.
The old journalism model was built for a culture
with a scarcity of information and connections. Journalists had the
means to distribute news widely… and took on the mantle of deciding what
information people needed, which sources to use, and how to define the
news. That old model of journalism has lost its connection to the
As our societies increasingly face complex problems that
require global understanding and cooperative solutions, the media has a
critical role to play. To save journalism in today’s open-source,
information-sharing culture and to ensure it remains a force for shared
understanding and positive change, we need change. The media alone
cannot do it. We need a new journalism of partnership. And it is coming.
Michael Skoler entered journalism 25 year ago, after leaving the French wine business and buying a book titled How to Be a Freelance Writer. His work in print, radio, and television has received numerous honors.
Fall | Winter 2016