Mapping Your Community's News Ecosystem - Day 1
Session One: March 1, 2010
- Facilitator: Esther Thorson, Missouri School of Journalism
- Scribe: Megan Brownell, Arizona Foundation
Indexing communication needs in your local community means defining the variables you need to look at in order to understand needs and begin the mapping process.
Many scholarly assessments exist about flow, amount and quality of information, which drive many aspects of quality of life. Information is a huge predictor of how well a community thrives – and how well citizens cope – in communities throughout the world. Despite the existing research, we don’t know what all the variables are and how they vary in different communities.
The sample Community Information Needs checklist, (communityinformationneedschecklistfeb10.doc) can be adapted and tailored for local use. Esther Thorson advised individuals to think about answering the questions on the checklist as an average person on the street, rather than through their professional lens.
The first section of the checklist covers Legacy News Channels, also called mainstream media. The danger in the continued disappearance of these channels is that less coverage and less “watchdogging” by the media often opens the door for those in leadership positions to misbehave.
Beyond whether or not these Legacy News Channels exist in a community, it’s important to assess the quality of the news. Most of the special beats are disappearing from major newsrooms, so certain topics are not being covered at all or only at a shallow level.
The next area of the checklist is New Technology Channels. It is critical to know the portion of your population with/without Internet access and whether it’s affordable to all populations. Local school systems have a clear idea of access, while health researchers, universities and the census can help with this data. Local scans using zip codes on broadband provider Web sites are another method of data collection. The FCC has this data and, in fact, just issued a new report a few weeks ago.
One participant commented on the disparity in the definition of “broadband” and said the FCC’s idea is just slightly better than dial-up, which means many still can’t access high-end content. Different definitions and varying methodologies for evaluating access make the data confusing.
The federal government is spending $350,000 to make a granular map of broadband access, and Knight Foundation is funding a study to look at how good a job it is doing. The Knight Commission report discusses the federal government’s definition of high-speed access and suggests to the group that rather than asking technical questions about access (e.g., gigabytes), ask functional questions (can you get streaming video? Do you have Skype?)
The next section of the checklist is Non-News Information, including blogs, citizen journalism and other sources of news not growing out of legacy news channels. These sites foster community dialogue rather than report the news. Issues bubble up from the community, and people can share opinions/perspectives and weigh in with their version. Stories come through an editor but are not vetted for accuracy.
One participant suggests adding a question to the checklist about ethnic news media. New American Media has the most extensive database of ethnic media, but it gets outdated quickly.
The next section of the checklist is Media Literacy, which can be fostered through high-school journalism programs that are disappearing regardless of the geographic or socioeconomic status of the school or neighborhood.
(RESOURCE: the Web site www.myhighschooljournalism.org hosts high school newspapers for free online.)
Young people are using and understanding information very differently from other age groups. For instance, youth spend most of their media time on entertainment rather than receiving information. Knight Foundation has survey data showing that 75 percent of high school students don’t know/care about the First Amendment and think it is acceptable for government to decide what’s in the news. The implication for communities is that without specific education and critical skills, young people have no authority against which to compare the information they receive, giving rise to sensational or largely inaccurate information and ideas.
Newspapers in Education (NIE) programs bring newspapers into schools, and teach media understanding and literacy. Much can be done in classrooms, but instructional time is dominated by the need to teach to exams. And grants to put computers in schools are not enough; teachers need to be trained in how to use them to enhance curriculum and skills.
One participant points out the low quality of media literacy/critical thinking skills being taught in college journalism programs, which results in a more sophisticated media environment with less sophisticated people coming out of schools.
The next section of the checklist looks at Social Capital. Social networks are the main channels where social capital information travels. It is important to measure the extent to which social networks build social capital, and there are 10 indicators created by Putnam to do this.
Online social networks were once believed to erode actual real-world connections, but now they seem to be fostering connections rather than diminishing them. Sites like meetup.org bring people together; yet if people surround themselves in only the digital community, these social networks can keep them physically apart.
One participant notes an online social network for mothers that boasts 3,000 members. This site serves the people in it, but not the broader community.
Thorson points out that the “haves” have big social networks to discuss issues and share information, but the “have nots” tend to lack this access. She noted a new study (limited in scope) showing that the more involved you are in your online social networks, the more involved you are in real-world networks, meaning social capital can grow as a result of online social networks.
The participants cited local examples of information bringing people together:
One participant said her organization struggles with how to get nonprofits to understand the importance of communications/information in meeting their mission (e.g., people can’t seek services they don’t know exist). Mapping is important in addressing this, as it provides visual/statistical representation of trends, needs, resources, gaps, etc., which can be a powerful way to explain the issues.
One participant’s organization took a three-block area of Charleston, W.V., and brought together the neighborhood associations, local businesses and key leaders for a three-year project, giving them $200,000 a year to spend on their three-block area, with the stipulation that they had to agree. A facilitator helped them create a vision for their community, select priority areas and discuss issues such as race, sexual orientation, economic structure, etc. In the end, they created a community center, now have one unified neighborhood association and created a Main Street with a neighborhood newsletter. The group is now raising additional funds.
One participant shared recent work in Long Beach, Calif., on the Connected Corridor Project to bring together eight miles of disenfranchised communities. When the participants first saw themselves as a community, they created an old-fashioned newsletter. Which came first: the sense of community or the cohesion? Is it a lack of community causing the media system to fragment? The group agreed that this goes back to trust as a critical factor. People will share individual and group identities when they trust one another.
Another participant reported conducting a content audit to get his colleagues’ heads around all of the information sources, partners and quality of community information. He notes that while regional indicators projects often have great data, they have no idea how to get people to use it.
Another participant reported on the NOWcastSA project, a collaboration of 25 organizations under the brand of AACIS (Alamo Area Community Information System). Each partner had data residing in databases that were in silos. NOWCast removed the silos, made data available by neighborhood, and has now changed to the NOWCast brand.