Research: Journalist connections with disinvested audiences require consistent, fair coverage

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


News media often under-represents certain communities. As a result, members of those communities can understandably feel slighted by media. This notion is supported by Center for Media Engagement research showing that Black Americans across the country as well as residents in the West and South sides of Chicago feel the media under-represents or poorly represents them.

In our latest study, the Center for Media Engagement partnered with Dallas Free Press, a non-profit news source, to explore how Dallas residents perceive the local media landscape.

New research indicates it is in media companies' best interest to invest in developing relationships with people in under-represented communities.
New research indicates it is in media companies' best interest to invest in developing relationships with people in under-represented communities.

The study focuses on the neighborhoods of West Dallas and South Dallas, two divested communities — communities that lack resources because government and society have not invested in them. We surveyed and interviewed residents in these areas to find out how they feel media represents their communities and how they think the media could better serve them. The results revealed several approaches journalists anywhere can take to connect with local communities.

Develop relationships in the community

Many study participants revealed they had never communicated with a journalist. Further, more than one-third of them had never seen a journalist engaging with people in their community. Though this points to a need for more journalistic investment in these communities, simply showing up is not enough to develop a meaningful relationship.

Under the pressure of a deadline, it can be tempting to grab a soundbite and move on. To best serve and understand communities, however, journalists should get to know the area and develop relationships with community members and organisations. One example shared by a participant was of a journalist who asked for a contact number and then regularly checked in to find out what was happening in the community.

Another concern shared by participants was that coverage of their neighborhood was too negative. By developing deeper relationships within the community, journalists will become more aware of potential stories, including those that lift up the residents. In the end, these relationships not only serve the community, but also the reporter.

Be fair and consistent

Participants rated coverage of their own neighbourhood or community as significantly less “accurate,” “authentic,” and “believable” than general coverage by Dallas news outlets. They felt not all areas were covered the same way, particularly areas that were less affluent and more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity.

To address these issues, journalists should take steps to be fair and consistent and ensure certain communities aren’t covered differently than others. Participants suggested using neutral language — avoiding descriptions that might be subjective or evoke certain emotions — while covering contentious situations. They also thought journalists should avoid specifying the race of a Black suspect if they would not specify race for a white suspect.

In addition to carefully considering the language used in coverage, journalists can more accurately represent communities by employing source diversity. Rather than continually relying on one community member, journalists should develop multiple sources in the area.

Be a community resource

Participants wanted news organisations to provide more information about community resources, such as where to get help for local problems or details about events happening in the area. When asked about their interest in a variety of news topics, they rated interest in event coverage significantly higher than coverage of Dallas city government, schools, their neighbourhood, community groups in their neighborhood, or racial injustice.

Addressing these interests provides people with the news they want. It also gives newsrooms an opportunity to cover positive community stories, which can help alleviate concerns that coverage of the area is too negative. These stories also benefit the communities by helping community members connect to each other.

Show empathy

Participants felt that coverage often sensationalised events happening in their community and left out key information about stories. They wanted journalists to focus more on the human perspective when telling difficult stories and urged them to imagine the situation was happening to someone in their family.

The need for empathy also applies when speaking to sources, particularly when covering tragic events. When asking for a quote, journalists should be gentle and keep in mind the person may be deeply affected by the story.

Bottom line

West Dallas and South Dallas residents generally felt news coverage of their communities was lacking, did not accurately represent the area, and did not meet expectations. These feelings represent a larger need for newsrooms to connect with disinvested communities.

The suggestions that arose from the interviews can be universally applied as a way to bridge divides between the media and local residents. In simplistic terms, the approaches suggest that journalists:

  • Develop relationships in the community.
  • Be fair and consistent.
  • Be a community resource.
  • Show empathy.

Journalists interested in reading more about the types of concerns raised in this study (and learning how to address them) can refer to these additional resources:

About Katalina Deaven

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.