Fair Chance Reporting
Fair Chance Reporting is an initiative of the School of Journalism at Michigan State University.
Our students report on the communities around their campus near Lansing, the capital city of Michigan. Their job is to make sure that the people they interview reflect the makeup of those communities.
If journalism is not planned, people are easily missed — by politics, by gender, by age, race or religion. Some marginalized communities say the news media overlooks them. Incomplete coverage usually happens by accident. Journalists do not set out to miss voices or stories. But it takes intentionality to reach everyone.
The journalism students at Michigan State University are trained to cover their communities with that intentionality. They are taught to reach all the groups in a community and to ensure that journalists give everyone a fair chance to share their voice.
To help them achieve that, the students developed methods and used tools to help them see whether they are interviewing people from across the communities they cover. And to ensure that everyone understands their intentions, they named the initiative "Fair Chance Reporting."
UPHOLDING JOURNALISM ETHICS
Journalism is the story of people and community, so it is vital that journalists reflect all the people in a community. That means individuals who know the stories and a representative range of people, too.
Our mission is to teach student journalists to intentionally reach sources that are representative of their communities.
Communities are made up of diverse groups of people. People vary in age, gender, ethnicity, race, religion, income and physicality. Legislation, policies and events affect us all differently. We all have stories, and each of us should have a chance to tell our stories as we see them.
If we fail to capture all the perspectives in our communities, then we cannot tell the complete story. We must seek the opinions and perspectives of everyone — younger and older, Black and White, liberal and conservative. Otherwise, we risk giving a one-sided view of issues and distorting the picture of our community. Reporting on everyone is not just a nice thing to do. Journalistic ethics demand it.
The Fair Chance Reporting initiative provides student journalists with the principles, practices and tools to achieve this mission.
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RESEARCH: Extended Abstract
Diversity Sourcing Tool
Intentions, Self-Observation and Learning
By intentionally engaging the diverse groups that comprise a community, journalists build trust that all people are being represented and informed. This research used mixed methods to learn if a new sourcing tool helps students in real-time to intentionally include diverse sources in their coverage. Preliminary results appear to indicate that the sourcing tool is successful, which could have implications for building trust with audiences and helping journalists analyze sources real time instead of after-the-fact.
Keywords: diversity, sourcing, reporting
By linking several freeware technologies together in a new alignment, faculty and students at our School created a sourcing tool to help students, journalists and newsrooms evaluate the diversity of their sources in real-time to improve community coverage. By intentionally engaging diverse groups, news media can build trust with their audiences that the demographics of their communities are represented in news stories and diverse groups are informed of how issues and events affect them.
The goal of this tool is to help student journalists be deliberate about inclusivity in news stories and improve community coverage to reflect community diversity.
The objective of this research is to find out if the sourcing tool and follow-up discussions are successful in achieving the goal of changing student attitudes and behaviors to become more deliberate in their sourcing.
Some news organizations have shown interest in this tool and are experimenting with it in their newsrooms. The long-term hope is that, if found to be successful, this sourcing tool and discussion suggestions will be available to universities and newsrooms globally as a free, open-source app and website.
The very heart of this research and project is inclusive and accurate journalism.
The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press put forth the Social Responsibility Theory, which maintains that the media have a responsibility to hold high standards of truth and accuracy and reflect the diversity of communities to fulfill obligations within a democratic society (Seibert, Peterson & Schramm, 1956). The Commission declared that people have a duty and a right to information. How citizens choose to become informed is their own choice, but their approval or disapproval of media content is an effective control on news outlets (p.101).
Commission further noted that with context of the times and “given the interdependency of the modern world, it was vital that the press project a ‘representative picture of constituent groups in society,’ avoiding stereotyping and explaining group values and goals as completely as possible” (Blanchard, 1977, p.25).
A lack of diversity in news coverage weakens content and news judgment and undermines news media credibility and survival within an increasingly diverse population. Homogeneity in newsrooms has led to missing stories and points of view (Cobb, 2018), uniformity in choosing stories and selecting sources who are most like the journalists themselves (Arana, 2018, Depina, 2020; Robinson & Bartzen Culver, 2019; Sui et al., 2018).
Implicit bias is unintentional; however, newsrooms’ fair, total community coverage requires intentional action.
News outlets rarely examine source diversity and inclusiveness. When they do, it is usually to track sources after-the-fact, sometimes much later (Bollag & Kumamoto, 2020; Jensen, 2019). Even then, external resources are often needed to call sources about their demographics or ask reporters to remember interviewee data (Bush, 2020; Largey, 2020; Vitaglione, 2020), while others make judgments on demographics using visual cues, words, descriptions and online research (Garcia McKinley & Green-Barber, 2020).
Conversely, our students use this tool in real time to discuss a story’s theme and compare source demographics to community census data to determine if immediate corrections might result in a more comprehensive and inclusive story.
As journalists habitually make intentional decisions to interview representatives of diverse groups, then various audiences may feel more included in the coverage of community issues and events as their voices are heard. As news stories pay attention to inclusiveness, then diverse groups may pay more attention to news stories. Thus, a possible result is that comprehensive, credible journalism would attract more audiences to news products. Trust in the media depends in part on inclusiveness (Schmidt, Heyamoto & Milbourn, 2019; Usher, 2019) and this trust has been attributed and measured as news consumption (Everhart, 2010; Simpson, 2018b; Usher, 2018).
Good journalism reflects diverse voices. A World Journalism Education Congress syndicate on gender and inequity noted that the debate today is how rather than whether journalism educators should train students on matters of diversity and inequity (Geertsema-Sligh, Bachmann & Moody-Ramirez, 2020, p.71). The current project and research respond to their global call regarding several recommendations and the consideration of diversity advocacy in class innovations (p.72).
Another World Journalism Education Congress syndicate also noted that journalism education is key in raising the awareness of future journalists regarding stereotyping and profiling (Ross, Wake & Colisson, 2020, p.75). The current project and research respond to some of their suggested teaching exercises, as well (p.77).
Journalism students are the next generation of professionals in the news media and will set the tone, agenda and direction for the industry’s future. Thus, the purpose of this research is to find out if this sourcing tool and accompanying discussion have been successful in helping students think deliberately about the sources they interview.
We are testing for evidence of success—as defined by students’ awareness and inclusion of diverse voices in news stories to improve community coverage.
The conceptual framework is that if student journalists are regularly using the sourcing tool followed up with discussion and adjustments to coverage or interviewing choices, and then remeasuring progress, then students will intentionally interview diverse sources, and coverage will be more inclusive and more accurately reflect the makeup of a community.
RQ1: Did students’ awareness for accurate and comprehensive coverage improve over time, and if so, then how?
RQ2: Did students improve in their intentional inclusion of diverse sources over time, and if so, then how?
RQ3: Did students become more comfortable in interviewing sources different from themselves, and if so, then how?
The sourcing tool and discussions were used in several reporting classes before this research began and it was tweaked and improved it, depending on students’ experiences using it. Students gathered data points on race/ethnicity, gender, age and political leanings from more than 1,000 sources into a database that generated data visualizations and promoted discussions about sourcing. The sourcing tool and discussion appeared to be successful in improving source diversity, but formal evidence was needed. Preliminary focus groups and class discussions were conducted in preparation for this one-year study. A small pilot study was conducted for pre- and post-tests.
The time frame for the research was three semesters— Spring 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. Subjects included all students in all sections of the required intermediate reporting and writing course for undergraduate journalism majors and a section of a required skills course for master’s students. The independent variable was the use of the tool. The dependent variable was student journalists regularly thinking about interviewing diverse sources.
This quasi-experimental study used nonequivalent groups, which is normal for academic settings that preclude randomization (Mark & Reichardt, 1998) and can be bolstered using control groups and measuring change over time (Pew Research, n.d.; Schweizer Braun & Milstone, 2016).
The study included a triangulation of both qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative methods were focus groups and class discussions with students, student participant observation evidence as to interviewer comfort and sources’ reactions, and open-ended written surveys.
Quantitative methods included a 5-point Likert scale pre- and post-tests administered at the beginning of each semester, before the sourcing tool is introduced, and at end of each semester, after students use it for several months.
In addition, the research each semester included a control group of one section of the course that did not use the sourcing tool and was administered the same pre- and post-tests.
Ongoing Results and Discussion
Data was gathered for two semesters and concludes this month with a post-survey for the third semester.
A preliminary overview of results of focus groups, open-ended questions and a comparison of pre- and post-tests so far indicated that students who experience the sourcing tool and follow-up discussions throughout a semester became more aware that diverse sourcing improves accurate and comprehensive coverage in a community with different constituents. Preliminary reviews also show that students became more comfortable and intentional in interviewing diverse sources.
Closer inspection is needed for categorizing results. And although preliminary percentages were figured for each item in the pre- and post-tests each semester, a thorough examination is necessary for more incisive and conclusive answers to our study questions.
These results show that the sourcing tool is successful in its objectives. It is hoped that the sourcing tool and accompanying discussions will benefit academic institutions, specifically journalism students and instructors when discussing the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the news business. In turn, we hope it will heighten professional journalists’ individual intentions to interview sources that reflect their communities. The collective intentions of journalists should contribute to newsrooms’ improved source representation of diverse groups in a community. An ultimate goal is that news coverage becomes inclusive and meaningful to all members of the community, who will engage with the news media and trust journalists to comprehensively and accurately cover issues and events that affect our lives.
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