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ProPublica Illinois Is Listening

Step 1: Do journalism that’s informed by the people at the center of it. Step 2: Deliver it back to those people. Repeat.

Logan Jaffe/ProPublica Illinois

There’s a Post-it note I keep next to my desk. I scribbled it down shortly after the presidential election, while reflecting on my role as a journalist in the coming years. It reads: Accountability of ourselves.

To me, that means something simple: Be a better journalist. And in my mind, being a better journalist has a lot to do with listening to the people we write about, to the communities we live in, to those whose lives could be changed as a result of our journalism.

It’s in ProPublica’s DNA to think like this: to think and work collaboratively with the community, whatever community that might be, and include it in the investigative reporting process. To show commitment to this ethos, ProPublica created the role of engagement reporter. The goal is to find, build and cultivate relationships that deepen our reporting and better galvanize responses to it.

We’ve launched projects like Lost Mothers and Reliving Agent Orange, where the people most affected by these issues — complications in childbirth and the generational impact of Agent Orange exposure — have led our reporting by sharing their experiences. That, in turn, gave reporters new insights as well as additional avenues of investigation.

We’re investigating hate speech on Facebook, and what better way to do that then to create a Facebook bot — a computer program that, through Facebook Messenger, automatically “talks” with you about hate speech you’ve experienced on the site? The key here: We are thinking about where the community we want to reach actually is.

And, clearly, it’s not always on the Internet. Sometimes, it might mean posting fliers in a neighborhood church or bookstore.

We’re committed to finding people where they are, in a manner that makes sense and is natural to them, to get them involved, contributing to and consuming our journalism.

So as we take on investigative projects, I’ll be creating opportunities and avenues for this work to be informed by the people at the center of it. And after publication, I’ll work to put those stories in front of those who need to read them most, in whatever way I can.

This is how I understand my role as the engagement reporter at ProPublica Illinois. But doing this kind of reporting in Illinois comes with specific challenges. This summer, we put out a call, in partnership with Illinois Humanities, looking for projects that can help us address some of those challenges:

  • Connecting urban, suburban and rural communities. ProPublica Illinois is headquartered in Chicago, but we want to connect with communities throughout Illinois around shared interests, issues and information. We need your help to do that. Questions we’re asking: What’s happening in your part of Illinois? What do you care about? Where does “downstate” start, anyway, and how do you feel about that term? I seriously want to know. Write me: [email protected]. I’ll write back.
  • Reporting with communities that reflect the diversity of Illinois residents. We will fail if our reporting is only relevant to the same group of people over and over. And we will fail if only a sliver of the population can see themselves in our work. That means we need to do more than reach out to communities that are often overlooked or misrepresented. We need to pay attention to who we’re not hearing from and actively find ways to work together.
  • Building trust as a new investigative media entity in the state. Trust is hard to earn. But remember what I said earlier about listening? I meant that. So, if you have something to add to our reporting, tell us. If there’s information or resources you need that you think we can help provide, let us know. If we miss something in our reporting, reach out, because you have a role in keeping us accountable, too. And we’re all ears.

I don’t know how, exactly, to go about addressing all of these challenges. I definitely don’t have all of the answers, but there are a lot of folks doing interesting work all over the state — City Bureau’s Documenters Program, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting’s Listening Posts, the Peoria Journal Star and The Southern Illinoisan, to name just a few — and we hope to learn from them and add our own experiences to the mix. What I am sure about is that journalism driven by community leads to stronger, more engaged journalism. ProPublica Illinois plans to lead with that principle, and doing so can not only lead to more informed citizens, but also a stronger state of Illinois.

If you have questions about this post, or ideas to help us do this kind of work, I want to hear from you. And I’m always looking to learn more about Illinois. Tell me something about where you live. Email me at [email protected].

We’ll be at the People-Powered Published Conference next month talking about engagement and community. Details here.

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