In developing the Leicester Stories project, we will be drawing on the practice of community reporting as a community engagement process. I wanted to share some thoughts about this process, what’s involved and why community reporting is different from news reporting and journalism. Two projects that have inspired this approach have Citizens Eye, which was a trailblazer for participant-led for community media here in Leicester; and more recently the Institute of Community Reporters, which shows how interesting and inclusive community reporting can be, especially using easily available and free to use platforms and media tools I’ve broen this into a couple of section, starting with asking what community reporting is, then asking who can be a community reporter, then considering what kind of community reports get made, and then looking at where community reports get shared. There’s a lot more work to do to fill-in-the-gaps, but our aim is to make regular updates based on what we learn as we get the Leicester Stories project going.
What is Community Reporting?
Neighbourhoods and communities thrive when they can share local stories and news that is relevant to the experiences of people who contribute to a common sense of identity and belonging. Community reporters are volunteers who live within recognisable communities and places, who can gather, sort and share community-focused stories for the betterment of their fellow residents and citizens. Community reporting is a less formal process than professional news production and journalism, in which stories are covered because they are contentious or exceptional.
Community reporting, instead, is tied closely with the ordinary things we experience in our day-to-day lives. The that often get overlooked. Community reporting serves a much-needed social purpose of connecting people and helping them to strengthen their sense of belonging. Community reporting takes many forms, and is defined by being non-professional in its approach. Anyone can be a community reporter, the important thing is that they want to keep their friends, neighbours, and wider community networks, up to date on what’s happening, how people are getting on, and where local events and services that everyone can attend, or use, might be taking place.
Community reporting can be defined both as a process for collecting and distributing stories, and by the type of stories that are shared themselves. The purpose of community reporting is not to set out to expose people, or to uncover hidden truths as a mass media journalist would. Instead, community reporting is about sharing the things that often get overlooked in our communities, but which matter to people as they go about doing things in their neighbourhoods. Community reporting is also about giving the people who are often overlooked a voice, so that they can see themselves in the media, and thereby play a positive role in their community should they wish to.
Community reporters don’t have to be professional journalist with expert skills. While it’s important to be accurate and fair, the sense that we are using media and stories to connect and support one another is more important when it comes to being an effective community reporter. Community reporting is a way for a community to talk about itself. It’s a way for people to interact and keep each other updated on their personal news and what’s going on in their neighbourhood or network. What separates community reporting from some of the negative aspects of social media, though, is that community reporting isn’t really interested in people’s opinions, or their willingness to share those views. Instead, community reporting, when done well, is a space for people to communicate their experiences and to tell their stories.
Community reporters are accountable to the community that they serve. The stories that community reporters share can be deeply personal, or they can be related to what happens collectively when we come together. Storytelling is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to help build a sense of social identity. Storytelling helps us to explain and describe the challenges of social change, and stories help us to create a safe and respectful space where people can share and be heard.
Community reporters often need to think like facilitators and listeners first, who can relate to the feelings that people have for their families, neighbours and the people they get on, or who are like us, who share a common sense of identity. Stories are the glue that hold people together as a society. There are over three-hundred and fifty-thousand people living in Leicester, that means there are over three-hundred and fifty-thousand stories to be told, memories to be shared, feelings to be expressed, and joy to be celebrated.
Who Can be a Community Reporter?
The process of becoming a reporter should be quite simple, and requires only some basic and simple skills. With the increased use of smartphones we now have powerful media capture tools that we can carry with us everywhere we go. There’s no need to invest in specialist equipment, though it might help as we get more experience, and if we are smart about using some simple techniques to capture content and stories that only need a minimum of tweaking and editing, then we can put stories together in ways that don’t mean lots of work. Not everyone has access to or can use a smartphone or computer, but that shouldn’t stop them using different skills to help find and follow up stories.
A good knowledge of one’s neighbourhood, the people who live there, and the events that take place, is a great place to start as a community reporter. It’s more important to collaborate and help one another to find and capture interesting stories, than it is to try and get everything done in high-definition, or looking like it can be on the TV news. The first rule of community reporting is that we capture what we can, however we can, and if we are faithful to the people whose stories we are sharing, then we can always learn to make our next report better.
Community reporting is not about being perfect, but it is about being willing to learn and go along with finding out more about the people we are working with, and ourselves, then we are heading in the right direction. What matters most is building up a sense of trust and mutual support. It’s not about having the best understanding of English, or being able to take perfect photographs, or spend hour editing video sequences. A community reporter keeps things as simple, but as faithful as possible. Pride in our communities is useful, but so is the sense that we want to see our communities improve on their own terms and in their own way.
What Sorts of Reports Get Made?
Community reports are less formal than more traditional forms of news reporting. While they still need to be accurate and fair, they can be creative and open in the way that they get made and the way that they structure the content. It is most important that community reports reflect the interests and the concerns to the people taking part. Those participating in telling the story should decide what the agenda is, and why it is that a story might be told. Rather than using investigative techniques, community reporters will work with people to co-produce what the story is going to be, in collaboration with the people involved.
Community reporters should reflect the fact that it is a privilege to share other people’s stories, especially if they are deeply personal. Being able to guide contributors as to what they might want to share publicly, or express within their friendship circles, needs to be managed sensitively and carefully. A community reporter is guide and facilitator, who collects and repurposes these stories so that other people can learn from them, and use them to learn more about the experiences and the cultures of others. How those stories get told is as important as what gets told, so rather than insisting that they are written to a template of a format, community reporters can be creative about capturing and bringing out the thread of a story so that it might resonate with other people.
The format of the story telling doesn’t work if it is rigid and enclosed, but comes alive when it is open and reflective. Community stories don’t need to follow a traditional or generally accepted path. They can challenge, surprise, invert or discomfort us, if they are authentic and genuine, and represent the respectful and faithful intent of the person sharing their story. Being open to this process requires community reporters to be patient and welcoming listeners, who know when to seek clarity and when to ask people to reflect and look at their experience from a different angle. There is a joy in listening, because if we do it properly, we never know what gifts we will be given and what insight we might gain.
Where do Community Reports Get Shared?
Stories are everywhere, but some stories get repeated and imprinted on our cultures more than others. Some stories are part of the way that we affirm our identity, others are used to exclude people and to marginalise people. The principle of community reporting is to support and encourage people who do not typically get heard in mass media stories, or who are characterised as social problems because of prejudice and discrimination. Community reporters should be aware that they are shaped by their own assumptions, but where they are different from professionalised forms of journalism, they are not driven by those assumptions. The fact that community reporters are volunteers, and they contribute to their media groups as co-producers and collaborators means that they don’t have to play the same games of commercial and corporate news media. Community media reporters are alternative and DIY media activists who are thinking about positive forms of inclusive social change, rather than profit or power.
The Nobel Prize winning physicist David Bohn wrote about the need for more deliberation and dialogue in society. He argued that rather than trying to find an irreconcilable point of truth which forms the basis of all that we know, and which can’t be shaken, we should instead seek to find common points of meaning in our collective interactions. We are all human, and we share similar hopes, dreams and reasons for living. Some of use frame this in a religious context, while others in a secular context, some are driven more by spirituality while others are driven by their assessment of concrete experience.
Our cultures and our expectations of one another are shaped by the mass media. Community reporting creates a space, and contribute to thinking outside of the mass media, as part of an alternative agenda. An agenda that is driven by care rather than gain, an agenda that is focussed on inclusion rather than exclusion, and an agenda that is progressive rather than suppressive. In sharing content on the different platforms they have at hand, community reporters are contributing in a small way to a greater sense of social cohesion and renewal. As the mass media is so often used to pull people apart and to divide people, community reporting offers an opportunity for people to share something positive and joyful, whatever the platform, whatever the format, whatever the level of capability. As John Ruskin argued in the nineteenth century, it is not what we gain that we should concern ourselves when we tell our stories, but what we become in the process.