People who live in areas branded as ‘problem communities’ by the media feel disengaged with the news – but hyperlocal citizen journalism offers an opportunity to re-engage citizens. These are the findings of a piece of research from the Netherlands called ‘When News Hurts‘, which measured mainstream coverage of ‘problem communities’ then followed a hyperlocal project which involved local people.
The findings won’t be a big surprise to those running hyperlocal blogs, which often focus on practical steps to improving their area and building civic participation rather than merely telling the stories of failure. But they do offer some lessons for traditional publishers, not just on what they could do better, but on what they’re doing badly in their current coverage – especially the regional publishers who would be expected to provide more ground-level reporting on local issues:
“Remarkably, in spite of being located close to these areas, the regional press hardly differed in their coverage from their national (quality) counterparts […] National newspapers quoted residents in 23 per cent of their larger reports on Kanaleneiland and 35 per cent of their reports on Overvecht. The regional newspaper quoted residents in only 26 per cent of its larger reports on Kanaleneiland and in 24 per cent of its reports on Overvecht. Unexpectedly, 55 per cent of all news items about a nearby elite neighbourhood (Wittevrouwen) used a resident as source.”
The effect of this, says author Irene Costera Meijer, is “social isolation and stigmatization”:
“‘‘It affects you’’, Hafida (age 25, Dutch-Moroccan) said, later adding: I don’t mind it that much, but, well, in fact I do. Simply how they talk about your neighbourhood, where you live. It makes me think like, hey, what’s going on here?
“Most residents expressed their anger about how reporters systematically reiterated cliches about their immediate environment, if not exaggerating them. As Timon de Jager (57) from Overvecht told us: When something gets into the press, it is always because of a problem in some place; it is covered widely right away, and this makes it seem as if the neighbourhood represents nothing beyond that one big problem.
“… One 54-year-old woman, working and living in Overvecht, explained how her husband had to help out every day, because she was too afraid to open her own garage doors after dark. Not until he died, she discovered when walking her dog, that her feeling of being unsafe was based on misinformation, ‘‘on ignorance and the stories by the media and stories by other residents.’”
What residents needed, it seemed, was more constructive and specific reporting:
“When the story devoted attention to crime or an alleged lack of safety, to degradation or loneliness, most residents would like to see them combined with a solution-oriented frame, a positive and upbeat tone, the use of different perspectives (instead of the conventional ‘‘hearing both sides’’) and a recognizable, concrete setting.”
Hyperlocal journalism, then, emerges as a different way of reporting, which requires non-traditional approaches. There’s a useful exploration of how we normally talk about ‘citizen journalism’ as only providing the opportunity to speak:
“Much of the analysis of mediated communication is modelled on a politics of expression, that is, of speaking up and out, finding a voice, making oneself heard, and so on … In our view, attention to the politics of listening provides a means of moving beyond questions of speaking and voice to canvass issues of dialogue and meaningful interaction across difference and inequality.”
And the research looks at the practical importance of hyperlocal media in “familiarizing the unfamiliar”:
“[It] affects residents’ feelings about their physical neighbourhood in a positive way. In line with Poletti (2011), this ‘‘life narrative’’ storytelling contributes to the prevalence of intimacy and affect in the construction of civic engagement. The neighbourhood becomes more their ‘‘own’
“… Taking responsibility for a ‘‘readable’’ neighbourhood means that residents take pains to understand others and to make themselves understandable to others. Silverstone has called this ethos ‘‘media hospitality’’, which he considers the obligation to hear and to listen and to create a space for effective communication, ‘‘obligations which are imposed both on the media-weak as well as the media-powerful’
“… Studies of hyper-local storytelling projects, we suggest, should move beyond thinking about community as a primary good and end in itself. What residents asked from neighbourhood journalists is that their stories facilitated a comfort zone, not by copying professional mediating practices on a hyper-local level, but by directing the source of the pain: mainstream journalisms’ contribution to miscommunication and misinterpretation of one’s surroundings and one’s fellow residents, which in turn contributed to a sense of losing one’s grip on neighbourhood reality. By giving the floor to everyday stories about everyday life by ordinary people living or working in the neighbourhoods, You in the Neighbourhood enabled residents to interpret each other’s behaviour, habits or responses more correctly. Becoming better able to understand their fellow residents made them in turn more predictable while also increasing the neighbourhood’s and residents’ familiarity.”
In conclusion, the writers detail both the advantages and disadvantages of being embedded in the community you are reporting on. Firstly, in terms of quality:
“Creating trust as part of a strategy of ‘‘listening’’ by violating the ‘‘producer/audience boundary’’ seemed to work out well, in professional as well as in community terms. The residents who ended up in a broadcasted TV item were all positive about this approach and had the feeling that their reality was well conveyed. The most personal, original and valuable items were often produced by those neighbourhood journalists who took time to get acquainted with the residents they wanted to interview*reports of which the editor in chief of the regional newscaster claimed to be outright jealous: ‘‘We never managed to get into the trailer camp, let alone get an interesting interview out of a resident.’’ “
But this didn’t, she says, work for every type of story:
“Although residents confided their story much more easily to neighbourhood journalists, not every neighbourhood reality could be shared just as easily. Storytelling neighbourhood seems to be limited in its range of topics (residents as subjects, not objects), news frame (constructive and solution oriented) and tone of voice (optimistic and cheerful). Residents themselves did not always feel free to discuss the seamy side of their neighbourhood, at least not on television, fearing that others would recognize them and turn against them.
“Like other residents, some felt ill at ease to uncover stories of crime or violence, knowing they frequented the same supermarket and the same schoolyards as the ‘‘villains’’. In addition, they found it difficult to present the downside of the neighbourhoods’ reality, without losing people’s trust. It remained difficult to address issues about differences in a non-racist discourse.”
Ultimately, there is a role for both ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ reporting, but a lot to be learned by local journalists both in how their work has an effect at a local level (in some cases their presence actually provoked the violent response that they were there to report) and in the absence of local ‘problem community’ voices in regional media.
There are also some practical applications in planning a productive hyperlocal project – and anticipating the holes in coverage that it is less likely to fill.