Author, Andrea Wenzel, of Community Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust answers questions about her influences for writing, discoveries and myths she hopes to dispel for readers.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I’ve been worried about journalism’s trust problem since the time when I worked as a journalist, long before 2016. To me the problem has always had two sides. Yes, people may not trust journalists. But I’ve been equally vexed by the lack of trust journalists have had in the public—assuming that professionals should always be the gatekeepers and enforcers of “objectivity.” At the same time, over the years I encountered, and sometimes participated in, promising media projects that seemed to be finding ways to share power with communities. These seemed, at least in small ways, to contribute to healthier dialogue on community issues. I wanted to dig into what makes these scenarios possible and how they might contribute to the health of communities.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
When I went back to pursue my doctorate after working as a practitioner for 15 years, I was initially dismayed by a lack of connective tissue between scholarship and practice. I was exceptionally lucky to find Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her Metamorphosis Project research group at USC that took a change-oriented approach to building and applying communication theory. Their work showed me it was possible to use academic research as a pathway to designing and assessing applied interventions. I have also been influenced by the many community members I had the good fortune to work with as a practitioner, as they crafted their own local and global stories—whether those stories came from Chicago or Sri Lanka. I especially learned from my Afghan colleagues at AEPO who used community-based research to inform how they developed their radio programs that aired in local languages on the BBC in Afghanistan.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I had the opportunity to talk with people who lived in what seemed like very different places and life circumstances in the U.S.—for example in rural areas in Western Kentucky and urban neighborhoods like South Los Angeles. Despite differences in race and political affiliation, I was struck by the similarities in how they expressed their distrust of news media and frustration with how they were represented. For example, in each of these locations, residents said they suspected reporters deliberately tried to interview people who had bad teeth. There was a deep feeling of neglect, disrespect, and distance from power. This made me want to understand if trust-building processes might offer a way not only to strengthen communication within communities, but perhaps down the line, to establish some common ground for dialogue across difference.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
I hope readers will consider letting go of a few myths associated with journalism in the U.S. The first is the idea that trust is something that needs to be “rebuilt.” For many marginalized communities there was never a golden age with relationships of trust with journalists. Mutual trust requires building from scratch. The second is the idea that we should always be seeking to “scale” local journalism interventions. I argue you can replicate a process model of assessing needs and designing interventions, but the actual shape and form of the intervention will be different depending on the community’s needs and assets.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
If we want communities to thrive, we need to create infrastructure for healthy communication to support them. This is different than wanting to “save” journalism for journalism’s sake. Centering communities (especially those that have historically been marginalized) and their needs allows us to reimagine what journalism, or more broadly the sharing of information and stories, looks like. It will, and should, look different in different places.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
Right now, I am solo-parenting a 6-month old so my literature consists mostly of children’s books whose value are judged based on my daughter’s tastes, literally. But when I can, I have a soft spot for podcasts and shows that explore the intersection of food, culture, and race—and escapist British mystery shows.