Newsletter: Why the most impactful journalism starts with community engagement

A Q&A with gender reporter Emma Jones about her interactive dataset, #cdnviolencedata.

When Discourse Media gender reporter Emma Jones, published #cdnviolencedata, an interactive dataset that displays rates of police-reported violence against women for more than 600 Canadian communities, the impact was immediate.

From B.C. to Newfoundland, journalists across Canada used the dataset to report on gendered violence in their respective communities. As a result, #cdnviolencedata engaged a national network of reporters, sparking conversations that we wouldn’t have been to facilitate on our own.

Anita LiDiscourse‘s director of communities, sat down with Emma to discuss her approach to developing this project, and why the best journalism starts with community engagement:

Anita Li: Describe your #cdnviolencedata project for readers who aren’t familiar with it.

Emma Jones: It’s basically an interactive chart that allows readers to select a Canadian community, and look at its rate of police-reported violence against women from 2008 to 2015. You can also compare any community to the national average, and see how it compares to other communities.

What compelled you to present the data in this format, using the interactive dataset?

We had spent a lot of time requesting the data and a lot of time with Statistics Canada going back and forth, and figuring out what we could and couldn’t get. At the end of it all, what we were left with is a really huge dataset that didn’t mean a lot on its own in a spreadsheet. So, I worked with Discourse COO and former data journalism director Caitlin Havlak who developed an interactive that made it really easy to see what the set said on a community level, which made it much clearer to display and visualize.

We decided to share the dataset at the time because … we felt it had implications for all kinds of communities across Canada, and we wanted other people to use it to spark conversation in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Did you, Caitlin and managing editor Lindsay Sample decide to take this approach in the initial stages of the project’s development, or was it a decision that you made over time?

What we ended up realizing, in the end, was that we had a lot of data that we wouldn’t be able to use on our own. So, I think in terms of our Discourse values, we felt like it was more important to share this data and spark conversations, and share it with other journalists who could write stories about it, and ask questions of it, and ask questions of their communities. We felt like that was more important than keeping the data for ourselves to use and analyze on our own, and we knew that that was out of the scope of what our capacity was. So, it was more like we had this data and we saw an opportunity for collaboration, and sharing it out in this sort of simple format was a way to make it easily accessible for people in all kinds of communities.

The impact of #cdnviolencedata was significant; many local publications ended up using the data to report on stories about gendered violence in their communities. Can you describe this impact in more detail?

We sent a callout to journalists in communities with the 10 highest rates of police-reported violence against women and the 10 lowest rates of police-reported violence. Then we said to them, “Your community appears highly on this dataset and we’d love if you could look into it and find out what’s happening and what’s happening beyond the data, as well.” So, when we shared it with a number of reporters, the dataset ended up sparking a range of new stories, really digging into what was happening in their communities.

We saw responses from east to west. We saw responses from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, as well as from British Columbia and Alberta, and from Quebec and Saskatchewan, so we had a really broad range of reporters telling stories of what was happening in their communities. They were talking to police, to advocates that do anti-violence work and to people who possibly experience violence themselves. It was really great to see the coverage.

Then beyond that, I think we saw a lot of conversations from community members whose communities … showed the most or least violence against women. There was a lot of conversation on Facebook around what this means, where the data falls short, what kind of initiatives are happening in communities where these rates are showing up.

What non-Discourse story about #cdnviolencedata do you appreciate the most? And why?

That’s a really good question. … The story from Penticton was the one that I thought was most interesting. Basically, what the reporter did was he brought together … an RCMP officer and the executive director of the South Okanagan Women in Need Society. So, he brought together someone who does anti-violence work and the RCMP in that area to have conversation, in person, about what was happening with violence against women in Penticton.

At Discourse, we talk a lot about setting the table for different stakeholders to have conversations, and I think it’s rare to actually bring those two groups together to have a conversation, even though it makes so much sense because they’re both working on addressing violence against women from different angles.

The headline that they wrote was, “Stats murky as police report dip in domestic violence,” so they really acknowledged that this data is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. But I just felt like they had a really honest conversation about that, and the reporter was transparent about the process of bringing them together, so I thought that was pretty cool.

Would you approach this project differently if you could do it again? If yes, how?

I don’t know if I would approach it differently, but … I feel like I learned a lot from doing this project. It got a lot more traction than some of the other projects that we’ve done, but in some ways, the lift has been heavier on our end for other projects. I think with this one, it was really interesting because we did do some work on the Discourse end in terms of acquiring this data and doing some stats analysis, but I think the key learning was just that we didn’t have to have all the answers to figure it out before we sent the dataset out and asked other people to weigh in, in terms of journalists and community members.

I think reaching out with some information, but also some questions about, “What does this mean to you? And what are we missing?” was actually what was most effective about it. So I think for me, my key learning was … that not all projects have to be a major feature, that sometimes a piece of data that sparks questions or something like that could be the type of journalism we want to be offering to communities if it contributes to the conversations that are relevant. Right now, around #MeToo and what’s happening in terms of sexual violence being top of the headlines everyday, I think this was something relevant that could add to the conversation that was already happening.

What lessons can other journalists who want to strengthen their approach to community engagement take away from #cdnviolencedata?

Being a small journalism organization in Vancouver, we don’t have a perspective — or a clear perspective — on what’s happening nationally, and local news reporters are really great people to work with in terms of knowing the specifics of what’s happening in their communities. Being able to create a really interesting, mutually beneficial partnership was something I was thinking about a lot through this project, and would like to take forward in my learning. Other reporters could do that, as well, thinking about how can they partner with local news journalists to do investigative storytelling that leverages their knowledge of what they know on the ground to be happening in their communities.

My other learning … is just around really thinking about what can we give to communities that will be useful for them. … We often ask people for their perspectives or their stories and their time, and we don’t often given anything back in return, and I think that’s just the typical relationship that journalists have with communities. But being able to reframe that in terms of thinking about: Is there a concrete service that we can provide to the community? And in this case, it was data that they could then use to spark conversation, or tell a story, or ask more questions. … It could be all kinds of different things in different situations, but I wanted to keep that in mind, moving forward, with other types of projects. …

It was really interesting to think of all the news coverage that we got as sort of like a platform for more community engagement to happen on a local level. That was really interesting to see, and that’s where I started to notice after local reporters published their stories, community members would share it to their Facebook, and it would get hundreds of shares. … So, I think seeing the way that the data traveled and the way that it reached community members was what was really interesting about it.

What upcoming projects are you working on at Discourse?

I’m working on project that will look at gender-based violence in universities.

Is there anything else you want to tell readers?

I publish a newsletter every two weeks on gender issues, and it talks about what I’m grappling with in my reporting, what I’m finding along the way and has lots of opportunities for community to weigh in on what I’m working on. … So, sign up for that if you’re interested in following the work that I’m doing. [end]

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


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