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Communication and setting expectations

  • Be flexible. Circumstances change. Natural disasters, political unrest, and global pandemics can affect your ability to continue reporting. Communities may change their protocols. Your newsroom’s or editor’s priorities might shift. When faced with unexpected circumstances, you must adapt, shift, start over, or even abandon, while also maintaining constant transparency and communication with the communities you are working in and with the people you are reporting on. Be willing and able to adjust while ensuring that the hard work of building partnerships and trust remains the priority.

  • Share what you know. Information sharing should be a two-way street. When you’re reporting a story, conducting an interview, filming a scene, etc., your job is to gather information, reflections, and life experiences that will inform the story. But there are also a myriad of ways that you can share back. For example, you could share more about what you know about the story already, or the broader topic you are reporting on. This can be a really important tool for creating reciprocity in your journalism. Instead of just taking something away from the interaction (extractive reporting), consider what you might be able to leave behind.

Juan Pablo Garnham said, “what I would always try to do — even if the person didn’t want to talk to me on the record or didn’t want it to be part of the story — would be to offer the information that I know about. I would try to connect them…tell them about the organizations that are in their area. A couple of times I actually had to be a little bit more proactive and do things that aren’t in the definition of the job.”

  • Time is valuable. Let people know how much time you expect from them. Get real about your expectations. We often underestimate how long the work will take and sometimes don’t consider the damage that can result from not communicating clearly about the time, energy, and effort we are asking of people.

  • Explain your job. There is an inherent power dynamic between journalists and their sources. And between journalists and editors. And editors and newsroom leadership. Don’t assume that everyone you speak to understands what journalists do. Take some time before you start an interview to explain what it is you do, what your decision-making power is, and why you are speaking with them.

While working on the virtual/augmented reality film Still Here for Al Jazeera, Zahra Rasool said, “the first thing we actually did was a workshop with the women from Women’s Prison Association. There were over 20 women who we did a workshop with — hearing their experiences, telling them what our intention was, what we wanted to produce — and then, we actually worked with them to write the story.”

  • Explain what you are asking of others. Communicate your intentions by sharing the details of your project, including what your story/project is about, estimated time commitment, and intended format and length of the published piece.