Why listening and learning is a crucial part of reporting

The founding editor of La Converse explains her outlet’s unique approach to slow journalism.

Lela Savic Lela Savić  - September 28, 2020

This story was published to mark World News Day. At a time when credible journalism has the power to save lives, build trust, and inform the public’s understanding of an increasingly complex and uncertain world, World News Day is a powerful reminder that journalism can be a force for good — a message that 150 news organizations from around the world intend to celebrate on Monday, September 28. World News Day is presented by The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) and the World Editors Forum (WEF)  — with support from the Google News Initiative.

As we raise awareness about the role of journalists in helping people make sense of the world, let’s reflect on the role it plays in shaping and changing narratives. 

As a Romani woman from the former Yugoslavia, I saw first hand the effects journalists, filmmakers, writers and documentary makers had on the Roma. 

From an early age, I knew that representations of Roma in the media were always done from a very othering perspective, serving the imagination of non-Roma. We were either fascinating non-conforming romantics or criminals. We were objects of dissection, not humans — never part of the audience newsrooms wanted to serve. 

This representation has a big effect on our communities, who often try to hide their identity or feel embarrassed to be Roma.  

But what would it mean for the media if more Romani people became journalists and if we became part of the media audience? How would news about us be shaped and how would policy makers, professors and employers then perceive us?  

In order to be part of that change, I decided to be a reporter. I recently launched La Converse, a new media outlet serving Francophone Canadians. That sensitivity I have about my own community’s misrepresentation is important to better understand other communities underserved by media narratives and to reflect on positionality. Through a community-powered and dialogue journalism approach, we believe we can trigger positive change. 

What does this look like in practice? 

Transparency 

We need to build media that fuels trust. For years we have been told that objectivity is key. Through the biases fueled by the white supremacy that pervades our newsrooms, we have harmed too many communities. Hiding behind objectivity just doesn’t make the cut anymore. At La Converse, we decided to deliberately opt in for transparency without opting out of journalistic integrity. Every story begins with a transparency note from our reporters who tell readers why we have chosen this story, what our process is, what we have learned and what, in retrospect, we could have done better. 

Conscientiousness

In order to develop trust we need to respect the people we speak to and engage with, by taking the time to listen and understand the issues we cover. As Candice Fortman, Executive Director of Outlier Media puts it: “breaking stories is breaking communities”. 

Today, rapid news cycles and limited budgets prevent journalists from delving deeply into stories. We believe in slow journalism and accountability, which serves to develop and deepen relationships with our audience. Through long-form human stories, we have been able to change narratives within a very short period of time. 

The first story we wrote, Nourrir pour réunir, about food solidarity programs that gathered the Muslim community together during Ramadan, featured one volunteer program run by Sister Sabria, who has fed thousands of people over the years. 

That story brought a positive change we could not have foreseen. Written by our reporter Takwa Souissi, it inspired a donation of $60,000 by a French Canadian reader to Sister Sabria. Having read about her in La Converse, he said and wanted to donate money as she “reminded him of Mother Teresa.” In such a divided place as Quebec, where Muslims are often targets of hatred, seeing that act reminded us of the power of storytelling. While not all of our stories will have that much visible impact, they certainly can change how people perceive others and bridge divides. 

Community participation

Journalism is a service that answers needs. This means that newsrooms should be made up of people who come from various walks of life and backgrounds. Our journalism is guided by the needs of the communities we wish to serve. In order to do this, we must rethink traditional approaches to journalism and develop relationships with our audience, but also work with reporters who can develop these relationships. 

I always say our stories don’t begin in our newsrooms, they begin in your living rooms.  Everytime we draft a story we consider its impact on the community we report on. Who are we serving? What does our journalism do concretely for the community we want to serve? We have to do our jobs in a way that we can develop relationships with people and listen to them before writing the stories. 

This approach no doubt requires harder work, but it is our core belief that it is also more impactful. It has real potential for communities that have been disempowered by the media.  

Coming from a community that has been harmed countless times by the media, I really believe this type of journalism is a starting point and a catalyst for reconciliation. For me, the values of transparency, conscientiousness and community participation we put forward ensure that BIPOC and all marginalized people are reported on with integrity. It’s human rights journalism that can bridge divides and foster change. 

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