Utah senator, Paris Hilton use reporter Jessica Miller’s work to change state’s troubled-teen industry
by Anjanette Delgado
I’d been researching the role of impact producers in journalism (we need more of these, by the way) and documentary films when I came across new legislation in Utah to regulate its troubled-teen industry. The story behind the law involves a journalist, two lawmakers in two states, a celebrity influencer, an activist group and an impact producer all working on the same issue.
Their individual yet connected actions challenge us to think about the roles journalism and funding play in action, the importance of taking the whole system into account and, in the end, what motivates everyone to keep going.
One Sunday night in May 2019, a dozen students began fist fighting at a troubled-teen center in southern Utah. Cops were called. The SWAT team showed up. The night ended in multiple injuries, and more than half of the dozen rioting students were charged.
“We were so reactive to this news,” said Jessica Miller, a reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. She needed to know more, to know what led to the riot. “What could be learned if we were more proactive?”
So she spent the time between then and now — minus what it took and still takes to cover the pandemic — being more proactive about that story. Digging until she uncovered one of the most outrageous stories in her two-plus years investigating Utah’s troubled-teen industry: a girl in zip ties forced to sit in the cold, dirty water of a horse trough.
Back then, in 2019, the troubled-teen industry fell into a gap between beats. Miller started learning more by submitting public records requests. She reported deeply on staff members, and eventually the school with the riot — Red Rock Canyon in St. George — shut down.
She sought out and earned a fellowship in data journalism from the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism that included funding, training and mentorship.
“We started looking at this industry as a whole — how much other states are spending to send kids here,” Miller said.
She filed a large records request. “Inspection reports from the office of licensing,” she said. “$6,000.”
Public records are public, yes, but governments are allowed to charge for the labor and copying costs of satisfying requests. Newsrooms have limited budgets for records or sometimes can’t pay at all.
“We couldn’t pay it,” Miller said. “At first we didn’t do it. We tried to figure out other ways to do it.”
Right around then — in September 2020 — Paris Hilton’s documentary film, This is Paris, premiered on YouTube.
Rebecca Mellinger, a USC grad, is an impact producer working with Hilton. In the documentary, the actress and influencer comes to grips with her own time spent at one of these troubled-teen centers in Provo, Utah.
“I was verbally, mentally and physically abused on a daily basis,” Hilton said. “I was cut off from the outside world and stripped of all of my human rights.”
Hundreds of people emailed Hilton every day, and more posted online.
“All of these survivors are taking to social media in the thousands,” Mellinger said.
Clearly they had momentum — momentum they could use to help stop abuse from happening at these facilities, to help save at-risk children now and in the future, and to support abuse survivors.
Mellinger and Hilton brainstormed a three-pronged approach:
The work is nearly full-time (sometimes they’re busier than others) and has been going on for months. The public awareness campaign is what led her to Miller.
Remember the $6,000?
Miller wanted to use it not just to get the public records but also to build the first free, searchable database of reports on violations at Utah’s troubled-teen treatment centers.
“After doing this work for more than a year or so, getting so many emails from parents asking ‘I want to send my kid to this place, what do you know?’” Miller said, “it showed us how much of a need there was.”
Mellinger asked how they could support Miller’s work, and though they were working on the same issue, journalism’s code of ethics requires keeping an arm’s length distance from those who are trying to influence the news. “She offered to pay but we felt uncomfortable because she's an activist,” Miller said.
Instead, The Salt Lake Tribune launched its first crowdfunding campaign (using MoonClerk) and set a goal of raising $10,000 — the cost of the records plus coding, etc. Miller wrote a story explaining why: “It is easier for a person to go online and find the latest inspection for a restaurant than it is to find reports on whether a youth residential treatment center is keeping vulnerable children safe.”
In less than 24 hours, they raised $11,000 from more than 130 donors, including Hilton.
“When I think about the database, I think it showed us that we can fundraise in this somewhat nontraditional way. … that that’s a possibility,” Miller said. “Clearly there was a need in this community and it was wider than just our subs [subscriber] base.”
The fundraiser took place in October, the records arrived in February, and after some data cleaning the database published in March 2021.
That’s when Miller learned about the horse trough.
It started as a routine police call. In June 2018, a 17-year-old girl living at a treatment center for troubled teens had hit a staff member in the face during a therapy session involving horses. But when deputies arrived at the small ranch in southwest Utah, staff said the suspect was waiting “in the trough.”
Confused, the deputies walked back to the corral. There they found a girl sitting in a tub of dirty water up to her torso. When the girl stood, they saw her hands were zip tied behind her back.
One deputy yelled for a staffer to get her out of the water, according to the police report. Another cut her loose.
The girl told deputies she had tried to run away from Havenwood Academy, a 16-bed treatment center located a few miles from the horse property. When a staffer had tried to stop her, she had thrown a punch, she told them.
By the time the deputies arrived, she had been in zip ties for about 30 minutes, she told them, and in the horse trough for about 20.
— From “A girl, her hands zip tied, was forced to sit in a horse trough,” March 26, 2021.
In the story, Miller quite quickly turns from this incident at Havenwood to the systemic problem of Utah’s approach to regulating the youth treatment industry — investigations, but no individual or institutional penalties.
“It’s kind of been our goal all along, past the riot, (of) trying to tell stories of individual instances and put it in the greater backdrop of industry, particularly in Utah,” she said.
Miller’s editor, Lauren Gustus, shared the story in an email thanking Tribune readers.
“The woman who pioneered putting girls in troughs remained Havenwood’s equine director until she quit of her own volition,” Gustus wrote. “She left around the time Jessica and a small team of journalists published a database that included infractions at Havenwood and elsewhere. This database was created with your support — donors and subscribers helped pay the thousands of dollars in open records fees we had to pay to secure the infraction reports.”
In the meantime, Hilton organized more than 100 fellow survivors in a march past Provo Canyon School. Utah Sen. Mike McKell reached out to discuss legislation, Mellinger said. Sen. Sara Gelser of Oregon, a state that sent some of its foster kids to these centers, including Red Rock and Provo, became perhaps the most outspoken lawmaker. (These aren’t Utah kids, Miller told me. Ninety percent of them are from out of state.)
Finally, in March 2021, Utah passed McKell's bill requiring troubled-teen facilities to be investigated four times a year and to report when they administer medication to a patient. Gov. Spencer Cox signed it, saying “first and foremost, it’s about protecting the lives, especially, of our young people in these programs.” The law went into effect in May, two years after students rioted, less than a year after Hilton rallied in Provo and a little more than three months after it was introduced. It was the state’s first legislation in 15 years to address mistreatment at youth facilities.
“It happened so quickly, but people were ready to talk about it where they weren’t two years ago,” Miller said.
In an April email to readers, Gustus quoted Sen. McKell from the first committee hearing:
“There's a natural tension between the press and the Legislature from time to time. I think Jessica Miller has been fantastic. I don't know where she is in the room, but I think she's done a fantastic job with her investigative reporting at The Tribune, finding some of the failures in the state of Utah. And I think that's to be appreciated.”
Breaking this story down to its parts, we can begin to see how a major industry treating mostly out-of-state kids landed on Utah’s public policy agenda:
“I do hope through this case study of Paris ... (that) anyone with a platform looks at this and does want to pursue something they care about as well,” Mellinger said.
Mellinger and Hilton are working with Breaking Code Silence to get a national bill passed and keep people engaged in the issue through Change.org and email updates. “We’ve really made it a priority to create a coalition of organizations,” Mellinger said.
They still want Provo Canyon School shut down, an early goal of their campaign, but their focus has shifted more toward policy. “We’ve got a long road ahead, but obviously the momentum is there,” Mellinger said.
“An impact producer morphs based on the project,” Mellinger said. “That’s the joy of it. It’s about the solution.”
Miller, for her part, continues to report the stories of abuse and keeps a “very close eye” on whether the new law is being followed. She’s collaborating with KUER public radio and APM Reports on a podcast about her investigation called Sent Away. It will be released in late fall.
“The hard part about this industry as a whole is you can call anything therapy,” she said. “No one’s questioning ‘hmm, is that therapy?’”
That is, no one was.
More: Inside Utah's troubled teen industry: How it started, why kids are sent here and what happens to them
To support Miller’s work and The Salt Lake Tribune, go to sltrib.com/donate.
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
by Anjanette Delgado
The simplest of gestures — someone needed help and someone else offered it — began many years ago in David Rodríguez’s childhood.
Rodríguez, 27, is a multimedia journalist at The Salinas Californian, a local newsroom in a Northern California city known for its lettuce fields and migrant farm labor from Mexico, nestled in a valley called “The Salad Bowl of the World.” He moved to Salinas from Aguascalientes, Mexico when he was 8.
“This project was a long time in the making,” Rodríguez told me as he explained “Living in the Shadows.” “Up until last year, I never got to focus on it due to difficulties I faced growing up as I adjusted to life in the United States with my single farm-working mother.”
His difficulties were the same as the Salvadors, one of two families featured in his project.
Food insecurity. Overcrowded housing. Education inequities.
And “low-paying work that kept my mom away for long hours,” he said. “My life with her motivated me throughout this whole project.”
While his past may have driven Rodríguez to tell their story, it’s his present — his job taking pictures at the newspaper company, Gannett, that includes USA Today — that eventually made a difference for the Salvadors.
The simplest of gestures. Yet to the Salvadors, it meant so much.
“It was the first time I experienced an abundance of food,” said Resi Salvador, 19. “I was shocked.”
Megan Gong, 52, reached out to The Californian shortly after reading the first story and asked if she could donate food to the Salvadors and their daughter Resi, who was featured.
“The Salvadors and I are living proof that journalism changes lives,” Gong told Rodríguez. “It took courage for Resi to share her story with you and if I didn't have a digital Salinas Californian subscription, I wouldn't have read the Salvadors' story and had the opportunity to help a family in need.”
Rodríguez’s project reminds me of the story of “Harvest of Shame,” a 1960 CBS and Edward R. Murrow report documenting the substandard living conditions of farmworkers from Florida to upstate New York. Both relied on the power of visuals to move people to action; “Shame” moved policy makers, while “Shadows” moved individuals.
David Lowe, a producer of the CBS report, told Time magazine this a week after the show aired: “We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation."
To get a better sense of what Rodríguez hoped would happen going into his project and in an attempt to understand why it made a difference amid a global pandemic when so many others are struggling too, I asked him about his process. Here are his answers, with limited editing:
The Salinas Californian published the whole series. Who else, if anyone, reported on these families?
USA Today shared the first story in the series nationwide, which was about food insecurity for low-income farm working families at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
People reached out to The Californian asking how to help. Tell me about that experience and when it happened.
The first person to reach out was a woman from Texas, asking how to help after the food insecurity story was published in USA Today. I was in awe. I couldn’t believe it because that is our hope when we do these stories — that they create this kind of impact when people read them.
That woman sent diapers to the family featured in the story, as well as non-perishable items like chips and peanut butter she thought the children would enjoy. This first donation really helped the family during the start of the pandemic.
Another woman who lives locally reached out shortly after asking if she could provide ongoing donations of food to the family for the duration of the project. Over five months, she dropped off hundreds of dollars of meat and produce so that the family of seven could have nutritious food.
The family was in awe as much as I was because they didn’t think this kind of help was possible. It absolutely helped them survive the pandemic. The simple necessities of food and diapers made them so happy. That’s where the title for the final story, “Our stories have power,” came from.
What other feedback did you receive?
There were dozens of responses, but one quote that really stood out to me was from a respected community leader and longtime Salinas resident, who said:
“Sharing the truth has made all the systems in this community reflect on how they provide service...It has shown us not only where we need to grow as a resource center, but emphasized more importantly the need to lean on these stories to inform policy and practice...So grateful the community has you to capture our voice.”
That meant the world to me, because I’ve seen the struggles of this community firsthand. Growing up, I set out to be a voice for others. I didn’t know that journalism would be my avenue to do that because I picked it up at a late age, but I’m glad I was able to achieve my goal and help shine light on this community.
This problem didn’t require institutional change to solve, just a phone call from one person to another offering to buy food. And yet so many people are hungry in the pandemic, so many people are struggling to meet the most basic of needs. Why do you think these stories made a difference?
Many stories have been written about the pandemic, but the visuals really set these stories apart. There aren’t many local photographers covering the pandemic, so for community members to see the consequences of the pandemic for people less fortunate than them, I think it really hit a note. A lot of people can relate to the struggles of farm-working families, so it makes it easier for some people to help. This is a community that takes care of one another.
Visuals gave a face to hardships of the pandemic. People have heard about the problems farm workers face, but they have not seen their lives up close. Getting a look into their homes made it impossible to ignore the disparities in income, food security, education and housing.
What role did USA Today play in the project?
With the first story, USA Today provided editing support so that it could be the best it could possibly be. With all of the extra eyes, it was a well-written piece with visuals that made an impact. USAT has a national audience, so the story had a platform larger than I am used to. It allowed people from all over the country to learn about the plight of farm workers in California.
What role did CatchLight play?
CatchLight had one of the most important roles. I met with Jenny Stratton, my CatchLight mentor, weekly to discuss the progress of my project. If it wasn’t for her visual editing skills, my photo sequence would not have been as cohesive. When it came to editing photos and arranging them in a thoughtful way, Jenny’s feedback was essential. I also got to meet with the other fellows to get ideas and feedback, so it was a beautiful learning environment that was free of judgement. It allowed me to do my best work.
Has the response from this project changed how you’ll plan future projects? If so, how?
It definitely has. Before this project, I loved photography but I was not comfortable with writing. I really learned the importance of having someone to discuss your project with. Having extra sets of eyes to help you edit will dramatically increase the quality of your work. If I involve my community into my work process, my project will shine even brighter than I thought it could.
This paragraph from a follow-up story to the series, in which Rodríguez shares the impact it has had, stays with me: Resi said she was initially shocked by the outpouring of support and kindness. Today, she said she feels gratitude and confidence in telling her story of being an indigenous woman with farm working immigrant parents. “Our stories have power,” she said. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity that journalism has given me.”
Coronavirus: Feeding the family gets tough when work is threatened
Stretched Thin: Housing plight intensified by COVID-19 pandemic
California essential workers in a silent fight with COVID-19
It took COVID-19 to remedy inequities in Monterey County schools
Follow-up story about impact
'Our stories have power': Stories, visuals bring aid to Salinas families
In partnership with CatchLight, a Bay Area visual storytelling nonprofit organization, this reporter — David Rodríguez — committed to a long-term project documenting the impact of COVID-19 on farm working families in Salinas. The series followed two Salinas families over a seven-month period. Contact Rodríguez at (831) 269-9363 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @visualdavid. Subscribe here to support local journalism.
CatchLight’s impact statement
“Through the medium of visual storytelling, CatchLight exists to create powerful transformations in the way people understand complex issues of justice, tolerance, and the common good. To better understand our impact, we rigorously measure the difference we make across three dimensions: artist impact, community impact, and social issue impact.”
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network that also includes The Salinas Californian. She was the editor of The Californian from 2008-2010. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
Remember my TED.com talk, Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture? Well, a Fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Center, Tomer Ovadia, interviewed me recently about what lessons the news industry might learn from the fashion industry. We discussed the many surprising parallels between the two and where the future might lead. Listen to the podcast now and let me know what you think!
Original Reporting · Ep. 5 – “Start From the Ashes”
by Anjanette Delgado
The first question I ask when talking about impact journalism is, who holds the power?
Who has the power in the story? Who can make change? And who is most affected by that?
Questioning those in power is a no-brainer in investigative reporting—just as strategizing how to reach them should be when designing a story or project for impact.
Cole Goins and Kayla Christopherson think about power, too. But they take a step back and look at the entire system.
How are everyone and everything connected? Who holds the power in the system? And what role does journalism play in that?
You might recognize some of this language: System. Role. Connection.
Goins and Christopherson’s work—at the New School’s Journalism + Design hub in Manhattan, in newsrooms and at conferences—centers on systems thinking. Support comes from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.
“We came to this sort of organically,” Christopherson said when we talked this fall. “My background is not in journalism but in systems thinking—systems thinking to understand complex processes.”
Distributing the power
Systems thinking is a way of analyzing problems and structures by looking at how its interconnected parts relate. For example, your organs work together to digest food. I live in Detroit, where people worked together on the first assembly line to build cars.
One of the most celebrated books on the matter is Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. (If you’d like to dig deeper, I suggest reading it or checking out these additional resources.) Meadows outlines nine leverage points in a system—nine places you can intervene—and ranks them from least to most effective.
Fifth on her list is information flows—how information moves and who has access. That’s where journalism fits in.
“The role of journalism is to provide communities with information,” Christopherson said. “By taking a systems approach to information, you are providing your communities with the most strategic information.”
People can decide what to do with that information, said Goins, who cites the author David Peter Stroh as an inspiration here. “We’re just convening the conversation.”
By focusing on that role, journalists begin to see the power they have in a system, in their communities, and how they can distribute the power by sharing information, by equipping people to make decisions instead of just engaging them.
Christopherson said she’s starting to think, too, of what people do with the information as the end product rather than the journalism itself.
That, she said, was a light-bulb moment.
“When this happens you can be more transparent about what your goals are...and where people see value in your output,” Goins said.
Goins is a journalist who once worked at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a newsroom often cited for its trailblazing work in impact tracking. He thinks of this work as “being more deliberate and active” about our roles as journalists.
With systems thinking, he said, impact is not a single change but whether or how the larger system itself is affected. Equity and inclusion. Root causes. For example, after our corruption investigation the mayor resigned but has our work really helped to change the system to keep this from happening again?
Remember that classic scene in the movie Spotlight where Liev Schreiber/Marty Baron tells the reporters to go after the institution, not the individuals? “Practice and policy,” he says. “Show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges...Show me that this was systemic, that it came from the top down.”
We’re they’re headed
Christopherson and Goins have held about two dozen sessions on systems thinking and journalism, and last summer at SRCCON in Minneapolis was one of their first sessions exploring the idea of journalism and systems change. They spoke again at the People Powered Publishers Conference in Chicago in November.
[MORE: Designing for impact at SRCCON.]
“I’m energized by depth of conversation and questions people are asking,” Christopherson said. “Clearly there’s a space for this kind of work in journalism. [SRCCON] gave us the green light to say let’s go deeper, make this more public.”
Journalism + Design introduces some of these ideas in its classes and for educators, too. The program’s founding director, Heather Chaplin, and Deputy Director Allison Lichter have been fundamental to the work, Christopherson said.
A few directions they’re heading in:
“This is very much experimental,” Christopherson said. “Systems thinking is proven in other fields, but the idea of bringing journalism into that is very new.”
“Everyone in the system has agency,” Goins said. “Part of this is discovery of what power I have to make change.”
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Twitter: @anjdelgado. You can reach Cole Goins and Kayla Christopherson on Twitter at @colegoins and @kaylachristoph.
By Anjanette Delgado
Journalists are good with messes. Problems make for interesting stories with lots of layers, complicated characters and usually thick narrative drama.
Designing for impact, however, sometimes means sweeping the mess aside and clearing a path to action. We talk about information needs; this need is for information that helps me navigate my life.
Take this story about Port Chester, New York:
Gabriel Rom had been on the Port Chester reporting beat for two years when he learned about the village’s election problems.
Port Chester is about an hour north of Manhattan by train. Its people are working middle class, sandwiched between the wealthy communities of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Rye, New York. For more than three centuries, immigrants have been coming there from around the world — first Italy, then Poland, then Portugal and now Central and Latin America. Cross Westchester Avenue north from quaint, upscale Rye and it feels like you’re back in the city again, surrounded by high-density housing and bodegas.
Eighty percent of the village’s school children are non-white Latino, one of the highest percentages in the state.
Voter turnout here hovers at around 10 percent.
Back in 2006, while its people were majority Hispanic, its leaders weren’t. That obvious disparity was the subject of much litigation. In 2009, a federal judge found that the at-large way Port Chester elected trustees — one vote per voter — violated the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the voting strength of Hispanics. In its place the village adopted cumulative voting, a rarely used process where one voter is allowed to cast multiple votes for a candidate.
Now, in 2018 when Rom was on the beat for lohud.com, where I also worked, the village was coming out from under court supervision. Voters had to decide for themselves whether to keep cumulative voting or try something else.
Instinct told Rom this decision was an important story — the community needed his help — but experience told him it wasn’t going to top the Chartbeat real-time analytics dashboard.
“It was an interesting case, interesting history and we’ve got a news hook” — a referendum coming, Rom said. “I saw it as a clear opportunity to connect all this history and background information with a specific news hook.
“This is a story that’s important from a civic education perspective — a story about how our democracy works, a story that needs to be told because it impacts thousands of people. Just because it wasn’t our paying audience didn’t mean it wasn’t a story worth telling.”
“It wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do to ignore the story,” he said.
Clarity: One key decision we made early on was to consult with the Democracy Fund. Josh Stearns, a friend and director of the fund’s Public Square Program, introduced us to their elections expert, Tammy Patrick.
Patrick helped us see that the story wasn’t the mess but helping people understand a complicated voting process that to many, especially those new to the U.S., could sound like some sort of scam.
“Before I spoke to her I was way into the weeds on court filings from decades ago … snowed in on all the material,” Rom said. “This is what led to that explainer piece. It just felt like let’s try and do the work that citizens don’t have the time to do … show people why it matters, not just how crazy it is.”
The Democracy Fund’s interest in the project also gave Rom the support he needed to pursue a project where he knew he wouldn’t be able to use page views as a proxy for value.
“You need confidence as a reporter when you do stories like this,” Rom said. “People saying it was a good story and you need to do it the right way was a good energy booster.”
Collaboration: Another critical early decision was to collaborate with Univision to reach more Hispanics, especially those who speak Spanish. This showed the story was important enough for multiple news organizations to get involved.
“We wanted to hit Port Chester residents but also Hispanic community leaders throughout the state and nation,” Rom said.
“I kind of compare it to a political campaign. You can’t overestimate the power of just getting out and knocking on doors.”
The access was there — in restaurants, etc. — to print and hang fliers, he said. “If we had done that, I feel like the story would have taken a real turn.”
Voters decided, 746 to 429, to continue the cumulative voting method. “It was the least controversial, the most rational” decision, Rom said.
And it was an informed decision.
USA TODAY’s investigation of reverse mortgages helped spark reforms which stand to help 90,000 seniors. “The piece USA TODAY did was important to focus on these issues and it helped put pressure on HUD,” said Sarah Bolling Mancini of the National Consumer Law Center. “For many people, this will absolutely change their lives — allowing them to stay in their longtime home, rather than being foreclosed or evicted.”
Meaghan McDermott, a reporter at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, reported on the tragic drowning death of a 3-year-old boy in a restaurant’s grease trap. A $44 device would have prevented it. Within two days of publication, a state lawmaker said she would amend her proposed law to require the devices. I interviewed McDermott back in 2018 after she investigated the death of another 3-year-old. That investigation was a catalyst for reform of the county’s Child Protective Services department.
It’s nice, and life-affirming, when politicians cite our work in calling for change. The Courier-Journal published an analysis comparing Kentucky’s $24 million settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma to Oklahoma’s $270 million settlement. “Why did Kentucky settle a case for 10% of the amount Oklahoma settled?” Kentucky’s Senate president asked while holding the newspaper. “Why did we have to wait for The Courier Journal to ask a question that we should be asking?” another state legislator said. Here’s the story.
Here’s one for the cyber sleuths: A few hours after popular.info alerted Facebook to a “Police Lives Matter” Facebook page and others run by a Kosovo-based network, Facebook took down every page Popular Information flagged. (h/t First Draft News)
If you have an impact story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network, and the former digital director at lohud.com. Twitter: @anjdelgado. The Democrat and Chronicle and Courier-Journal are part of the Network.
Gabriel Rom is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com, www.gabrielrom.com or on Twitter at @GabrielRom1.
By Anjanette Delgado
Conferences are comfortable places to work out foreign ideas. Free from organizational and political structures back at work, people are more willing to try something new.
In July in Minneapolis, fellow journalist Jun-Kai Teoh and I ran this exercise with other journalists at SRCCON:
SRCCON (a contraction of “Source con”) is a conference for journalists and technologists, and it’s built on the concept of active learning. Instead of panels and lectures, sessions are designed for participation and learning from each other — like when we wondered what journalists would design if we asked them to reverse engineer the story workflow for impact rather than simply publishing.
A newspaper reporter’s typical process is find story → report → write.
But what if instead it looked like this: find story → identify the opportunities for change → report // gather stakeholders // discuss // ask questions // examine the cultural framework that leads to the problem // explore solutions → design for change → impact?
Two discoveries — one surprising and both encouraging — happened when we tried this:
First, this is a very audience-first or, better yet, community-first way of approaching a story. Thinking first about what sort of impact is possible based on the story leads you to think about what’s best for the people involved and who they are. They may or may not be victims. They are definitely affected by what’s happening — whether it’s crime, education, infrastructure, whatever. There’s a ton of overlap here with engagement journalism; we designed events, listening sessions, ways of bringing people from both sides of the issue together for greater understanding.
Here’s what we heard from two of the groups:
“So we had a story about body camera use for Philadelphia police, and in many cases of police interaction with the community, there was no body camera, even if the policy put forth by the police department mandated that there should be. And so sort of the impact we were hoping for is...sort of multi-tiered, starting with making sure that the incidences of having no body camera footage goes down but also starting to address the culture inside the police department of enforcement of that rule. The rule is already there. And then also talking with the community about why that's necessary and helping to...bridge the trust divide between the community and the police.
“And then eventually, obviously, the incidences need to go down of this police abuse and search and seizure and all that kind of stuff, which is the reason they bought the body cameras in the first place. The ultimate impact would be that it stops or goes much lower.”
“Our project had to do with Leon County's crime rate. It's the highest in Florida for the fifth year, despite a dip. And we thought what would be most constructive for creating change, as a result of letting the community know about this issue, is to put it into perspective and look at perception...Rather than reinforcing the perception that this place might be dangerous, and you shouldn't go there, we can look at what is working to actually drive the crime down. Because even though the crime is highest there, it is continuing to fall. And (we can) evaluate what's working to drive the rates down, amplify the solutions, look for opportunities for change.”
Second, talking about the potential impact of a story with others can lead you to question the obvious, question the premise most reporters would start with. Here’s what happened when we discussed the potential impact of a story about bridges in need of repair:
“Our problem was...One in 10 bridges in Michigan were falling apart. So...bad infrastructure. And, like, we first started thinking...well, the obvious impact is...better, safer bridges. Fix the bridges. But then we were, like, wait a minute. Maybe the solution isn't (new bridges). Maybe we don't actually need this bridge. Maybe we need something else. Maybe if there are too many cars, and people want bike paths...We just don't know. So we sort of paused and went ‘we don't have the context. And so let's figure out a way to…instead of trying to decide on what the impact is, maybe the impact is…having the community have a say in that.’ So our solution was to take what data was available about the status of the bridge and go to the local community for some of them…Start talking to those communities and say: How do you use the bridge? How do you feel about this bridge falling apart? And what would you rather have here? Do you want the big bridge fixed? Do you want a bike path? Do you want something else?…But my hope in it was: Instead of just telling the people what to think, let's try to be a bridge for the community to say ‘this is what we want this thing to be.’”
Why is a bridge the only answer? Maybe it IS the answer, but we don’t really know until we ask.
Critically, one journalist also reminded us of the unintentional impact of crime reporting:
“I think it's just as important for us to think about that, as it is to think about intentional impact, particularly when it comes to crime stories, that can so often perpetuate stereotypes and perceptions. And I've been talking to a lot of community members in Oakland, California, who have told me that I avoid the news these days, because it disempowers me. It's just about attacks on my community. And that's the sort of impact that that sort of coverage often has on local communities.”
We’ve published the full slides from the “Designing for Impact” workshop, with sketches of every group’s intended process and comments about the red line between journalism and advocacy, here.
Kai and I would love to try this experiment again with different types of journalists. Would reporters make the same things? Would engagement journalists? Would people who have never been journalists approach this the same way or instead map out a different reporting process entirely?
SIde note: I’ve discovered these two things to be true in my career, too. When I set publishing and byline goals, I falter. My message is discordant. When I instead set a goal of inspiring more journalists to consider impact in their work, my own process changes, I’m open to other strategies, I question the obvious, reach more people and end up learning far more from the great work we do together.
In this edition of impact stories, here are just some of this year’s Online Journalism Award finalists leading to change already:
Oh, and you have to love any announcement of a job promotion (congrautulations, @palewire!) that includes impact.
If you have an impact story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Twitter: @anjdelgado. Jun-Kai Teoh is a journalist and developer at Newsday Opinion working on nextLI, a data research project about Long Island.
By Anjanette Delgado
One of the first things you see when you Google Karisa King is her bio, which ends like this: “Her stories have led to stronger patient protections and uncovered the mishandling of sexual assault cases in the U.S. military.”
I knew I’d like her right away. With just four sentences summing up her 20-year career as an investigative reporter and editor, she used one of them to talk about the impact her work has had on society.
“When I think of investigative reporting and the impact of what we do…I think it’s important to signal to readers in that way that we place a lot of emphasis in terms of social value,” King told me. “Impact can come in many forms, but it usually involves some change for the greater good.”
King now runs the investigations team at the Dallas Morning News. Before that she ran investigations for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for three years, and before that she was an investigative reporter in Chicago and San Antonio.
“Investigative reporting is at the core of our mission as a newspaper,” she said. “We can’t afford to do investigative reporting as a luxury. We have a responsibility to provide a check on power and shine a light on abuse. (The) audience expects to see those stories.”
When one of their stories is a catalyst for change, a reporter will write about it as a follow-up story to the original investigation.
“Again, that goes back to letting readers know we view that as a core part of our mission,” King said. That includes law changes or even bill filings — “anything that is more of a concrete step toward reform or even calls for reform, we write about it.”
John Hancock works with King and runs a team of computational journalists. He’s also hiring for one, and this is listed in the job posting as an essential function of a computational journalist: “Create or monitor metrics reports and other feedback loops to measure project impact.”
I needed to talk to him to know what that means, because as soon as you ask someone other than an investigative journalist what they mean by impact you can run into a wide range of answers. For a guy like Hancock who straddles the worlds of tech and journalism, impact means at least two things:
First, it’s real-world change, like “Pain & Profit,” a 2018 investigation into Texas’ managed care system. On that project, a computational journalist worked with investigative reporters to bring system abuses to light, and now bills to overhaul Medicaid await Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.
Their timing was fortunate, he said. The series published in the months leading up to the biennial session of the Texas Legislature, making it top of mind for lawmakers.
Second, you have his team’s effect on the company business.
“There’s also the impact we have in terms of our newsroom goal of increasing digital subscriptions,” he said. “That’s the metrics side of it. Things that play into that are how many people are using a tool we’ve built or a site that we’ve built.”
Time on site, returning visitors, page views.
“It’s really two sides,” Hancock said.
Computational journalists at the Dallas Morning News work most closely work with the investigative team. They build web apps and data visualizations, and they develop tools to help journalists work faster and more efficiently.
“There’s a real inherent expectation that what you’re working on is going to have some sort of impact on somebody,” he said. “The expectation as a computational journalist working with the investigative team is you’re going to have your hands on something that’s really going to matter.”
Impact can be surprising and unpredictable, and we can debate the extent to which reporters have any control over outcomes.
Nonetheless, the opportunity for real-world change is a factor in green-lighting projects at my newsroom, the Detroit Free Press, and on King’s team.
“The potential for impact is absolutely part of that calculus on the front end for me as an editor,” she said.
“What’s your why? Share it with your audience to sustain your future," by Jennifer Hefty. Reporters at the Fort Collins Coloradoan take a crack at convincing readers why they should become subscribers and fund journalism with their own bios. It reminds me a little of Karisa King’s impact statement.
And an impact story:
The City, the new nonprofit digital news source designed to fill a gap in local coverage of New York City, has notched another early win. From the May 30 newsletter: “You might remember last week how we revealed that a Brooklyn community board bought a $26,000 SUV. The story gained some attention – including from Mayor de Blasio, who called for an investigation.” You can support The City here.
If you have an impact story to share, email email@example.com. Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Twitter:@anjdelgado.
Whether you’re making your case to subscribers or donors or just wanting to know what’s working, now is a good time to start tracking the impact of your journalism. Knowing your page views and monthly uniques is important, but so is being able to show that your investigative work inspired a change in the law or got the shady pol ousted. I’m seeing more and more newsrooms getting into subscription sales and making the case that #journalismmatters and requires investment. They’re not wrong, but I’ll argue it’s stronger communities that really matter and journalism is one way — albeit a necessary way — of getting us there. So let’s track that change and see if we can understand more about what the triggers are. Here are a few tips for getting started:
1. Agree on what types of impact matter to your organization. Real change, social likes? Think of the audience here. What will matter to donors, subscribers, your community? We define impact as “real-world change that happens as a result of our journalism,” and here’s what we track:
3. Talk to your staff about what you’re doing and why. Get buy in from key stakeholders. The investigative team is obvious, but others will see the benefit, too. Remember your editorial board, if you have one, because those folks actually advocate for change and need to know/show whether they’re effective. If Mongeau had just shared a finished list with staff and said “do this,” it wouldn’t have worked, she said. Without buy-in it becomes “just one more thing” we all have to do. Our selling point was that impact offers a balance to pure page view tracking and a more complete assessment of the i-team. If this work doesn’t make our communities better, what are we really doing here? I hear this at farewell parties for colleagues: Mission is what keeps journalists going despite worries about the industry’s future.
4. Get started however you can. The tool doesn’t matter as much as seeing progress, but a good tool makes it easier. We started with a Google Form that fed into a spreadsheet before deciding to invest in software dev; so did The Hechinger Report before switching to CIR’s open-source tracker. (We both knew forms wouldn’t work long-term because spreadsheets get unwieldy quickly, but they helped us refine our list of impacts to track.) Pedro Burgos’ Impacto project uses web scrapers to streamline the work (though that requires evidence of impact to be online, where it can be scraped).
5. Don’t let software stall your progress. Simple may be better for your developer, who probably has a bunch of other projects to get to, and it definitely is for the journalists using it.
6. Share your results with your readers, subscribers, members. Let them know why this matters, how they’ve helped (this is key) and how they can help going forward. How they can help might mean giving money, but it also could mean sharing story tips or calling their government representative.
7. Remember to share this information with marketing, sales and memberships, too. They’re trying to make an effective case for investing in the type of work that makes people’s lives better. At The Hechinger Report, Mongeau said she’s found impact effectively motivates both donors and members to give. Regardless of our business models, we all could use a bit more of that motivation.
Here's some stories from the trenches and their impact:
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. Twitter: @anjdelgado.
Editor’s Note: Changes in the way Americans receive programming have opened up new possibilities for us to see stories created for television around the world. Pamela Douglas, associate professor of screenwriting at the USC School for Cinematic Arts, is author of the seminal book Writing the TV Drama Series, which has been translated for audiences in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, China, Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere. As she prepared its 4th Edition (2018), Professor Douglas decided to include a section on dramas written and produced in other nations for the first time. Read on for insights on what this might mean for entertainment, for the media business, and maybe even for peace among nations.
By Pamela Douglas
Previous editions of my book have been America-centric, and to an extent that’s useful because American shows are known world-wide. Increasingly, though, the global marketplace influences what shows are produced and – of special significance to writers – how they’re written and the kinds of characters and stories they contain. Though tensions may rise between nations, universal human feelings and relationships travel across time and space, and television is our way to connect.
With all the tensions in the world, we can be inspired by the cooperation that grew naturally in Sweden and Denmark when they collaborated to make Broen/Bron. It asks what happens when a body is found on a border bridge, half in Sweden and half in Denmark. The drama was so popular it has been remade in America as The Bridge on FX, set on the U.S./Mexican border, and in UK/France as The Tunnel, set in the Channel Tunnel between the two countries. In all versions, two countries’ police must work together despite cultural differences to solve the crime.
Is this a wave of the future? Peace on Earth through television? Well, we’re not there yet. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Kayti Burt suggests both a caution and a hope:
“In a global marketplace already dominated by English-language content, especially of the American and British variety, could the potential transition into an era of more international co-productions further homogenize the global market? Or will the fact that American and British production entities are bringing their money to other regions with fewer resources mean more diversity in the stories being told to a wider, global audience? … Transnational TV drama co-productions may be a commercial function of a global market, but I still have hope that an increase in more transnational and international stories will be good for the American public. Sure, in a domestic market where more people watch Dancing with the Stars than The Americans, high-end TV drama is not going to change the hearts and minds of a country with isolationist tendencies in an increasingly interconnected world, but — as an art form that specializes in empathy — it might change a few.”
After surveying how television is made throughout the world, my profound realization turned out not about the indigenous shows, but the prevalence of Netflix as a transformative global phenomenon. That’s somewhat true also of Amazon Video, but Netflix really is everywhere, speaking the language of the people. As of 2017 it had over a million paid streaming subscribers and made massive investments in new shows. The company says it spent around $8 billion on content in 2018 alone. According to The Los Angeles Timesin 2017, Netflix now counts more overseas subscribers than domestic ones. For example, the South Korean movie Okja, and the series 3% from Brazil are designed to appeal both to local audiences and viewers worldwide. That’s not to say anyone is rooting for the centralized power that a single platform may provide, however magnanimous.
If our minds are already boggled by the abundance of shows now available in the U.S., imagine what a challenge it is to comprehend the profusion of international television in addition. I’m reaching for a more insightful conclusion than simple “muchness.”
A sprit of global connectivity – humanity beyond borders – has always attracted hope for the future. On a single day in the summer of 1967, the then-new Beatles song, All You Need Is Love beamed around the world by satellite to 400 million people who experienced it simultaneously through a BBC-TV special Our World.
Now in less innocent times, we’re learning to celebrate differences almost as much as unity, and one of the lessons in writing the global portion of the 4thEdition has been the diversity of TV dramas overseas.
Writing the TV Drama Series teaches the craft of professional television writing, but beyond that is something of a mission. I agree with film Critic Walter Iuzzolino who told Emmy magazine, “The wave of cultural conservatism that’s sweeping Western society is strange and unsettling. So now there’s an argument for real windows onto other worlds, other cultures and other societies. More than ever, being isolated culturally is a bad thing.”
The Media Impact Project evaluates a slate of Entertainment Diplomacy programs sponsored by the US State Department. These programs posit that cultural exchange through entertainment is a valuable enterprise, so-called soft diplomacy. We are happy to welcome Professor Douglas to our pages as a guest blogger on the power of media to cross borders. Check out new program The Africa Narrative, which seeks to inspire balanced TV portrayals of Africa and its 54 nations.
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Kean University
Editors note: This article appeared in The Conversation, reposted here with permission and with our thanks for continued insightful research and commentary from the world of academia. At MIP we are interested in finding ways to to promote civil discourse. The breech between anti- and pro-gun proponents seems an excellent place to attempt understanding of "the other" side. Decades of research tells us that media viewing has an affect on our thoughts and perceptions. Perhaps we should all sit down and watch each other's media with open minds...
It was an ordinary day in 2011, when I found myself watching a YouTube video of a gun owner making a semi-automatic rifle discharge bullets rapidly, as if it were an automatic weapon.
My husband, a gun owner, watched firearms videos like this one. But I had never seen one. Intrigued, I sat down on the couch to absorb the imagery.
Hooking his thumb through his pants belt loop, the YouTuber demonstrated how pushing the gun forward, rather than pulling the trigger, allowed the gun’s recoil to “keep the gun going.”
In other words, he was bump firing his rifle.
I’m a criminal justice researcher. At the time, a flurry of thoughts popped into my mind. Aren’t citizens forbidden to own automatic weapons? Is it legal to make a video of a semi-automatic rifle performing like an automatic firearm? What about the 1930’s machine gun ban - is there a YouTube loophole of some sort?
This was 2011, seven years before a gunman at a country music festival in Las Vegas used a bump stock to make his shooting spree more effective and deadly, killing 58 people and injuring 851.
Watching that initial video led me to spend the next five years exploring online gun videos and gun owner communities. It also led to a moderation in my views on gun-related issues – something I believe resulted from the understanding and empathy I gleaned from those videos.
Video opens a window on worldMy exploration would become the book “Guns on the Internet: Online Gun Communities, First Amendment Protections, and the Search for Common Ground on Gun Control,” forthcoming in August 2018.
That first video, and the many videos I would subsequently view, showed me how gun owners could legally share content that, in the case of bump stocks, could effectively render a particular gun control law moot.
A gun enthusiast on how to bump fire without a bump stock.This realization led to the question - is it worth it to pass a law, as Florida recently did, banning the sale of bump stock devices, when people can just make and upload a how-to video of bump firing without the device?
I felt like I had accidentally stumbled onto a secret that was hiding in plain sight.
I also realized that despite being married to a gun owner, I knew very little about gun subculture, either in real life or online. But I could learn.
Guns, part of fabric of lifeFor all the noise around gun control versus gun rights, there was a story that was missed by non-gun owners like me: how much these guns mean to those who own them.
Delving into gun subculture online – which in some, though not all, ways reflects real-life gun subculture – can provide a perspective that may be, for non-gun owners, very different from their own.
Americans live in a time of political polarization on a variety of social issues, gun rights among them. Both gun control and gun rights supporters would benefit from understanding how those with opposing political and social views see their identity and their culture.
Recent data from the Pew Research Center illuminate the extent of gun owner use of the internet and social media. Thirty-five percent of gun owners responding to the Pew survey indicated that they often or sometimes visit websites focused on hunting, shooting sports or guns. Ten percent participate in gun forums online.
Culture and its smaller subcultures comprise the values and behaviors that define a group of people. A related idea is homophily, that is, the desire to connect with others with similar characteristics, experiences and interests. Gun owners engage in this both in real life – for example, by attending gun shows, joining shooting clubs – as well as online.
Gun owners join Facebook groups with words in the names like freedom, liberty, oath keepers and duck hunters. They also join Facebook groups devoted to survival skills, love of the outdoors and hunting and fishing. They post in the comment sections of gun-related blogs. These are just some of the ways that gun owner subculture flourishes online.
Dissing politicians and shooting old computersI learned that gun owners share ideas, images of firearms and videos signaling to other gun owners and the greater online community the accepted norms, values and activities of gun subculture. They use hashtags like #freedom or #2A, for the Second Amendment, on a posting. They post key words and phrases such as “take our rights away,” “Patriot class,” and “lock ‘n load.”
A gun owner shares tactical advice on what to do if you ever encounter zombies.Gun owners showcase their rapid-fire skills with semi-automatic guns; explain how to clean a firearm; complain about political parties and gun control organizations; and compare one type of gun versus another. See, for example, “Glock 17 vs. Ruger SR9.”
I’ve observed that gun-owning YouTubers have a lot of fun filming themselves and their friends shooting all kinds of things – targets, zombies and computers.
I‘ve come to view firearms as part of the fabric of their owners’ lives, complementing other lifestyles such as rural living, hunting and camping.
Previously, I had thought about guns mostly as something dangerous, unnecessary and likely to lead to a homicide or suicide in someone’s home.
Not any more.
I developed some favorite videos and YouTubers. Having peered into a slice of these gun owners’ worlds, I felt a sense of familiarity despite not knowing any of them in person.
This gave me an idea.
If I felt a connection to particular YouTubers and videos, would others experience something similar?
How to bridge a divideRecent research suggests that individuals can form attachments to media personalities whom they do not know in real life.
If feelings of connectedness could be deliberately cultivated among gun control advocates and gun owners, might it be possible to parlay that into better understanding of the perspectives of those on the other side of the gun controversy? Could this lead to a productive conversation about gun rights and gun control in the U.S.?
Some research suggests that it is possible to shift people’s opinions, even strongly held ones, and enhance empathy for others who hold very different opinions.
Other scholarship has connected familiarity with reduced prejudice. So while a total opinion change isn’t likely when trying to bring opposing viewpoints closer, small movement on a seemingly intractable issue might be possible.
Through the process of watching hundreds of videos made by and for gun owners, I find that my views on guns have shifted away from unquestioning support for gun control toward a more neutral, even gun-friendly, perspective.
I’m also much more aware of what I don’t know, including the particulars of all things gun-related (parts, accessories).
The deadlock between proponents of gun rights and gun control is frustrating. To that end, I conclude my book by proposing that both gun control and gun rights supporters watch 100 YouTube videos featuring content from the opposing camp.
Watching their videos helped the author empathize with gun owners. ShutterstockViewers should approach their watching with an open mind. They will see a slice of the other’s life in the context of their world. Here’s a hint for a “starter” video (for gun control supporters) to get the process underway. And for gun rights supporters, this.
Would this video watching experience work?
Take the challenge and find out.
Media Impact Project
A hub for collecting, developing and sharing approaches for measuring the impact of media.