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Covering Climate and the Pandemic: Understanding Audiences

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This is the final installment of a multi-part series describing experiences, lessons, and reflections of the San Francisco public-media based KQED Science news team during a year of reporting on and living through an unprecedented series of disasters.

Covering the pandemic and wildfires of 2020–21 helped redefine reporters’ relationships with and understanding of their audiences, and fostered a more empathetic, responsive and public-service oriented approach to their disaster coverage. During the pandemic, reporters found they were focusing on more than the usual amount of “news you can use” stories. Early on, with so much unknown about how the virus spread and conflicting information (and misinformation) coming from a multitude of health and government officials, an anxious public, uncertain of what to believe, was searching for answers. So news stories that addressed practical questions such as, “Why does hand-washing work? Why should I get tested? What do you clean your house with? and Can you get coronavirus from your pets? resonated with audiences.

This type of reporting strengthened KQED’s commitment to focusing on “audience first.” The scope and impact of the overlapping disasters of the pandemic and catastrophic wildfires reinforced the importance of meeting the public where it was. Station innovations such as a live blog, creating customized content on social media, requests for public input on what to cover, and translation of articles and news reports into Spanish were implemented to expand access of disaster news coverage to the most vulnerable and underserved Bay Area communities. Reporters felt that this disaster reporting strengthened their sense and understanding of public service. When researching and writing their stories, reporters were more conscious about how to make their work more accessible, actionable, and relevant.

I think reporting during these disasters has strengthened my understanding of working for a public media organization. More now than I did before, I think about what would be helpful for people in my community to know about. What would people want to know when they read this story? How can I make it more easily accessible? I feel more of the reporting that we do now is at the service of the public. — KQED Science News team

When covering these twin disasters, reporters were increasingly aware of the importance of being respectful when speaking with victims. The scope of these catastrophes has impacted millions across thousands of different communities, people who have different and profound life circumstances that need to be recognized and put in context.

I think what is different now is the growing number of people impacted by these disasters. I think other disasters have been really helpful in terms of helping us learn how to talk to people who are going through really scary things and how to respectfully talk to people who are going through tragic moments. — KQED Science News team

Journalists believe that the public saw the value of people experiencing a disaster also reporting on it. During these disasters, KQED science reporters, and the news team in general, displayed resiliency and a strong sense of purpose. Living through the disasters themselves helped shape their coverage, and reporters were looking for the same answers that their friends and family wanted to know.

Going through something like this yourself raises your own empathy for what others are going through. You have a greater understanding of the situation. It’s not abstract. — KQED Science News staff

The increasing use of social media as a platform to disseminate and gather disaster information was another factor that impacted the changing relationship between reporters and the public. In many respects, the role of the news media has shifted in recent times from gatekeeping to “gatewatching,” where journalists publicize and share relevant news content rather than focus solely on its production.

Writing for social media, however, requires a communication style and information design unique to the medium in order to optimally capture a reader’s attention. Optimizing the impact of social media was especially critical during disaster coverage. Science News reporters worked with staff from KQED’s Science Audience Engagement team to identify methods for improving reach and relevance of wildfire and pandemic-related stories.

The big issue we were having in science early on was the way our articles were written. There were nuggets in there, but it wasn’t like, “Here are the key takeaways, boom, boom, boom.” We (engagement staff) would work with reporters to pull those out and that’s what we would highlight. We helped the reporters realize that they could organize the writing where certain key elements would pop out faster, certain headlines, headers, etc. This was especially true for the wildfire series. During the pandemic we were working on an article about the elderly and the lack of regulation in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. We made the point that the article needs to say, “Here are the questions you need to ask your loved ones about how these facilities are operated.” If you don’t make an impact on social media, it’s really not getting out there. — KQED Science and Engagement Team

Engagement staff also had an influence on reporters’ increased use of visuals and graphics within their stories. KQED’s own research confirmed that the use of visuals in science articles attracted a greater number of readers, and increased the amount of time audiences would spend with a particular article. Content during the wildfires and pandemic included a greater share of videos and infographics, especially those that addressed important health and safety information such as how to keep your indoor air clean and which masks were effective against wildfire smoke and against COVID-19.

During pandemic and wildfire coverage, reporters gathered information and solicited feedback from the public on topics of interest to them through KQED’s social media channels and platforms such as Bay Curious, a podcast series that explores questions posed by the public. Science reporters credited these eyewitness perspectives in helping their team build awareness of rapidly changing situations on the ground, as well as helping to identify areas most in need of disaster assistance or further investigation.

Facilitating these multidirectional information flows can have positive impacts for communities affected by disasters by helping to raise awareness of the importance of organizing in building resilience against future climate and other disaster events. On the flip side, these types of digital communication may privilege the voices of better-off residents at the expense of poorer ones, who may lack the skills and access to make themselves heard online.

Reporters feel, due in part to this more genuine understanding and connection with their audiences, that the public’s appreciation and awareness of science reporting has also been bolstered.

I think our reporting during the disasters has given the public more understanding and more respect for what we do. I think for some people they may trust the media a little bit more and appreciate what to look for in a good science story — KQED Science News team

I think that at the intersection of science and values is where there’s a huge amount of really fascinating science journalism that is yet to be done. — KQED Science News team

The events of 2020–21 have reinforced that the disasters we are experiencing today are precursors to more dramatic environmental and social changes that the planet will need to confront for a long time to come. The broad scale and speed of these changes, and the need to keep the public informed and safe, are redefining the role and purpose of science journalism and disaster reporting.

For science journalists, this rapidly changing landscape raises questions of accountability, meaning and value. Will their reporting help people deal with instability brought on by disasters? What deeper questions and issues must journalists investigate to better contextualize the impact of disaster events for diverse populations? How can media organizations keep up with the public’s demand for information during these crises? Will accuracy be compromised for speed? How can reporters assure coverage that is equitable and reflective of community needs?

The experiences of the past year have tested journalists. In the process of covering wildfires and the pandemic, the KQED Science team experienced tremendous personal and professional stress. Even though the pressure to produce exposed weaknesses in some of KQED’s management systems, Science News and other KQED staff engineered tools and adopted new methods for engaging with the public, resulting in dissemination of news articles that were more thoughtful, relevant, and actionable for communities under duress.

As the frequency and severity of disasters continue to increase at an alarming rate, newsrooms must be proactive in applying the lessons learned during the past year, and they should lay the foundations for a more responsive and inclusive approach to disaster reporting. This means challenging traditional journalistic practices and norms that limit a reporter’s ability to effectively identify, cover, explain and explore the root causes and long-term impacts of these catastrophic events.

To succeed and be sustainable, all of this, of course, will require a broader culture shift across all media organizations, as well as changes to key workflows and processes. At a time when the public needs relevant, reliable, and accurate information more than ever, nothing could be more important.

This story was originally published by Medium

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