Tow Report

Mutual Aid and the “Messy Middle”: pushing public radio toward antiracism

September 29, 2021
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Across the U.S., a number of public media stations have been undertaking initiatives with the aim of making their newsrooms and their journalism more inclusive of Black, Indigenous, and people of color and other marginalized communities. These initiatives have taken a variety of forms, including tracking the diversity of their sources; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops and trainings; and community engagement initiatives. 

WHYY public media in Philadelphia has implemented all of these DEI and community engagement projects, some of which I’ve chronicled in a past Tow Center report. One of WHYY’s most recent undertakings tackles a new dimension of the questions of how to make local journalism more inclusive and what role public media can play in this effort. The News and Information Community Exchange, or N.I.C.E., connects “grassroots content creators” for what it calls a “mutual aid journalism collaborative.” According to WHYY, the goal of N.I.C.E. is “to organize, support, and develop grassroots news and information content creators who serve their communities and who, in turn, share content, sources, wisdom, and audiences with WHYY and each other.”. The project is coordinated by a community organizer role, a first for WHYY. N.I.C.E. partners include a mix of community and ethnic media journalists, podcasters, bloggers, and social media influencers. Partners, who receive a stipend, have regular meetings that include skills training as well as discussions about potential collaborations with each other and WHYY.

Since January of 2021, I’ve followed the project, which is funded by the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, as it was formed and launched. I wanted to understand how this initiative fit with WHYY’s wider objectives of building a more inclusive and antiracist news organization. Was the project contributing to WHYY’s efforts to more holistically represent and tell stories with and for communities in its broadcast region? How was it pursuing its even more ambitious stated aim of supporting mutual aid to benefit the broader local news and information infrastructure? How was it navigating expectations, values, and practices in a project that brought together professional journalists from a range of backgrounds with other kinds of community storytellers? What could this effort illustrate about the processes and roles taken by different kinds of change agents pushing journalism toward antiracism — be they working within a news organization or outside it? And what big questions did this work raise about the possibilities of reforming public media versus building it anew?

This report draws on interviews I’ve done with WHYY and N.I.C.E. staff and partners about the project and their experiences with it, as well as WHYY’s larger efforts to create a station that is antiracist and welcoming to intersectional identities. It also shares insights from a series of four online focus groups with WHYY staff and three online focus groups with community members (44 people in total) about their perspectives on the values that guide journalism, and their input on WHYY and the N.I.C.E. project’s work to be more connected with local communities. In what follows I offer an overview of lessons learned from the project’s work to date — both from the innovative ways the project has challenged whose work gets included and highlighted as local journalism, and in the complications it has faced weaving together the worlds of community engagement and reporting. I also reflect on how this effort fits within WHYY’s larger goal of transformation to become a more inclusive and antiracist news organization, and questions that its experiences raise about reimagining public media’s role within local news infrastructures.

Mutual aid for journalism?

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Philadelphia, WHYY’s home city, is no stranger to collaborative local journalism. It is home to Resolve Philly, a journalism organization that since 2016 has been running a solutions journalism collaboration with more than 20 local newsrooms, with partners ranging from large commercial and public organizations (including WHYY) to smaller community and ethnic media outlets. Their work, made possible in part by Philadelphia-based philanthropic foundations that support media, has helped foster a local news system where collaboration is normalized, including in response to pandemic information needs. Resolve has also gone beyond traditional journalistic actors to work with community organizations and “info hub captains.” 

The N.I.C.E. project works within this tradition of collaboration while seeking to integrate the concept of mutual aid, an approach that has blossomed globally in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual aid has a long history in the U.S. outside journalism, particularly among marginalized communities. While many mutual aid projects may provide basic services like food or medicine, they also can have a political dimension, as per this definition by the law professor and activist Dean Spade: “Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.” Spade further outlines how mutual aid fits within a context of social movements that seek to simultaneously dismantle existing harmful systems, provide for people affected by such systems, and build alternative infrastructure to meet people’s needs. According to Spade’s framework, mutual aid is different from reform efforts that tend to co-opt and demobilize people by asserting that “the problem has been taken care of.” Instead, mutual aid contributes to the disruption of harmful systems by connecting people with shared needs or concerns and working to build shared analysis of problems and shared practices. 

The managers of the N.I.C.E. project said they did not think of their approach to mutual aid as political. However, as they described their approach, it was in sync with City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday’s call to apply mutual aid to journalism. Holliday made the case for how principles of mutual aid could be applied, especially in places where “the dominant system of information-sharing” was broken: “Mutual aid efforts suggest a way forward, a new type of newsroom that serves as the nerve center for local information hubs by reflecting and connecting the people it serves, prioritizing lived experience, and disavowing the notion of objective gatekeeping.” Among other things, Holliday’s vision included newsrooms that redistributed journalism skills and collaborated with “nontraditional news sources to reduce a scarcity of resources exacerbated by competition.”

While Holliday shared examples of newer and smaller news organizations applying mutual aid principles, WHYY is a large, longstanding public media institution that has historically had a majority-white staff and a majority-white and socio-economically advantaged audience. Could a project like N.I.C.E. take on the role of disrupting a media system imbued with whiteness — from within an organization that is part of that system? What were the shared needs of N.I.C.E. partners, and what shared analyses and practices were they arriving at? 

A project staff member explained their analysis of the problem N.I.C.E. sought to address: “We know, traditionally, mainstream news organizations have been predominantly white-male-led organizations. This has left a lot of our community out of the conversation.” Most of the N.I.C.E. partners had a mission of serving BIPOC communities, and many were themselves members of BIPOC communities. By cultivating a network of partners connected with BIPOC communities, N.I.C.E. was seeking to build relationships between WHYY and communities of color, while at the same time respecting and supporting the media outlets and individual influencers who were already serving the information needs of BIPOC communities. The objectives of N.I.C.E. diverged from more radical interpretations of mutual aid in that it was simultaneously trying to reform an established institution while also working to support outside actors serving their communities. The N.I.C.E. project’s interpretation of mutual aid emphasized “people working cooperatively to meet the needs of everyone in the community.” Staff suggested the project developed relationships of mutual benefit where “everyone that comes to the table has something to offer.” Grassroots content creators benefited from the access and platform afforded by collaborating with a larger institution like WHYY, while WHYY benefited from the community knowledge and connections of N.I.C.E. partners. They argued that these relationships would ultimately contribute to a more robust local news environment. 

“Real journalism”

One element of the project that was potentially disruptive to journalism systems that reinforced whiteness was the N.I.C.E. project’s efforts to question whose work is considered part of local journalism. While some partners came from professional journalism backgrounds, most did not, and many said they had not considered themselves to be journalists. Managers of the N.I.C.E. project explained that they hoped the project would challenge assumptions people make about what constitutes “real journalism”: 

What does a “real journalist” mean? Someone who just has a journalism degree, or someone who has the trust of the community and provides news? I would say it’s the latter. And the idea that “I’m not objective enough.” No quote-unquote “real journalist” is objective, right? You get into journalism because you want to solve problems and you want to take an issue and make sure that it’s right and bring light to it.” 

Another manager suggested that WHYY’s emphasis on the work of grassroots and nontraditional journalists had the potential to confront harmful assumptions in the journalism industry around who gets to do the work of journalism and how the dominant norm of objectivity is interpreted. They explained that practices around professional gatekeeping often had the effect of forcing BIPOC journalists to justify their own legitimacy:

The assumption is always that the white journalists told it the best, right? … And then the rest of us who got into journalism because we have seen our communities, our families, ourselves left out of journalism … the rest of us have to not just defend our “objectivity” — are we able to really discern if somebody is using us? If somebody is telling us something that’s not true? We not only have to defend our journalism, we have to defend ourselves.

They argued that by expanding who is considered a “real journalist,” the N.I.C.E. project complemented WHYY’s broader work to expand who gets to tell local stories and to be heard on the public media airwaves. 

Collaboration between partners

While N.I.C.E. organizers emphasized that each partner brought something to the table, they also recognized that the partners were all coming from different places. The cohort not only worked in a range of mediums (print, digital, podcasts) and languages (English, Mandarin, Spanish, Vietnamese), they also had different needs in terms of financial and editorial skills, content, and access. For example, some were skilled in securing local advertising, but needed more local content. Others were content creators but wanted to expand their reach to larger audiences. Partners also had a range of resource needs. As a manager of the project explained, “I think that with something like N.I.C.E. you have to take a very boutique, almost à la carte approach.” This meant from the WHYY side of the network, organizers tried to respond to needs that arose from individual partners. For example, for some they provided mentorship and feedback on video production skills. For others, they helped connect partners with access to official press lists. The project facilitated regular professional development opportunities as part of their regular meetings on subjects including grant writing and measuring impact and audiences.

The network also sought to encourage collaboration among N.I.C.E. partners. For example, one of the partners who produces audio programs was connected with a community print and online paper that transcribed and published their audio segments and created graphics to accompany them. The partners also collaborated on a community event focused on efforts to address gun violence. As one WHYY manager explained, the instances where WHYY was stepping back and watching the partners connect was one of the most encouraging elements of the initiative: 

I sense this kind of recognition with each other that “I get you, you get me. We all are doing something a little bit different.” But there is, it seemed to me, a recognition that they all have this thread kind of rolling through them in terms of what they’re trying to do as entrepreneurs, what they’re trying to do for their communities. 

While staff and partners were largely positive about the project, there was an acknowledgement that they were in a building-the-plane-while-flying-it situation. N.I.C.E. organizers explained that their approach to collaboratively building the project with partners had advantages: “We’re trying to get away from this hierarchical structure where these legacy organizations, news organizations, tell community members or tell these content creators what to do.” At the same time, the more fluid, ground-up structure of the project had some inherent inefficiencies, and it could be challenging to establish and maintain expectations. Early on in the project, several partners admitted they were “still not getting the gist of what we’re doing” or what their roles in the project were. Others expressed uncertainty and some skepticism about how they would be able to collaborate or exchange content with partners who worked in different mediums with different production frequencies and different audiences. Several voiced concerns about the amount of time required to attend meetings that were biweekly at first, but which later became weekly to accommodate more sessions. 

One N.I.C.E. organizer acknowledged that because they were trying something new, they were adapting the project as they went along: “Some of the partners have had an expectation that things are more complete than they were.” They explained that because the project was trying to be responsive to a network of partners with different needs, levels of experience, and mediums, it was only around six months in that they were able to develop a framework to make it easier for partners to collaborate, exchange content, and access professional development. The organizer suggested that others considering a similar design process should “be very clear about building whatever you’re going to build with your partners from the ground up, so that they have a clear understanding of the expectations and goals.”

Building relationships and managing expectations

Establishing and maintaining expectations was a constant theme in conversations with N.I.C.E. partners and WHYY staff when it came to how partners saw their relationship with WHYY. WHYY managers were explicit about wanting to avoid the pitfalls that could arise from a larger media organization “bigfooting” grassroots content creators. They emphasized the need to be mindful of power dynamics to avoid being extractive, and to build opportunities for mutual benefit:

We didn’t ask for anything from them upfront other than their participation and their time. And we started with a needs assessment — asking them what they need rather than telling them what we need. And once we understood what they needed, we actively worked towards meeting those short-term needs, and putting a plan into how we answer their long-term needs.

WHYY staff noted the importance of “moving at the speed of trust” and recognizing that N.I.C.E. partners had varied degrees of trust in the relationship: “There are some who have jumped in with both feet, and they’re running full steam ahead. And there are others that are slowly coming to trust WHYY and that it truly will be mutual aid.”

Indeed, some N.I.C.E. partners expressed caution regarding how they assessed the motives of WHYY. As one explained, they wanted to make sure they weren’t being used for virtue signaling or as an “extra arm for promotion in the hood.” Others said they were at least initially taken aback when WHYY asked them to share contact information for community members who could be sources for WHYY. Building and maintaining relationships with people as sources can be sensitive for journalists, who devote care to building trust with community members. But N.I.C.E. organizers suggested that many partners were happy to share the information of community members they thought “deserve a bigger spotlight or a bigger platform.” They said they approached sourcing in a spirit of reciprocity, and that WHYY occasionally shared sources with partners as well. But they acknowledged that they looked at developing sources through N.I.C.E. as a possible metric to measure their success: “How many of these sources that we’ve learned about have actually been used to enhance our journalism?”

Another area where expectations had to continuously be negotiated was around on-air opportunities at WHYY. N.I.C.E. organizers stated that the purpose of the project was to contribute to a stronger local media system and to strengthen partners’ ability to provide for their communities through their own respective outlets. As an organizer explained, “The measure of success is not whether you get something on WHYY’s airwaves or get something published by us. That is not a measure of success at all.” Nevertheless, early on in the project, many partners expressed an expectation that one of the outcomes of participating in N.I.C.E. would be opportunities on WHYY television, radio, or online. As one partner explained, “I hope to be able to provide some content that’s good enough for broadcast. If it gets broadcast, I will have achieved my goal.” Another said they were waiting to see if the project yielded “real opportunities,” which to them meant being an on-air broadcaster: “Can I really have a TV series on WHYY, or are you just shitting me?” Others said they were participating because they had aspirations to create content for WHYY, but were not sure “how open is the door to really connect.” 

While it was not the originally stated aim of N.I.C.E., several partners did produce content for WHYY. Two partners started as freelance contributors prior or simultaneous to the launch of the N.I.C.E. project. This included “The 47,” a series of bilingual stories in English and Spanish that profiled people along a crosstown bus line connecting many of the city’s Latinx communities. Another partner produced “Mad or Nah,” a woman-on-the-street interview series asking residents about timely issues. Three other partners became contributors after the start of the N.I.C.E. project, and others were featured as participants in panel discussions. Several shared their experiences of pitching ideas to WHYY and how they had received mentorship and feedback to help them revise their ideas. A WHYY staff member explained how one partner’s first pitch was something they “thought we wanted to hear,” rather than their own voice. The partner expressed their surprise that, “Wow, they really want my organic stuff.” The process of revising pitches and content could take months, but those partners who did produce on-air content expressed an appreciation for the opportunity and the access that came with it: “Being able to say I’m now corresponding for WHYY has opened a lot of different doors, as far as me getting into media arenas.” 

Despite N.I.C.E. coordinators stating that being contributors to WHYY was not a primary aim of the project, they did speak of those contributions as a measure of success: “Being able to bring somebody into the space and integrating their knowledge and assets into our workflow and programming is really a way of measuring community involvement and participation.” It perhaps is not surprising, then, that six months into the project, expectations about contributing to WHYY were not always aligned: “I find I’m having to reiterate that over and over again, because some of the partners, as many times as you tell them, it’s still … the brass ring that people are aiming for,” said a WHYY staffer.

N.I.C.E. and the newsroom

The N.I.C.E. initiative grew out of WHYY’s larger efforts around building cultural competency within its newsroom’s workplace culture, coverage, and relationships with communities. To address workplace culture, WHYY has undertaken ongoing efforts to increase the representation of BIPOC staff within the newsroom through hiring — going from a newsroom that was 80 percent white in 2016 to 58 percent white in 2021. The station has also conducted a range of DEI trainings. To push toward more inclusive coverage, WHYY implemented an ongoing system for reporters and editors to monitor the diversity of their sources, incentivizing the practice as part of performance evaluations and holding meetings between managers and teams to review challenges and progress. Overall, WHYY reported making gains in representation from sources that were 80.3 percent white when monitoring began in 2017 to 61.6 percent white in 2020.

WHYY has recognized that simply increasing the quantity of sources who identify as BIPOC will not on its own build relationships with BIPOC communities. For this reason, the station has developed a portfolio of mostly grant-funded community engagement projects. In addition to the N.I.C.E. project, other activities put a heavy emphasis on community events and discussions, and also include working with “community curators” with deep community networks, and collaborating with partners such as the city’s public library system. 

The premise of much engaged journalism work is that building stronger relationships between news organizations and communities will allow an outlet to produce coverage that more fully represents communities and which community members can trust. For example, when journalists spend time developing relationships in communities and going to community meetings and spaces outside the confines of deadline reporting, they are more likely to develop a more nuanced understanding of the people and issues that community cares about and wants investigated. However, as at many news organizations, the people whose positions are explicitly devoted to community engagement at WHYY are not the people who are producing the bulk of the station’s news coverage. In recent years WHYY has hired several new positions focused on community engagement, including the N.I.C.E. project and other largely grant-funded efforts. At the same time, the newsroom has undergone budget tightening and has experienced considerable turnover. The union bargaining unit that newsroom staff are now part of reported that 20 staffers had left since the start of the pandemic. While positions are being filled, many reporters and editors complained about feeling spread thin and having less time to spend in communities to produce the “slow-cook stories” when the demand for daily turnaround stories had increased. 

While nearly everyone spoke in positive terms about the station’s engagement work and the N.I.C.E. project, several mentioned perceived resource tensions between designated engagement projects and community-centered reporting: “What is the reasoning behind putting money or funding into community engagement, rather than kind of bolstering up something like what [name of a BIPOC reporter at WHYY] is doing?” said one staffer. Another staff member expressed concern that despite the best of intentions, there was a danger of engagement projects becoming “a performative thing for funders.” While these projects “legitimately brought people in,” they suggested that putting resources into “boots on the ground” news production would be “a different kind of community engagement.”

WHYY managers stressed that they wanted community engagement to be integrated into the work of the newsroom, and saw these resources as complementing news production as opposed to competing with it. As one said, “Community engagement is journalism — and so I don’t like it when it is framed as there’s journalism and there’s community engagement.” Indeed, one of the lead community engagement roles was an editor whose physical desk (when COVID permitted in-person office spaces) was in the center of the newsroom, and who participated in regular editorial meetings. A number of reporters told how they had benefited from the contacts of community engagement staff, who at times reached out to share sources relevant to stories they were working on: “They just have this database in their brains of humans all over the city.” 

Nevertheless, some cautioned that resource challenges prevented them from fully acting on the insights brought by the community engagement team. For example, one editor described being “tired of feeling embarrassed” when they saw the “largely white editing team” as “deer in the headlights” due to resource limitations: 

If you sit in our morning pitch meetings you will hear [the engagement editor] saying, “Well, I think this is an important story to do.” And we’ve all got maybe three reporters, four at the most a piece available on any given day. They’ve all got stories they had planned to do, and [the engagement editor] puts a story in front of us that yes, we know needs to be done. And then it’s like, “Oh, crap, who’s available to do this story?” And we want to do those stories, and I’m just saying it would be nice to have the freedom to not have to have those tense moments, to be able to say, “Yes, we can jump on this right this minute.”

They suggested there was a danger that by prioritizing engagement in the form of events or by working with nontraditional journalists for projects such as N.I.C.E., they ran the risk of overpromising what they could deliver to communities: 

It’s disingenuous … to go into a community to say, “Yes, we hear you,” and then not have the bodies, and to have to constantly rob Peter to pay Paul in order to get equally important stories out there. We’re not picking between a story about a white community and a Black community. Many times we’re splitting hairs between, okay, we want to do this story in this Latino community and this story in this Latino community, and today we can’t do both because we don’t have enough reporters. … It’s not fair to say to people in Willingboro, or Camden, or Upper Darby’s Asian community, or Chinatown, “Yes, we hear you,” if then we can’t back it up with real journalism. 

Staff members said they wished there was a way to communicate to funders that building meaningful relationships with communities required funds for news production as well as community engagement projects and events. This sentiment was echoed by some journalists of color, who said they had joined WHYY with the intention of strengthening relationships with BIPOC communities, but now felt that the time pressures of their job constrained their ability to follow through and left them fearing burnout. Over the course of this study, multiple BIPOC journalists left WHYY, underlining the challenges of not only diversifying newsroom staff but supporting, compensating, and retaining talented BIPOC staff. More broadly, retention and compensation for station staff was a contentious issue. Managers reported multiple staff members, BIPOC and white, had been poached by better-resourced news outlets, and the station was in the process of negotiating a union contract, which was recently signed. During negotiations, tensions were high around disparities in salaries, with the lowest-paid reporters making $50,000 while the station’s CEO made $740,000 per year.

WHYY managers suggested that support for engagement positions added to capacity overall and was not in competition with news production resources. They agreed that of course they would welcome philanthropic support for general operations including news production, but that it was critical that journalists rethink what “real journalism” looks like. This included reimagining daily journalism to integrate community engagement and finding a way to challenge “the culture of feeding the beast.” Otherwise they feared engagement would not happen without funders incentivizing it. 

Newsroom staff suggested that in addition to addressing resource pressures, efforts to integrate community engagement into the general operations of the newsroom would be furthered by strengthening communication among staff as well as with audiences. One staff member cautioned that a number of the initiatives undertaken to build relationships with communities “operate in silos.” Another person explained, “There isn’t always a great understanding about, well, what does the community engagement team do and how can we work with them? And how can we be part of that and participate?” A staffer suggested that it would be helpful to share more about projects with newsroom staff early in the project’s development: “I think we really could prop each other up more, and in a way where everyone across the board benefits, if there were better communication and more strategic planning.” Another staffer illustrated a similar feeling that expectations for ways of working were at times out of sync: “I am being told, ‘You need to get the news out now. Fast, fast, fast, fast.’ And then they are being told, ‘Well, we want community-based journalism.’” They explained that this could complicate efforts like pairing up WHYY staff reporters with N.I.C.E. partners who may not be able to “drop everything” to cover a story at short notice. Managers noted that the process of connecting N.I.C.E. and other initiatives with newsroom operations was a work in progress, and that the community engagement team was taking steps to improve awareness and communication with the larger newsroom staff. N.I.C.E. organizers said they had recently begun to bring in more newsroom journalists to lead workshops on journalism and media skills and for informal introductions in the hopes that more two-way relationships would develop. One newsroom manager expressed optimism about where the work was headed but acknowledged, “I think it’s going to have some growing pains for a while until we figure out the best way to integrate it.”

Connecting with communities through content

One of the hopes of WHYY, and many news organizations undertaking community engagement work, is to strengthen relationships with communities in their region, particularly with BIPOC and other historically marginalized communities. This process was multifaceted — with direct outreach via events and discussion, as well as the hope that circulating content that was community-centered, including content produced by N.I.C.E. partners, would help to build trust and deepen ties.

Tracking the impact of media content is complex. As one WHYY staffer explained, looking at metrics for how some of the highly produced projects that grew out of their community engagement work could be frustrating. They shared the example of the bilingual “The 47” series, which they recognized as excellent journalism, but noted that the “return on investment” was technically low, given that other stories that took less time generated bigger audiences. They wondered if there might be more that they could be doing to integrate stories produced by N.I.C.E. partners into their content strategy: 

We don’t quite know how to put it out there in front of our audience in a way that is gripping and impactful and meaningful to them. And we don’t know how to quite reach outside of our audience to find the right audience in other places that aren’t our backyard or the pool we always fish in. … And so it becomes this weird calculus of like, are we doing this wrong? Are we the wrong people to be doing this? Do we not have the right audience for this? 

They suggested that one way of thinking of it was to consider the project as a “loss leader”: 

It’s a loss leader in the sense that it helps us build our bona fides, it helps us cultivate sources, and it helps us put a stake in these communities so that then over the coming months, if we persist with that, then we’re going to start to actually begin to cultivate real audience there and begin to generate some actual traction. 

I shared a few examples of content produced by N.I.C.E. partners in community focus groups. While focus groups cannot claim to be representative, they did point to the value of exploring beyond quantitative measures of impact. For example, a group discussing the bilingual “The 47” project was largely appreciative after listening to one of the stories about a youth soccer program. One participant said the story was their “favorite type of WHYY story”: “I can’t hear this story anywhere else that I go for community news, and I can rely on WHYY to tell these stories.” 

At the same time, later in the discussion the group discussed whether there was a risk that the story “may not play well for [an NPR] audience”:

Participant 1: I think that was a nice story. I think that it could use a little editing. … Just it was a bit long. I don’t know if we needed all the dialogue of the man, to hear that in Spanish. I think it just could’ve been edited down a bit, maybe not quite so verbose.

Participant 2: I kind of agree that the extended audio clips in Spanish to someone who is tuning in for a quick headline recap on their drive home, that might seem a little verbose, a little long-winded, but I also think that it’s pretty smart, strategically, being that Spanish speakers can be difficult to reach out to in traditional news avenues. And then, if they are flipping through channels and they hear this, they hear their own stories being told in a way that is not framed by a crisis at the border or anything to do with immigration or anything like that. It’s nice to hear that story about something so positive in our own community. 

Discussions with community members also pointed to some uncertainty about who stories like this were “for”: 

It’s kind of like a slice-of-life story, like they used to do back in the ’50s and the ’60s, where they shine a spotlight on someone, a little taste of Americana. And this brings the people watching on television, “Oh, this is how this community is represented. Oh, this is what’s going on in this community.” So the story wasn’t necessarily for the people in the community. I think it was more for the people outside of the community to give them a glimpse at something positive that’s going on in the community.

At the same time, participants in a Spanish-speaking discussion group where residents identified as Latinx suggested the story was “a very good radio program.” They discussed how they appreciated that it focused on a positive initiative in the community. At the same time, participants in the Spanish-language group did not independently bring up WHYY when talking about how they found news and information about their community. 

“The 47” series broke with the conventional format of WHYY by including longer excerpts of quotes in Spanish. But in other ways the format was relatively familiar to WHYY listeners in how it was structured and how it wove together sound, voices of community members, and the narration of a host who was a native Spanish-language speaker. Another series produced by a N.I.C.E. partner took a different approach. “Mad or Nah?” used an extended adaptation of the “vox pop,” where a reporter asks one question of multiple people on the street and then edits them into a montage. The series diverged from the norms of “public radio sound” by integrating sound effects and music and overlaying the presenter, a Black woman who identifies as a millennial, speaking in a high-energy emcee style, referring back to the “Are you Mad or Nah?” question with catchphrases like “Keep your radios locked.” 

Most focus group participants noted how the sound and style of the “Mad or Nah?” segment varied from the traditional “NPR sound.” After listening to an episode about responses to gun violence, some said they found the production style “distracting” and “video game-ish.” One participant cautioned that the use of a sound effect of “the cocking of a gun as a transition from one speaker to another seems very unnecessary and harmful, potentially, to the purpose of the story.” In a focus group with Black residents of the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the presenter was from (some of whom identified as WHYY listeners), participants who were older than millennials suggested that there was a generational disconnect in how the piece was structured. It was inviting adults to answer a question using vernacular most commonly used by teenagers:

It’s not for us as the older generation. It was for the younger generation, because that’s the nuance that they use in order to get them to be able to talk. And sometimes when you older, we don’t know how to get the younger people to talk. But by her going to non-young people with her nuance, that’s where we get like, “Come on. How you going to go ‘Mad or nah?’ Don’t ask me if I’m mad or nah. I’m not 20. I’m not 18, 19. I’m not no 16-year-old. Talk to me like you got some respect.”

Other participants in the group said they found the premise and its emphasis on anger frustrating and sensational: “This goes back to what I was saying about journalism trying to work us up all the time.” Some said they wanted more emphasis on facts and why things were the way they were, or to hear a more solutions-oriented angle about what people wanted to do about problems: 

It could’ve been like, are you mad and upset and what would you do about it? Right? Because the one guy was like, “Well, there are a lot of straw purchases going on. They should have people who are doing straw purchases have to list every gun that they’ve purchased.” I’m like, “That is a really good solution.” So the community members have a lot of the solutions. So if you’re going to poll the community, ask them for how they would start to fix the problem.

In a demographically mixed group of Philadelphia residents, discussion about the “Mad or Nah?” format illustrated a range of ways people interpret the purpose of journalism: 

Person 1: There’s no hard numbers. There’s no people who have any kind of authority on this issue speaking about it. It’s just people who seem despairing and that they don’t know what to do about this issue, but then the journalist themself offers nothing about what to do. There’s mention of straw purchase, but other than that, there’s no framing of the actual issue or framing of what is to be done about it.

Person 2: Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure what asking if someone’s mad about something is … if that’s actually journalism or not. It’s not looking for answers.

Person 3: I’m also not expecting the journalist to have answers because they’re a journalist. They’re posing a question and they’re asking for reactions. I don’t think that a part of what the journalist’s job description is, is to have the solution. I think it’s to highlight the issue. It’s to highlight the problem. It’s to highlight the anger and the frustration and the fear that people are feeling around gun violence. And I think because it may not have been soft on the ear is no reason to discount the actual story within the journalistic attempt.

In the West Philadelphia group, a participant said they interpreted what the presenter was trying to do in a way that was oriented toward action:  

Sometimes “mad” can be used positively. Okay, you’re mad, I’m so mad I’m going to do something about it. … Because sometimes you can turn anger into action. So that was how I interpreted it. That she wanted that kind of response. Okay, you mad, you so mad, what you going to do about it? … That’s what I took out of it when I heard her speak. That it was a call to action.

Notably, in the West Philadelphia group, both community members who were sympathetic to the “Mad or Nah?” presentation style and those who were critical of it emphasized a hunger for actionable information: “We need more people who can boil down very complicated things so the average person can understand. …You do not see that enough on the news. That’s what we need more of. More of ‘Here’s the information, and this is how you can take some action on the information.’” Another participant agreed, suggesting that news outlets should use code switching to communicate issues in familiar terms: “For a journalist to be able to code switch will help include everybody. … Because if they want to include the everyday person, we have to stop talking above their terms.”

This small slice of community perspectives on these segments cannot be taken as representative of WHYY’s entire broadcast area. Indeed, despite the mixed views shared by community members, “Mad or Nah?” segments at times were among WHYY’s most popular social media links. Nevertheless, the issues residents raised illustrate the complexity of building relationships with communities that are not monolithic, and why it is important to look beyond the numbers of BIPOC voices featured in content. Increasing the amount of content produced by and for members of BIPOC communities through community engagement initiatives like N.I.C.E. may help to build connections, but no one personality or format is likely to appeal to all residents of a given BIPOC community any more than any one style would appeal to all white communities. WHYY has an opportunity to create layered and nuanced offerings through a combination of its community engagement initiatives as well as through the content produced by newsroom staff, many of whom want the “sound” of WHYY to shift to “sound like we’re in Philadelphia.”

Reconciling ideals for journalism

WHYY’s work on the “sound” of its content and its larger cultural competency efforts began with a recognition, based on its own research, that historically many residents of BIPOC communities were either not aware of WHYY’s radio station, or did not feel represented by it. Conversations with BIPOC community members in this study suggest that disconnects with these communities remain. As one BIPOC resident said, “Everybody still thinks WHYY is Channel 12 [television] with Sesame Street and there ain’t nothing else on it.” Several N.I.C.E. partners similarly admitted that while they knew WHYY had a television station, prior to the project they were not aware of WHYY’s radio station or what FM frequency it was on. Those who were familiar with it suggested the station had traditionally been seen as an outlet produced by majority-white producers for a majority-white audience: “I don’t think their audience is geared to our demographic.” Another said the tone and style of WHYY had not been “engaging” or “interesting to my generation or my supporters.” At the same time, N.I.C.E. partners were optimistic their involvement with the station could help shift things, and some suggested that WHYY “recently began to serve my community.” 

Among WHYY staff, some also expressed a sense of change in the station’s orientation toward and connection with BIPOC communities. This included staff members who identified as BIPOC, including one who noted that while BIPOC residents they spoke with still may not listen to the radio station, they had noticed more articles shared online and positive sentiments toward the website. Another said they appreciated that WHYY was now “working sincerely and honestly” to represent BIPOC communities more completely. Staff members who identified as white similarly expressed that the station’s efforts to more fully represent BIPOC communities had led to a shift in journalistic practices such as sourcing:

The newsroom has gone through a very significant change. Just as far as the conversation around and intentionality about the diversity of the voices in stories is something that has changed big time. Kind of went from something that I think was not easy for everybody to talk about into something that’s a given now. 

At the same time, many spoke of the need for more work to improve how BIPOC communities were represented both in content and in the newsroom itself.

Overall there was common ground between WHYY staff and community members regarding a recognition that more could be done to build relationships between WHYY and BIPOC communities. However, conversations about how to adjust journalistic practices and the values that should guide this work revealed disconnects and a lack of a shared language. Within journalism circles, for example, it has become more common to critically discuss how the dominant interpretation of objectivity in U.S. journalism may lead to the overrepresentation of white male voices and people in positions of authority, and how this norm can distance journalists from communities. When discussing the values that guide their work, a number of WHYY staff referenced these concerns. However, community members often continued to call for journalism to have “no bias” and to “have both sides of the story.” Examples of “bias” shared by BIPOC study participants included how they believed perpetrators of crimes were depicted differently based on their race, or how they wanted coverage to be more equitable by representing “good stories” as well as problems. It is notable that these critiques are ones that many within journalism circles who are critical of objectivity norms may be sympathetic to. However, while critics of objectivity would argue that such problematic coverage may be a byproduct of objectivity norms reinforcing whiteness, for some community members, the demand for more equitable coverage was tied to a demand for more objective coverage:

The bottom line is put the facts out there and let the public decide. Don’t shape it. Like the story is so shaped a lot of times. It’s the news outlet’s truth and not what the real truth is.

Other residents, however, shared explanations for less than equitable coverage by describing how they understood the positionality of journalists: 

I like to call it the space of understanding. Where I’m standing at is my space. I have to remember that there’s other spaces outside of where I’m standing at. … And that’s how I see journalists. A lot of times when they write, they write from that space that they’re standing in. Forgetting … no, I’m not going to say that they forget, but they choose to not acknowledge the other spaces that are around them.

This community member’s perspective would suggest a resonance with critics of objectivity such as Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young, whose book Reckoning made a case that “situated knowledge — the view from somewhere — can be a form of expertise rather than a bias.” 

Such conversations reveal some of the challenges that can emerge due to a lack of a shared and publicly accessible language to talk about a positive framing of journalism ideals. Even among those who agree with the aim of making journalism more antiracist, there is a lack of a shared framework and vocabulary to express what journalism should be for. Conversations around guiding values for journalism may offer one path to reach some shared grounding in what journalists are striving for, if not “objectivity.” 

Initial discussions about guiding values for journalists among both community members and WHYY staff revealed some shared threads around values such as “care for communities” and “pursuit of equity.” These discussions may also assist news outlets interested in working through how values are prioritized and how they guide work at the company or organizational level. At WHYY, for example, a number of staff members suggested that while they felt there had been a shift toward values like “care for communities” in the newsroom, this was less clear on the business side of the company, including those who had historically been tasked with courting wealthy donors. As one staffer cautioned, “I don’t know that the newsroom and the rest of the building would see eye-to-eye on all of these values.” Similarly, the conversation around values also often led to conversations about gaps between aspirational goals, and how these were operationalized in both their coverage and their workplace culture. As one staff member said, “When I look at the day-to-day, I always question, are we living up to these values?” While our initial set of discussions about guiding values did not bring all participants to a universal consensus, they illustrated the potential utility of inviting practitioners to work through how they connect their day-to-day with bigger-picture questions about the future of the field, and how their work connects back with the communities they seek to serve. 

The messy work of repairing while building

Most of the WHYY staff and N.I.C.E. project partners I spoke with in this study acknowledged that WHYY was engaging in an effort to shift the culture of its public radio station and to develop stronger connections with BIPOC and other historically marginalized communities. Many pointed to ways in which the station’s commitment to antiracism and cultural competency was now infused throughout the newsroom and community engagement initiatives — with a greater representation of BIPOC staff and key editors, with more on-air talent that “sounded like Philadelphia,” and goals for source diversity, cultural competency, and engagement integrated into staff performance reviews. But many also acknowledged that WHYY was at a “messy middle” point in the process:

In order to get to the other side, you got to deal with every aspect of it. … It’s a hot mess. It’s always messy, and people act like change is easy. It gets real dirty before it gets clean again. You know, spring cleaning: everything got to come out the closet and then it gets better. 

Another staff member who identified as Black similarly reflected on contradictions they observed: “In one week, I was greenlit two very Black stories that I definitely wanted to do, and in that same week I was called an affirmative action hire.” They noted that the latter statement came from leadership outside the newsroom, illustrating a potential disconnect between the newsroom’s commitment to antiracism and the need for cultural competency and DEI training across the organization. The staffer added that they had become nonchalant about such observations because they happened “pervasively,” not only at WHYY but at other news organizations they had worked in. Such reflections colored how they assessed the sustainability of WHYY’s cultural competency efforts: “I really want to believe this is forever, and that this is not trendy, but I haven’t really been given a reason to think that it’s not trendy.”

Managers consistently reiterated that the work of antiracism, cultural competency, and community engagement needed to be viewed not in terms of a fixed-term project but in terms of structural change that would make this work become part of the ongoing work and culture of the news organization and its journalism. At the same time, some expressed uncertainty that the commitment to this work was closely tied to the dedication of particular managers, and they were not certain the momentum would continue were they to leave. Others referenced the structural tensions that remained due to the station’s membership-based business model, and assumptions that were made across the organization about how to appeal to potential large donors (who had traditionally been assumed to be white), and how resources were prioritized accordingly. Nevertheless, staff in various roles expressed optimistic sentiments that things were headed in the right direction: “I don’t see it as the flavor of the month here; I see it as something that will persist and become part of the structure of the place.”

The N.I.C.E. project itself reported building momentum. More partners had begun collaborations, more were being featured in WHYY content, and several had arranged content-sharing agreements with WHYY. N.I.C.E. organizers also pointed to achievements partners had made, such as receiving philanthropic grant support, as indicators that partners were benefiting from the project in ways that would aid their own sustainability. At the same time, there were unresolved questions that would require more reflection. One of the key objectives of the project was to strengthen the news infrastructure of the region by supporting grassroots content creators. While the N.I.C.E. project has devoted considerable energy to supporting these creators in meeting their goals as media personalities or news organizations, more research would be needed to understand whether and how supporting these particular creators would ripple out to better serve the information needs of communities. Because the project assumed these creators already had a connection with their communities, in some ways taking the influencers themselves as proxies for communities, there was less emphasis on how N.I.C.E. partners might develop engaged journalism skills or assess those information needs. While the fact that the small group of residents in this study were largely unaware of N.I.C.E. partners’ individual media efforts cannot be taken as representative of the reach of their content, it does suggest there may be room to continue to work on strategies for engaging with communities.

Some partners were undertaking collaborative outreach efforts as part of the project, particularly focusing on events. Going forward, they might build on this work by exploring other ways to strengthen two-way feedback loops to ensure they continue to develop relationships with parts of their community they may not already be connected with. It will be critical when assessing the achievements of this work in the longer term, to gauge impact in a way that centers what is salient to community members, including those who are not WHYY listeners and those who were not already directly tied to the personal networks of N.I.C.E. partners. And, of course, a key unknown for the N.I.C.E. project is whether it will be sustained beyond the period of its current grant funding. The ambitious scope of change the project seeks to achieve will almost certainly require more than a two-year funding cycle. But its early accomplishments, despite their limitations, point to a shift in the role a public media station might play going forward, as one staff member suggested: 

I think it helps democratize journalism, because there’s this tension, I think, among journalists, who’s a journalist and who’s not. And I think it democratizes it: we saw with George Floyd that individual people perform acts of journalism and we need them, and we need to work together, and I think it’s showing that this organization is willing to put that wall down and democratize it in some ways, and deputize connected members of the community to get closer to the community.

The N.I.C.E. project and WHYY’s larger efforts also highlight the complexity of who is tasked with pushing a local news system toward antiracism and inclusive belonging. In this case, actors with various roles in the system saw themselves as attempting to do this work — from the white editors who wanted more reporters so they could cover more BIPOC communities to the BIPOC reporters who wanted more time to engage with and cover such communities and the engagement staff who had to navigate insider-outsider bridging roles seeking to connect communities with the newsroom. There were also the content creators outside the public media newsroom who toggled between targeting content directly to the BIPOC communities they were from, and seeking to represent their communities to a regional public media audience. Each of these categories of actors was generally pushing in the same direction, and the N.I.C.E. project’s mutual aid efforts did encourage collaboration over competition between the community content creators and WHYY. However, within WHYY a sense of scarcity lingered and created a perception of resource competition within the organization. Even if this perception was unwarranted, it underlines the importance of grappling with business model pressures to incentivize antiracist work that is sustainable, and to continue the process of internal dialogue to establish shared values and understandings of what it means to do daily journalism. As one staffer reflected:

I don’t see resistance from people. I think people are on board, and they want to make these values come to life in our work and for our audience. But I do think what’s holding us back from that becoming a reality is just having the time and the resources to do that.

WHYY is not at the end of its work on community engagement or cultural competency. But its experiences in the “messy middle” offer insights that might be valuable to many newsrooms grappling with this work. Among others, these include exploring opportunities to connect with and contribute to the development of mutual aid networks that seek to better support the information needs of a diverse range of communities. Others tackling efforts akin to the N.I.C.E. project should consider their advice to build from the ground up with grassroots content creators — but also to account for the challenges that come with this approach. And many news organizations could benefit from reflecting on how they encourage dialogue among their teams about the values that guide their work, how the work of engagement relates to the work of daily journalism — and how all of this work is funded and supported. 

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about efforts undertaken by WHYY and the N.I.C.E. project to simultaneously repair a public media system imbued with whiteness, while working to build a new, more genuinely public network of local news and information providers. Complicating matters further, the reality may be that any work in news organizations that continue to be majority-white spaces will always be in a “messy middle” at best. There will always be work that needs to be done to counter the influence of whiteness and to work in the direction of antiracism, but the more organizations can implement structures and processes that normalize openly doing this work as a part of daily journalism, the more that messiness may be a space of productive discomfort. 

Andrea Wenzel is an associate professor at Temple University and a former Tow Center fellow. She is the author of Antiracist Journalism: The Challenge of Creating Equitable Local News (Columbia University Press, 2023) and Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust (University of Illinois Press, 2020).

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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