Behind a folding table, next to students selling raffle tickets for a Future Farmers of America fundraiser and a few booths down from a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing pamphlets, isn’t the first place many passersby were expecting to find a reporter. But for two consecutive Saturdays in August, I was out of the newsroom and among the row of community groups at the farmers’ market in Urbana, Illinois as the engagement fellow at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
“Engagement” has been a buzzword in the journalism industry lately, and definitions of engagement often vary from one news organization to the next. At the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, our definition is ultimately about accessibility — whether it’s fostering understanding of issues in the Midwest by making different communities accessible to one another, or by making the seemingly distant, but important, topic of agricultural and agribusiness accessible to the general public.
In order to foster accessibility, visibility is critical. A Listening Post at a local farmers’ market seemed like a fitting opportunity to be directly in a community not far from our newsroom. We wanted our first Listening Post to introduce local readers to our work. But more importantly, we wanted to come back to the newsroom with questions from the community to inform our reporting and get the public involved in our journalism from the outset.
Urbana’s Market at the Square attracts a diverse crowd in terms of race, age and economic background. It’s in no way a representative sample of Urbana, or the state, but it’s a popular free community event open to everyone. We set up at the market with an audio recorder, cards for participants to write their questions and reporter’s notebooks to encourage people to take an active role in documenting the stories happening in their community.
The public was generally curious about our Listening Post, and at first many weren’t sure we were journalists. Some jokingly asked if we investigated UFO sightings, and others (incorrectly) assumed we were affiliated with a church, but many market-goers approached us to learn more.
After a brief explanation of the sort of topics we cover, people were eager to leave questions that sparked their curiosity, and that they hoped we would investigate. Here are just a few of the fascinating responses we received:
“When we watch the rain on the radar, even though it seems to be heading our way, it dissipates as it gets to central Illinois … [I]t’s something of a local joke, our ‘weather shield,’ but does anyone really know why this is happening and what sort of effect it might have on farming here?”
“I wish to know: how clean is the water in Illinois, especially central Illinois?”
“How can the ag industry engage African Americans who suffer from generational trauma regarding farming and working the land?”
“Davis has been holding town halls for big companies making big campaign contributions – has he been doing this for Big Ag?”
“What percentage of tax subsidies are awarded to minority farmers? Provide geographical data.”
“Row crop farmers might be tempted to grow alternative crops – for example, non-GMO corn, or (perennial, I think) sweet sorghum. What would be needed to encourage this? What would be needed re: alternative distribution and storage systems, say?”
Not everyone who visited us left a question. Some stopped by to say they had friends who’d be interested in one of our upcoming public conversations, and others simply wanted to know more about who we are and what we do.
One participant expressed his frustration with how agriculture stories are reported. Although he’s a regular public radio listener, he tunes out stories on this topic. It’s not because he’s uninterested, but it’s because he can’t keep up with all the “ag” acronyms reporters use that the average person might not be familiar with.
While that might not be an exclusive scoop, it’s valuable information that we wouldn’t have received if we hadn’t made the effort to listen. That frustrated public radio listener’s input, along with all the other input we received the past two weekends, is going to help us report on issues that affect Illinoisans in a way that’s useful to them.
In the end, our first two Listening Posts were a success — not because we increased social media followers or newsletter subscribers, but because it allowed us to connect directly with readers. It gave them an opportunity to ask us questions, which will help foster trust and open up lines of communication between our news organization and communities in the Midwest.
My plan is to report stories based on some of the questions we received at our first farmers’ market Listening Posts and to continue holding listening sessions in different locations where we can directly connect with people. Because at its core, journalism is a public service — and before you can serve a community, you have to listen to it.