Looking to Better Serve Your Audience Regarding COVID-19? Read These Tips.


This story was first published on IJNet, an ICFJ project that provides the latest tips, trends and training opportunities in seven languages. We’re committed to providing resources to help journalists in our network produce quality reporting on COVID-19 and other pressing topics.

Reporting on the impact of COVID-19 in your community doesn’t just require listening to trusted medical sources. Hearing from your audience is also essential to better understand what content your readers need, want or find missing from existing coverage. By doing so, your news organization can better serve your community, fight anxiety and even help your outlet in the long term. 

Your newsroom should develop a plan to surface information needs from your community, audience engagement experts said during a recent webinar organized by Hearken.

Engaging your audience with your reporting is not easy, and it takes more than just asking your readers what they want to know about a certain topic. When there’s a crisis like today’s global pandemic, this becomes even more difficult. 

We’ve collected some of the most relevant tips for engaging your audience from Hearken’s online session below:

Criteria for inviting feedback

For your engagement efforts to succeed, you should avoid messages that sound jargony and vague. 

Instead of a general prompt like, “Submit your coronavirus coverage ideas below,” try phrasing the request as a question. For example, “What questions do you have about the city’s coronavirus outbreak? What concerns do you still need answers about?”

Be transparent with your audience, as well, and set clear expectations. Your readers should know what will happen once they submit their questions and feedback. Will you write a story based on their submissions? Tell your readers what to expect.

Hearken Editorial and Community Manager Bridget Thoreson and Engagement Strategist Julia Haslanger shared four key criteria to keep in mind when querying readers. Questions should be:

  • Actionable 
  • Specific
  • Clear about what you’re hoping to receive back
  • Clear about how submissions will be used

Organization is crucial

So, you started getting feedback from your audience. Now what? You have some responsibilities at hand. First, respond. Let people know you’ve heard them, even when you don’t have an answer right away. “You should commit to coming back,” said Thoreson.

As you proceed, make sure to organize and track submissions. Organization goes beyond sorting answers from your audience. It applies to your staff, too. Who will review the incoming responses? Who will oversee processes? Newsrooms should create logical staffing schedules, and build the infrastructure necessary to support shared reporting responsibilities, advised Ashley Alvarado, the director of community engagement at Southern California Public Radio.

When you aren’t reviewing feedback, carry out your reporting and continue to invite further response.

The business side

Your business team should join your efforts, too. If in a position to do so, your newsroom can offer advertising free of charge for content that serves a public need, said Ariel Zirulnick, the director of The Membership in News Fund at The Membership Puzzle Project

“Our business and creative teams offered newsletter ad spots free of charge to any hurricane preparation and recovery initiatives,” Zirulnick explained, referring to her experience at The New Tropic and what the organization learned after reporting on hurricane Irma in 2017

The business team can also let advertisers know what feedback your newsroom is receiving from the audience so that they can change the language of their ads accordingly.  

Your checklist

This adds up to four major steps:

  1. Set your workflow. Designate a point person, discuss roles and track audience questions. Have an idea in mind of what success will look like.
  2. Start your outreach. Refer to the criteria for requesting feedback, and use all channels available to your newsroom.
  3. Start producing stories. Consider creating a roundup post in which you credit audience contributions.
  4. Expand and refine. Explore new outreach channels and invite feedback.

Along the way, reassure your community that you have their back, and be honest about the limitations of your office, said Zirulnick. You can even teach people how to access government websites and interpret information found there themselves, she added.

This isn’t the world’s first crisis, and it won’t be its last. Following these steps can help a newsroom address critical questions now and in the future, while meeting the needs of their readers.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Annie Spratt.

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