Toward an ethical framework for engagement
Session facilitator(s): Jennifer Brandel, Andrew Haeg
Day & Time: Thursday, 4:30-5:45pm
Room: Thomas Swain
ANDREW: My name is Andrew Haeg and I founded a company called GroundSource.
JENNIFER: I’m Jen and I founded a company called Hearken.
ANDREW: And so this session is for things that are good for us as journalists, good for us as societies, and good for us as communities.
JENNIFER: Yeah, and one of the things before we get started in full, you probably heard what’s going on in the news right now, it’s pretty disturbing so we just wanted to say with that, if any time during the session and you’re like, you know what, I need a break, I need to go outside. You’re interacted, you don’t need to be in here, that’s totally not a problem. Nobody will be offend so we will try to stick in the direction but if we veer in another direction, we’re happy to. So just know that you’re welcome to leave if there’s moments of not feeling “into it” given the news that we heard in the last few hours.
ANDREW: So we’re going to be working in fours today so if you’re in a table of five or six, go redistribute yourselves to another table. So if you’re just joining, we’re going to be doing work in teams of four. If you want to join a table. If everyone is full up. Kind of waiting until everyone trickles in here. Teddy — we can use this table, but he’s live-scribing, which is fascinating to watch. So I’m Andrew Haeg, I’m the founder of GroundSource, using two-way text messaging to build communities and engage communities. And I talk about how to build a reciprocal two-way relationships which is not instinctual when we go into a community so I think of the ethical frameworks of engagement quite a bit and we spend a lot of time initially not about technology but what are you taking out of a community, what are you giving back to the community and how do you make it a fair trade, essentially.
JENNIFER: And I’m Jennifer Brandel and I’m a founder called Hearken and the philosophy is about getting people involved in the decision-making processes in the newsroom. And like Andrew, we’ve run into questions of what’s the role of the newsroom, what’s the role of the public, and we’ve found that there’s no rules set to this brave new world of engagement. As journalists, we’re used to dealing with the public as consumers, we’re not partners or participants and that means we can have a lot of trouble navigating this space. And so today, our goal is to think through what an ethical goal with engaging with the framework look like? We’re not going to solve it today, so that’s why we called it “toward” but we’ll make some headway. And so this is I know an old trope is looking up a word in the dictionary and saying, “What does it mean?” But this is what ethics means. It’s a system of moral principles which defines what is good for individuals and society. So the idea is that if it’s good for the individual, it’s good for society. It’s not always the case but it stands that if it’s bad for an individual, it’s probably bad for society. So as individuals in the newsrooms, we’re intermediaries between societies and we determine societies, how communities think about themselves and how society functions and so it’s an interesting spot that newsrooms find themselves in. And this idea of having a code of ethics, we’re used to dealing with in the public as sources out in the field, but we don’t have one for engagement yet and there’s only a matter of time before we run into lots of lots of problems by not having that guidepost or those frameworks when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is not good for society. So as I said before, newsrooms are kind of this one way in which the public consumers information. And when we’re working with the public not as a consumer anymore, but maybe as a character of a story, we may be working with them as a supplier for information for an investigation, or as a contributor of skills. Maybe we’re working with them as a person who has actually the power to shape the editorial narrative, that we’re inviting them to do that. Or we’re maybe a whistleblower. I always try to do —
[ Laughter ]
I’m like, what can I do up here? They’re terrible. So there are lots of ways that we can work with the public not just as a consumer and how do we structure our projects in such a way where it’s a fair trade where we give some value back. So today is really about exploring how do we create a code of conduct not just journalists but participants in the newsroom. We’re going to really start with individuals because newsrooms are made up of people the audience is made up of people, we’re all individuals and we can drop our roles for a little bit and just think about what we are as humans and start to build out from there. So we’re going to start to explore what’s good for individuals, we’re going to share out those principles, probably learn some things from people around the room, and then apply those principles in designing for some common newsroom engagement scenarios which you’ll probably find a little grown-worthy but they’re things that you see all the time and then we’re going to stress test whether or not these are good for society, whatever kinds of designs that we make, and hopefully at the end, we’re going to develop a working code of conduct or at least a set of questions that we can use to design engagement work. So everybody, are we in groups of four-ish?
ANDREW: We need two up here. And another table of five back there. Maybe one could step forward, join this table?
JENNIFER: And then we are going to assign everybody a group number. So I don’t know how you want to do this.
ANDREW: So you’ll see in the middle of your table, a number. It may be covered up. But the number is meaningful.
JENNIFER: So you should have a number and tell us if you don’t and we’ll assign you a new group number. It’ll come in handy soon. So we’ll start with the question of since we’re all individuals. As much as we’re individuals and project managers or whatever we are, we’re people. We just want to start with you guys getting to know each other that’s really beyond the typical “how are you?” So Andrew and I can model what we want you guys to do in your groups of four is ask each other for — introduce yourselves, say your name, what you do if you want to, and really focus on how are you? Not just “how are you?” But really… how are you? So do you want to ask me?
ANDREW: How are you… really?
JENNIFER: I am nervous because we’ve never done this before and I feel we are super smart and we may have not thought this through in the greatest way possible. You all can see I’m nervous. I’m bummed out by the news from the last couple hours and I’m trying to figure out whether or not I should try to process it now or later. And I’m also — I’ve got a very sick parent in the hospital, so I’m also feeling split attention right now of, “Should I be here? Should I not?” But I’m here. And I’m just really excited to be at SRCCON because I’ve heard nothing but great things about this conference and this half a day has been amazing. So I’m grateful. So that’s how I am right now.
ANDREW: Great. And I can see that.
JENNIFER: Great, you can see that, and you can see the sweat glistening on my hands. So be honest the way you feel. I want you to take a moment with the people in your group, how you are, how are you doing because this is really going to be the basis for how we’re going to work together. There’s going to be a scribe. People are going to speak. And the scribe is going to write down the words however it feels, the words coming out of that person. We might jump on the mics and say, switch people if we haven’t done it yet, but take some time and check how everybody’s doing.
JENNIFER: So if you haven’t had a chance to hear from everybody, figure out how the last two people in your group are doing?
ANDREW: I’m seeing a lot of mixed emotions, a lot of dog shit, a lot of people feeling jarred, people feeling anxious, I saw anxious a lot — optimistic, but also some pessimism. So this is not just an idle exercise, obviously, it’s a way to get to know each other a little bit, and a way to express ourselves. But it’s also an exercise we go through when we engage our communities. We need to know where they’re coming from in order to engage them effectively and oftentimes when we are engaging people who aren’t like you, who share experiences different than we do, it’s really hard for us to put yourselves in their shoes. So whatever techniques you need to use to understand people, and where they’re coming from, what their emotional state is leads to more effective and more ethical engagement. And this is an exercise — some version of it — with newsrooms whenever they want to go out into communities and engage people. Oftentimes, newsrooms start from a standpoint of, “We need something.” We need quotes, we need stories, we need content, we need pictures. But stopping and thinking about what our community needs, I think, is an important and often-overlooked step of the process but it’s crucial.
JENNIFER: So we’re going to move to this idea of what makes a good relationship between individuals. So going from ourselves, to how are we doing, to how are we doing with another person, together. We want you to think about someone in your life that you have a good relationship with, whether it’s a peer, relationship, a peer, a colleague. So I want you to just take 30 seconds. You can close your eyes if you want to, who’s somebody in your life where you’re like, “I have a great relationship with that person. We have a great thing going on.” Take 20 seconds. It could be past or present.
All right. You guys got it? You got your person? All right. So now you’re going to take a few minutes and you’re going to think about why that person came to mind, and, specifically, what actions have they taken that have led them to become someone in your life who you think you have a really good relationship with. So you’ve got Post-It notes on your tables. You don’t have to write down full sentences. But write down really specific examples. So it might be something that they might have done a while back with you or for you. So get as specific as possible with the actions they’ve taken. And if anyone needs more Post-It notes or Sharpies, just raise your hands. I’ll bring some around.
Everybody have a few actions, what they do for you, to you, with you, and whatnot? All right. So what we’re going to do, with each group, if you have a laptop, an iPad, a device that you can connect, we want one laptop per group. So not everybody has to have their devices out. And, again, we’re going to have kind of a describe in the group, and what we’d like you to do, take 12 or so minutes doing, is to tell the group, who was that person thinking of, and what were some of the actions they they took, and the group is going to kind of help synthesize those actions into qualities or principles. So let me give a quick example here.
ANDREW: So my friend John when I texted him, he texted back with random gifs or pictures at odd hours of the night that made me laugh. He asked me a lot of questions. He’s interested and interesting. And so conversations are usually pretty balanced between me sharing, and him sharing. And he’s loyal. Like, just someone who has been present for years and remains present. So…
JENNIFER: So if I were a scribe in this group I would write down, it sounds like you have a reciprocal relationship. And he’s thoughtful, he reaches out, and he’s someone who you feel loyal to, that if you feel you need something, he would be there. So that’s how I would synthesize the actions that John took in the etherpad. In the etherpad, by the way, is accessible, if you go to the schedule page and you go onto the schedule, which is on Thursday, Toward Ethical Framework for Engagement, there’s an etherpad link there, and you’ll see the etherpad number. So whoever your scribe is, you can put those qualities and you don’t have to do person-by-person. But you can start bulleting out what are the qualities or actions that folks are sharing? Any questions on that? We’re going to take 10-15 minutes. Just go around the group, and share out, what that person did, and who they are, and the group can synthesize what they are for what they did in in the relationship.
[ Group Work ]
ANDREW: Does anyone need more time? All right. Let’s do, like, a minute. One more minute. Okay. Let’s wrap it up, please. So why don’t we just share out porn-style whoever wants to say just the principles of the relationships that were mentioned in your group. Go ahead just throw them out.
AUDIENCE: Listening. So listening well without judgment.
ANDREW: What else?
ANDREW: Come it comin’.
AUDIENCE: No agenda. You don’t need an excuse to hang out.
ANDREW: No agenda. Say more about that.
AUDIENCE: A couple of us sort of touched on sort of the best relationships that we have where we can hang out and do nothing. It’s not like we have to go eat a dinner, or go out and do a certain thing whereas we can just spend time in each other’s company. Or they’re not, like, trying to get something from you.
ANDREW: Ooh, interesting. Not trying to get something from you. That’s an interesting one.
AUDIENCE: We have one about laughing about serious stuff. So terrible things but not a terrible conversation.
ANDREW: Laughing about serious stuff.
[ Laughter ]
All right. Let’s get some more out here.
ANDREW: Oh… you both…
AUDIENCE: Setting aside ego.
ANDREW: No ego. Setting aside ego.
AUDIENCE: Adding into that, periodically checking in for no other reason other than being your friend.
ANDREW: Say that again?
AUDIENCE: Periodically checking in for no apparent reason.
ANDREW: Like, “How are you” kind of thing?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, and meaning it.
AUDIENCE: Open to your “schtick.”
ANDREW: I’m going to see if I spell “schtick” right. My Yiddish is strong, I guess. What else?
ANDREW: Sorry, again, what was that last one?
AUDIENCE: I think along with honesty, just directness.
ANDREW: What else? Let’s get a few more.
AUDIENCE: Mutual support.
ANDREW: Mutual support.
AUDIENCE: Valuing your friendship.
ANDREW: Valuing your friendship.
ANDREW: Empathy. How about, like, one or two more?
AUDIENCE: Respect your boundaries.
ANDREW: Respect boundaries.
ANDREW: Acceptance. Any of you that are just dying to say?
JENNIFER: So I’m curious to know…
AUDIENCE: You know, pushing each other. Like positively. If it’s in the person’s will.
JENNIFER: Like, making each other better. So I’m curious to know, when you look at this list of attributes of good relationships, how many of you, by show of hands can so I the organization you work with, whether it’s a news organization, has this kind of relationship with the public that you’re serving? One person.
ANDREW: Which ones do you feel like?
JENNIFER: Or are there some of them that you’re doing well.
CANDICE: Oh, wait, I have to tell you which ones?
JENNIFER: This is off the record.
JENNIFER: And how does that manifest? Like, how do you feel your organization is doing with honesty?
CANDICE: So a couple ways, just clearly in general in the work that we do, we’re sure to be as thorough as we possibly we can, and also be sure to say, we messed up. Here’s our mess-up, and here’s our correction for it. But I think that also comes out as what we’re incapable of doing as a news organization. There’s some things that we can do that we’re too small for. As we say often, “We punch above our weightclass often.” We have to be honest with our community if a story is too large for us, when we’re not the news organization to cover it. But also identifying partners and places where that story can go where it’s best served by another body. So not just taking in another story because it’s all, ooh, look it’s all flashy, and go, when we’re not the organization can do it.
JENNIFER: I should have brought the mic over there.
AUDIENCE: I think actually we do decently on “no agenda” sometimes…
[ Laughter ]
AUDIENCE: I think we design systems that are open enough that we can do that but then because they’re open, people will slip in with their agenda once in a while.
JENNIFER: Yeah, yeah.
NANCY: I think we do humorous well and we’re proud of that and we do humorous things with particle physics.
JENNIFER: What’s that?
NANCY: Science news.
JENNIFER: Anyone else feeling like their organization does well at these qualities with the public they’re serving? I think we’ve found a gap that we can figure out how to fill together. Right on. I mean, so one of the things that we feel about, and Andrew and I have talked about in our endless phone calls is relationships are engagement building in a good way. And relationships are are responsive, and there’s a feedback loop, and there’s a fair trade of who’s bringing what to the table and what you’re getting out of it. And then there’s the bigger question — Sasha, did you want to get that?
AUDIENCE: The question about fair trade, one of the things that came up is that a lot of our good relationships are not transactional. So the question whether they’re fair in exchange or equal or not doesn’t take into accounting.
JENNIFER: And a fair trade would be looked at in a number of ways. It could be that they’re what they’re looking for not the value of one thing might be more than another, but everyone’s aware of what they’re there for and why. That could be a part of it. Yeah.
ANDREW: I just heard a term for the first time the other day, and I’m trying to remember who told me. But a lot of us in the newsroom are “askholes.” We ask a lot from them and we don’t get anything in return. Like someone always wanting something for you, and not getting anything back.
JENNIFER: We should make buttons that say, “Don’t be an askhole.” So before we get more into this exercise, it’s all well and good to be in this exercise, but what’s actually at stake if we don’t get good at these things with the public that we’re serving. I’d love to just hear thoughts around the room, what happens if we get engagement wrong. I don’t know if this has happened in your newsroom before where you tried something and it blew up, and it went totally the wrong way, if you have a different experience to share. If your audience and you don’t have a quality relationship. I know a lot of these things are “duh” things. But are there any specific examples that audience members have?
AUDIENCE: I can share one. So our company is transferring from an old design to new design and we used to use this thing, I forgot the name, but it allows multiple audiences, Facebook, Twitter, email, and then, all of a sudden, we changed to just Facebook login without actually — I mean, that’s a very rushed decision and so because I put a very small piece of feedback widget on just another section of our website, and then, these users come to the other section of the website, and then gave us very angry feedback about, you know, like, “Why did you… I can’t log in right now! I can’t subscribe!” It was just a bad experience and, you know, as a designer there’s very limited things that I can do, but I guess as an organization, even if we just put out a banner that are saying, we are doing this technical transition, please bear with us, that’s going to alleviate some of the pains.
JENNIFER: So good communication, heads up, that’s what friends do.
AUDIENCE: I have two quick examples. One of them is we in engagement struggle with opinion pages and we struggle with giving platforms to all voices. Especially in this era, giving platforms to all voices with extremely challenging and so we’re constantly sometimes doing it right, and sometimes putting our feat in our mouths. And the second one has to do with the comments because we’re discovering that the most commented ones are not talked about. We’re finding that bright-messaged crap, you know, most people miss it, but now they’re missing it. They’re like where’s our space for this? So finding out do they have space on our site. So we have to make decisions when to cut the cord.
JENNIFER: And if you don’t know Andrew, they know how to take the toxicity out of comment sections because it’s not impossible but it can be challenging. Any other examples to share?
AUDIENCE: I also think — I’m a comments editor — and I also think that you want to make sure that your conversations are not just a community with a specific viewpoint because you quickly shut out other communities. And the toughest thing about that is that you don’t know what you don’t know and if the people are not in the room because they’re not there because they’re not walking through through the door, that’s a real blind side.
JENNIFER: One or two more personal experiences.
AUDIENCE: So at a previous job, I would often find community members who had stories or opinions to share and feature them, and I just came across something on social media. It sounded like an interesting opinion so I gave them a space and it turned out that that person had been incredibly toxic and doxxing other members of the community, and I had implicitly endorsed them because I hadn’t done my research. And so I had a lot of community work to do to then backtrack and build that community back up.
JENNIFER: Last one?
AUDIENCE: I think there’s a point to continually monitor relationships. It can turn toxic over time. It can take a mental toll. You know, on animators, Gamergate happened a few years ago. You know, there’s a lot of mental energy on both sides put into this, and it gets exhausting fast.
AUDIENCE: I think we can actively harm people. You know, we think about this the askhole tendency, at various places that I’ve worked at that are very, very large and have the ability to take somebody who’s relatively unknown and expose them to all the assholes on the Internet, you don’t always think about the responsibility that you have to protect people that you’re about to unleash them by reporting them, or aggregating their tweets, or embedding their Facebook posts. And I think it’s very easy for us to do, embed that code and it’s done. But that person’s life, we’ve completely fucked it up. And we don’t necessarily have the ability, or even the awareness that we’re doing it.
ANDREW: Maybe do one more?
AUDIENCE: Not really journalism related. So I’m in a Tango group in New York that we were having trouble booking at the LGBT Center in Manhattan because there was a previous group before us that were disrespectful towards the staff there and were really rude. And so when you ruin — when a relationship is damaged, any communities that come after you have to do double work — like, we had to do double work to even get our foot in the door and we couldn’t actually retain the space there. So that’s… yeah.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I mean, in relationships, friendships, families, whatever, it can take years to build up trust and it can take a moment to destroy it, and many more years to earn it back, if at all. So that’s one of the things when we’re doing engagement work because it’s such a topic in many newsrooms and it’s exciting in terms of the sustainability connections that it can have to our organizations, there’s also real danger in terms of doing damage to people and in burning those relationships.
And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to put you in some of the shoes of newsrooms in a lot of the things that we’ve heard that newsrooms are trying to do with different communities and different projects that we’ve seen take place and your job is to now take the lens of what does it look like to be a good friend or a good, respectful relationship with someone, and how do you do engagement in a quote-unquote ethical way with the kind of bottom-line needs that your newsroom has, or the things that are being asked of you be your bosses or GMs or whatnot because those are at odds more often than not. So we’re going to do this exercise with your group, we’re going to go back to the etherpad, and I’ve stealthly put a scenario for each group in there. Don’t look at other groups, just yours, and you’re going to talk through what your challenges and what the impact goals of this engagement are in your newsroom. And there’s going to be one person in your group who’s going to be the boss. Because there’s going to be a lot of, who’s going to be what, what’s the format. Maybe you’re a TV station, maybe you’re a magazine, maybe you’re a Snapchat channel, whatever you are, just ask the boss so that you can create parameters so you can design the project that you’re designing for. So the boss has double-duty to be the scribe, as well. Which is not always the case because people don’t listen. So I invite you go to the etherpad, and you’re going to have about 20 minutes to think through how do you design a project given these parameters, and however your boss wants you to do it. So yeah, you can be any kind of newsroom, any kind of staffing, you can have any budget. The sky’s the limit here. All right. So go for it.
[ Group Work ]
All right. Four more minutes. All right, let’s wrap it up. Let’s wrap it up. We probably didn’t have enough time to do this but that’s okay but we’ve probably gotten far enough to explore the dynamics and see some of the constraints. So listen up, listen up. Hello. We’re going to talk now a little bit about unpacking this. Like I said, you didn’t really have enough time to make a dent in this but hopefully you explored the dynamics and you looked at the constraints or explored the barriers to doing this work. So does any group want to share out, first of all, the prompt that you were given and some of the barriers you started to confront as you started to plan out this project depending upon the budget that your boss guava.
JENNIFER: Nguyen wanna start?
ANDREW: To prompt first, and then talk about the constraints or barriers.
ANDREW: Michael then David.
MICHAEL: So our prompt was that our editorial mandate is our inaugural has historically served — I’m looking at the totally wrong — homelessness is a growing problem in our community, our newsroom got a six-month plan for homelessness. Develop an eight-month strategy for serving this population. So they wanted to attract more funding, money, money, money. So some of the questions that we looked at. So we said we were going to be a Seattle Times-esque paper and we were going to partner with a homeless-run street newspaper and figure out how to bring those two communities together and then start conversations within the wider community. Some of the ideas that we came up was actually inverting the Ertinged structure so that instead of the paper writing about the homeless community, have the homeless community saying, hey, ≈ you missed these questions, you got this story wrong, or you embraced these stereotypes about the itselfs story to really change it from having it being a top-down thing and reversing. And really having content for these communities. So maybe ≈ ≈ that means technology shared between the larger exportations the smaller organizations. It may be figuring out about having debates by letting people surface voices that are not normally voices bringing those voices in a way that they are normally not.
ANDREW: All right. Who else had that prompt?
JENNIFER: So a few groups had the same prompt. We thought it would be interesting to see how they solved the problems differently. So could you just give us a synopsis of what your plan was and any constraints or barriers that you ran into?
AUDIENCE: I’ll try. So I think to summarize it, it was really kind of a segment of the constituencies that we had. So we had the same idea of partnering with a homeless paper. So making sure there’s a local community involved that understands the community well, but starting to segment out who we’re actually delivering information to so that we can actually build trust with specific communities. So within the homeless community, there’s — Sara brought the example of — people who were recently homeless versus homeless for years. They may need and have different needs and we can provide information in a different way. There’s non-profits that are working with homeless people that are the equivalent of a trade publication. Having an article, through the research that we’re doing is providing them information, and then the general public, or the audience being a third venue. So just segmenting out how we’re giving out that information.
ANDREW: So we’re running — so we have about a minute or two left. So, again, not enough time to share out for everyone but if we could just headline your project and then talk to me about the barriers.
AUDIENCE: Sure. Our mandate was to create a mandate for an actionable traditionally not served community. So we were taking over bigger dailies where bigger ones have abandoned other populations so the bigger challenge was creating an investment that was lasting in the community. How could we make sure they trust us, and from the business model, straddling the line between for profit and non-profit. And we imagined ourselves in Chicago. We looked at the issues of the LGBTQ community, we looked at the issues related to faith and gender in order to ensure that we were a diverse organization that could be trusted and could create value for the people that we serve.
JENNIFER: So the constraints. Hopefully as you were looking at what your editorial mandate was and what your business, bottom line mandate was if you had one in there was, you might have seen where you thought it was a lose-lose, or you felt there was no way to get the kind of effect in the world editorially that you want without missing the goal of the news organization. So that’s probably something that a lot of you have run into before and I think it’s worth talking about it in your newsrooms and we will also be talking about a bit about this in conversation. If you’re in an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague and they want to have you do some sort of engagement project but you’re like, “I don’t think this actually will do good for the community,” you’ll have some sort of movement that you can point to that they can read about some of these ideas. But then…
ANDREW: So we — so we’ve covered some of this. One idea that I think is really worth exploring — we were going to explore it here but with so many groups but idea of red-teaming your plan. So present the plan to the community that you’re serving and having them assess that before you start investing time and resources to it, or within your organization within your red team, have a team whose job is to poke holes and strengthen by looking at it from different angles. So I think that’s really worth exploring with engagement projects. And so before we leave, we’re going to be synthesizing this, and creating an ethical framework for ethical engagement. So if you could write in the etherpad, if you want to, the email addresses of everyone on your team, that can be incredibly helpful and then we can share it back out with you directly and we’ll know who’s on the team. But otherwise thank you for participating, thank you for your energy, I know it’s been a long day. So thank you. This has been an awesome session. Thank you.
[ Applause ]