Building Trust and Audience through Accountability Journalism

What Professional Journalists Can Learn from the Poynter College Media Project

This post is an adaptation of my presentation at the NABJ Region II Spring 2019 Conference in Cincinnati, OH. Shout out to Charisse Gibson for the invite!

Staff of The Daily Aztec, independent student media at San Diego State University, fall 2019 (Elissa Yancey)

For the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time on college campuses around the country. I’ve skipped the glitzy tours of five-star gyms and luxury dorms and headed straight to the spaces I felt most at home as an undergraduate: the offices of independent student media.

These are mostly windowless rooms. They are typically messy and often noisy. They are also where the next generation of journalists are learning, growing and bonding while practicing a profession and trade that is evolving faster than any classroom curriculum.

That’s why these newsrooms and the students who lead them have been the focus of the Poynter College Media Project, which I have led since its pilot in 2017. Our goal is to support student-led journalistic projects that build civil discourse across divides as well as support the First Amendment. But we’ve also gone deeper, working to help campus journalists build trust as well as their audiences by practicing accountability journalism, a methodology that incorporates intention, community engagement, collaboration and transparency, as well as far-reaching investigations.

The project grew out of Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride’s interest in combining community-building tools with journalistic tools, and her understanding that methods of therapy can transfer to and enrich the practice of journalism. It took shape with insights from my own background in educational theory and community engagement as well as Essential Partners’ Senior Associate Bob Stains’ enthusiasm and experience facilitating conversations across conflict around the world.

Together, our disparate work transformed around common goals:

  • building trust-based relationships
  • communicating clearly and intentionally
  • discovering truths and sharing them
  • holding people accountable for their actions.

We’ve learned a lot in our work with just 12 schools’ independent student media operations — three in the pilot year; nine in year two. The lessons we teach incorporate expertise from community organizers, therapists, business leaders, psychologists and seasoned facilitators; the lessons we’ve learned illuminate new ways of thinking and practicing journalism that are just as vital for professionals as they are for students.

Student staff of The Utah Chronicle at the University of Utah, fall 2018. (Elissa Yancey)

Because I love alliteration and the magic of threes (thank you, Roy Peter Clark), I like to break these lessons down into three categories:





(scroll and come back to this later if you want to get straight to the lessons)

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, here’s some background on how the College Media Project (CMP) came to be. In the late spring of 2017, Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride called me with a proposition — she’d pitched a funder an idea for a college media project that would combine lessons from journalism as well as conflict resolution specialists. The big idea was to encourage civil discourse and promote accountability journalism with a focus on the First Amendment on college campuses by working with three student media organizations.

Would I be interested in working with Boston-based Essential Partners’ Senior Associate Bob Stains, a former therapist and facilitator with years of experience, in developing a curriculum to help student journalists foster civil discourse on their campuses? I’d been both a workshop participant and online instructor at the Poynter Institute during my 10 years as a journalism professor. I loved the work and the impact. I was instantly intrigued. “Who is the funder?” I asked. “You might be surprised,” Kelly answered. The Charles Koch Foundation was putting up the funding. “THE Koch Foundation?” I asked.

I had lots of other questions, and Kelly had answers. Here’s an abridged version of our Q&A:

Q: “Why are they funding this?”

A: The Foundation has a strong focus on free speech and the First Amendment. They are also concerned about the lack of civil discourse on campuses around the country. They want to support student media to work on projects that protect all of these things.

Q: “What influence will they have over the recruitment process?”

A: They won’t see school applications or have any say in what schools we choose. They will be told what schools we have selected and why.

Q: “What about the curriculum? Will they ask to review it?”

A: No.

Q: “What else will they want?”

A: A report at the end of the project. And we will be up-front and clear about their funding, this project and the Poynter Code of Ethics that allows it.

I knew Kelly well enough to trust her — and I was all in.

I consulted with Bob and drafted an outline for the training, helped develop an application and, within weeks, more than 60 college media organizations had pitched their projects. There would be in-person sessions at the start of the project, regular coaching calls, and webinars focused on related topics to support participants through their school-year-long project.


(pick back up here for the fun stuff)

Lesson 1: Approach

In successful community organizing and in facilitating constructive conversations, the concept of “agreements” is never taken for granted. Agreements provide a specific set of ground rules that set a respectful tone for interactions and create a shared understanding of their purpose and promise. Here’s how a basic set of agreements apply to journalism:

  • Confidentiality: what is said in the room stays in the room. For a journalist, this is a real issue of educating sources and being clear in our communications. How can we build trust in audiences if our sources can’t trust us because they think we have misled them, even if unintentionally?
  • Avoid interrupting: let people finish thoughts. For a journalist, this reminder makes room for better understanding, and, in turn, better stories.
  • Avoid attempts to persuade: acknowledge people’s opinions. For a journalist, this means listening to sources instead of trying to wrangle the quotes you need from them.
  • Speak for yourself: let people share personal perspectives that are not representative of any pictures bigger than their own. For a journalist, it’s critical to remember that ordinary people do not speak for their entire race, gender or any other affinity. Sources are not boxes to check off a list; they are complex humans with a wide range of experiences and beliefs about the world.
  • Share airtime: every participant has an opportunity to share. For a journalist, this often means practicing active listening more than talking.
  • Respect time boundaries: keeping a conversation moving means following agendas. For a journalist, this is about not overwhelming sources who are not experts or public figures as much as it is about not pushing officials past their stated time constraints — unless they offer the opportunity to you. It’s about understanding no source owes you their time.
  • “Pass” or “Pass for now:” this allows every participant safety and security. For a journalist, this may mean making follow-up calls or visits to build trust and a sense of safety with a source.
  • Cell phones off or vibrate: this lets participants know that their presence is valuable. For a journalist, this means being present during interviews and giving a source your complete attention not only to better understand them, but also to build respect and trust.
Howard University student media staff in fall 2017, with Elissa Yancey (far left) and Bob Stains (far right).

Another part of our approach focuses on using personal storytelling around a common theme as a way to build community and deepen understanding. It’s a tool used to help jump-start complex community conversations, and we learned that it works just as powerfully for journalists.

The lesson is that sharing a piece of a personal story can go a long way toward bridging divides and creating empathy for one another — a particularly powerful takeaway for journalists.

Here’s a quick example:

We adapted an exercise called “Wise Person” for in-person CMP training sessions. The prompt is simple:

Think about a wise person in your life who has had a positive impact on the values that led you to journalism. Take three minutes (timed) to talk about that person and her/his impact.

The result is emotional, funny, heartfelt and deeply true. Without fail, students who had worked long deadlines side by side reported they felt more connected to their colleagues after this exercise, during which they learned new insights about what inspired their co-workers.

Yet another lesson that fits under the umbrella of “approach” is the value of focus and intention when embarking on stories and projects, both large and small. Successful community builders and organizers don’t approach their work randomly. Neither should journalists.

We’ve learned that when journalists focus on a specific topic or idea, they can more clearly break down the skills and tools they need to investigate, explain and report about it. Focus not only provides that kind of helpful direction that leads to better content, it can also spark creative thinking. Intentional journalism considers the importance of engaging new collaborators and reaching outside your newsroom to connect more effectively and meaningfully with your community and your audience.

Logistically speaking, focus and intention means developing clear deliverables, expectations and timelines for our work. As journalists, we know all too well that deadlines are powerful motivators. But so is inspired thinking.

Lesson 2: Awareness

Newsrooms have long served as journalists’ sanctuaries, places of escape rather than immersion in the important stories we are charged to tell accurately and thoughtfully. And while there is certainly value in workplace camaraderie, journalism, by its very nature, requires looking outward for impactful stories, for overlooked context and for fresh sources.

Much of today’s journalism (and journalism education) is about self-awareness — how to establish your identity as a journalist, how to build your social media brand, how to present your work in a way that can build an expansive audience whose members get to know a carefully curated version of you and your work.

Our lesson learned comes from a very different perspective of self-awareness: the awareness of the impact of our presence and our work on our sources, on our audiences, on our communities and on public discourse in general. This kind of awareness requires more thinking, more research, more active listening, more relationship-building and, perhaps most importantly, more time spent out of comfort zones.

Opening journalists’ eyes to their own impact on stories has been one of the most revelatory pieces of the CMP. We start during our in-person training, when we show participants a clip from a Canadian press conference that features indigenous elders responding to typical press corps’ behavior. When we watch the clip as a group, students either cringe or applaud. We ask for students’ first thoughts in what has become an exercise of examining privilege. Majority white rooms rush to reporters’ defenses, while students of color — primarily Black students — more easily relate to the indigenous presenters.

Clip from Canadian press conference in summer 2017.

The reactions provide a perfect window into what people who study the science of thinking have dubbed “the ladder of inference.” A critical part of what we integrate from Essential Partners’ conflict resolution training techniques, this “ladder” outlines the step-by-step process whereby people come to believe what they believe. It also illuminates how journalism plays an important part in that process.

The model, developed by thought leader and former Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris, illustrates how people make decisions based on not only what they see and understand in the present, but what they have seen and understood to be true (and untrue) in the past.

Take a look:

The “ladder” not only represents how people quickly and unconsciously come to conclusions and develop their belief systems, it also represents a meta breakdown of how journalists create content in the first place.

Think of the data as the vast pool of details and facts that make up fodder for our stories; the observations, then, are the events/news as a camera might capture them; we then select facts/details from those observations that we will include in our stories based on our prior experiences and beliefs; we interpret those facts/details as we shape them into our work; those interpretations lead us to make assumptions about what other details/facts to include/exclude; we draw conclusions, whether we articulate them or not, based on our prior beliefs and the stories we have covered/seen before; those conclusions, in turn, shape our belief systems and inspire our actions.

Now for the big takeaway: the action, for journalists, is the writing, producing and editing of our stories. Those stories, in turn, become the basis of our audience’s data and observations, and up and down the ladder we travel, rarely, if ever, reflecting on the lasting impact of that process.

By viewing our work as trips up and down the ladder of inference, though, we can see that, as journalists:

  • We limit ourselves when we claim objectivity without examining the details we have unconsciously selected to include in our work and the details we have decided to omit;
  • We limit ourselves when we routinely include voices of people whose belief systems mirror our own;
  • We limit ourselves when we look for and include perspectives that neatly fit into our own (and our editors’) suggested storylines rather than seeking out sources whose perspectives challenge us.
“When They See Us” (Image courtesy Netflix)

It’s easy to find examples of the lasting and even dangerous impact of media framing: consider the new narratives about the exonerated “Central Park 5” emerging thanks in large part to a Ken Burns’ documentary and the recent release of When They See Us; or reflect on the harm versus the value of “Florida Man” stories.

The more I’ve come to understand how the ladder of inference shapes the stories that fill our timelines and broadcasts, the easier it has been for me to understand the deeply held core premises that keep journalists, myself included, caught up in cycles of stuck conversations, stuck relationships, and ultimately, stuck stories.

So how can our awareness help un-stick those conversations, relationships and stories? We start by posing a question for journalists and media makers to consider every day:

What social world are we creating with our stories?

Lesson 3: Accountability

Holding the powerful accountable — it’s a responsibility enshrined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that serves as both inspiration and differentiator for those who pursue the profession. We watch “All The President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” we cheer the work of Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells. We swoon at the thought of the press as a tireless force for truth and justice.

But to whom are journalists accountable? And not just accountable for what we create, but accountable for how we go about creating it? This lesson incorporates theories espoused by family therapists and experts in conflict resolution, specifically guided by these two quotes:

“The questions we ask have real effects.”

— Michael White, an Australian social worker, family therapist and founder of narrative therapy. As journalists, we are accountable for the questions we ask, the way we frame them and how they impact our sources and our stories.

“What we focus on expands; attention gives life.”

— David Cooperrider, leadership expert and founder of appreciative inquiry. As journalists, we are accountable for the narratives we focus upon and share. The impact of our focus reverberates in future coverage as well as in the trust and loyalty of our audiences.

As journalists, we rarely consider the inevitable impact of how we choose to behave as we pursue stories. We need to think more intentionally about the questions we ask, how we ask them, how are bodies are when we ask them, where we are when we ask them, in what spirit we ask them. We need to consider the form and sequence of the actual questions we ask and how they invite some responses and discourage others. We need to consider how we have a shaping effect on what others experience, about what they can do and how they can be, about what they can know and tell themselves — and us — about their lived experience.

We also need to acknowledge that the very act of asking questions influences people. Acts of asking and answering alter our experiences, just as they generate possibilities for further experiences — including developing relationships and trust. As we talk about what it takes to be mindful of our questions, this journalism interviewing guide, based in part on Essential Partners’ work, illuminates new ways of asking questions that can both enrich our reporting and expand our understanding.

We call it: Wiser questions lead to better stories

  • What would you like me to know about what your/this [vote/position/event] means to you?
  • What values that are important to you were, and were not represented or expressed by your/this [vote/position/event]?
  • Tell me a story from your personal experience that led you to hold certain ideas about this [vote/position/event].
  • What single value do hold as most important?
  • What do you think is the single biggest threat to your life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
  • What should we be talking about now that we’re not?

We’ve seen students successfully adapt this guide during campus and community events as they engage participants and audience members in powerful ways. They’ve also used versions of the questions to shift the tone of their daily content, both in print and online.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s The Alestle hosts a campus gathering focused on the theme “What I Wish You Knew” as part of their CMP in spring 2019. (Photo courtesy The Alestle)

Being truly accountable shifts the way we think about the work of journalism in foundational — and exciting — ways.

Here’s how we break it down:

  • Intention: approach each interview with an intention — what is it that you want to learn? How will you find your way to that learning in a careful and responsible way?
  • Balance vs accuracy: understand the difference between these two concepts and let it inform every piece of content you create
  • Objectivity vs transparency: which is more accurate? Which is more trustworthy? Check out Margaret Sullivan’s take with input from a journalism educator we honor in this work, Jay Rosen
  • Deadlines vs relationships: consider building relationships with sources over time instead of only connecting with them when you are on deadline. You’ll likely build better stories and increase your job satisfaction.
  • Using vs engaging: community members may have good reasons to distrust journalists who come bearing microphones in search of sound bytes. What does true engagement look like and how can you practice it?
  • Manners (yes, manners): journalism is a long-game profession. Remember that everyday people are not required to talk to you. Being polite, and explaining the rules of journalistic engagement to inexperienced sources, can build both trust and transparency.

As we delve more deeply into the importance of building relationships based on mutual trust and respect, we refer again to Essential Partners’ expertise on holding productive conversations across contentious issues — or, as is the case for journalists, interviews. Relevant tips include:

  • Not everything has to be a question. Spark conversations with, ‘Tell me about a time when,’ or ‘Describe what it was like when.’ You’ll open a door to conversation vs confrontation.
  • Ask genuine questions. Is there something someone said that you’d like to understand better? If you ask a question, be sure it reflects genuine curiosity and not disdain.
  • Note a point of learning in what you have heard. Have you heard something that stirred fresh thoughts or feelings? Follow up on that point with additional questions or conversation starters.
  • Pick up and weave a thread. Has an interesting theme or idea emerged as part of the interview that you’d like to hear more about?
  • Clarify. Have you heard something that sounds out of character or that you instinctively disagreed with? If so, first check to see if you understood it correctly. Then follow up to get to the root ‘why’ behind ‘what’ is confusing so that you don’t spread that confusion in your story.

(Copyright 2017 Essential Partners. Adapted with permission.)

Building a new generation of engaged journalists in the newsrooms of student media and across campuses and communities offers incredible opportunities for learning and growth — and not just for the students. As we continue to sustain and scale the CMP, we welcome partners, mentors, collaborators and content sharers who, like us, embrace these new ideas and the students whose work inspires them.

In return, we are confident that CMP alumni will help shape — and expand in exciting and vibrant ways — the future of journalism.


(samples of 2018–2019 CMP work)

North Carolina A&T

Charting the Black Narrative

Texas A&M

Corps Values

University of Florida

Who Is Gainesville?

San Diego State University

El Alma (online and print publication)

University of Utah

Are “U” Mormon?

Southern Illinois University –Edwardsville

What I Wish You Knew

Elissa Yancey, MSEd, is a long-time journalist and educator whose varied work centers around the value and impact of undertold and underexamined stories. From elementary schools to graduate schools, from neighborhoods to urban cores, from childhood homes to nursing homes, she works to empower the experts, wherever they are. In addition to leading Poynter’s College Media Project, she works with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success team and recently completed her first book: Day by Day, A journalist’s guide to caregiving in the Sandwich Generation. Reach her at or see her works in progress at

Author, journalist, educator, community builder. Author, Day By Day; co-founder, A Picture’s Worth; teacher, The Poynter Institute. Cincinnati, Ohio.

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