AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 2003

Coming Together Over TV   

New program aims to connect journalists with people they might not be covering

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

A pair of self-described idealists are betting on the healing powers of television.

Trying a new approach to cure an age-old problem, the owners of a Massachusetts media production company are asking journalists and regular citizens in about 80 cities around the country to sit down, watch some TV, then talk about it. The Ford Foundation-funded effort is called "Preview Forum."

Connecting communities and journalists isn't just good for democracy, cofounder Robert Lavelle says. "If you care about media and media's impact, we think it's where the action is."

The plan is to use advance copies of television series (and eventually, films, books and radio programs) to spark conversations--productive ones, not the same tired debates between accusing citizens and defensive journalists. For instance, participants in the first installment, scheduled for various dates over the next two months, will watch segments of four upcoming PBS documentaries, then talk about ethnicity and race in America.

"There is a growing market for the kind of work that we're doing in terms of using media to connect communities," says Lavelle, who's working alongside Martha Fowlkes of Roundtable, the company directing Preview Forum. Their short-term goals include giving journalists access to more diverse sources while teaching viewers and readers "both about the process of news...and how to be better [news] consumers," Lavelle says. Long-term, he adds, in addition to establishing relationships between journalists and communities, "We'd like to see people dropping support for shoddy journalism and increasing support for good journalism."

Preview Forum grew out of similar discussions Roundtable organized around the PBS series "Local News: One Station Fights the Odds" (see Broadcast Views, October 2001). Those led to lasting coalitions between journalists and citizens in a number of communities, Lavelle says.

An advisory board that includes representatives of media and civic organizations as well as academic institutions chose eight cities out of 80 to be "anchor sites"--Seattle, Madison, St. Louis, Philadelphia, St. Petersburg, Baltimore, San Jose and Phoenix.

Each city was selected in part because it has an active journalism group, a school of journalism, or an organization with an interest in journalism and strong ties to the community. "We're looking for good players," Lavelle says. "There's only so much we can do at our end."

That organization builds a coalition of groups that invites participants and decides which exercises to use and what questions to address. Roundtable provides the video, discussion guides and publicity materials.

David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, says 15 to 20 people from his news staff will be among the approximately 30 journalists participating there.

"Anything we can do to deepen our understanding of our multicultural community is going to make our newspaper more accurate and more authentic," Yarnold says, adding that the Merc will spin a major piece for the paper from the session, though "the main reason to do this is because we stand to learn from it."