Maytree blog

How to change the public conversation: Think like a reporter

Published on 25/01/2017

To change the way an audience talks and thinks about an issue, you need to be in the media consistently. But you can’t do that with opinion pieces alone. No matter how smart you are, you can only have so many opinion pieces published – and that limits your potential for impact.

Rob Steiner, Director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism program at the University of Toronto, makes the case for why we should pay more attention to expert reporting – instead of relying on op-eds – if we want to change the public conversation on issues that we care about.

Putting new, relevant information in front of an audience is the best way to shape the public agenda. For this, we need to focus on reporting, on stories that change how people see and understand the world around them, rather than advocating for our own agenda or solely seeking coverage of our own activities.

Editors are curators of interesting stories

The average mainstream newsroom receives hundreds of story leads a day, and it’s up to editors to make decisions about what is interesting and important to their audience. Increasingly, budget cuts mean that editors have fewer experienced reporters – those that cover the most in-depth stories – to rely on.

At the same time, the appetite for niche news and deeper content is growing.

According to Rob:

In response to this tension, news organizations are giving over more of their space to experts in different fields. They are training experts to not just describe their opinion but to report news stories in their field – this is a whole other discipline.

Editors are becoming curators of interesting content that comes to them from many different sources, rather than taskmasters who assign specific stories to their own staff. They are looking for and listening to professionals, academics and others with advanced knowledge in their fields to help them shape their coverage of the issues.

This is an opportunity.

Shaping coverage of your issue

In his Five Good Ideas session, Rob offered tips about how non-profits can benefit from the media revolution. Here are a few more of Rob’s ideas on how to get your issues in the news:

  • Understand how the agenda on your particular issue gets set and who is setting it. This means knowing which media the influencers in your field read, watch or hear – and which journalists in those media cover your field.
  • Identify important stories that those media haven’t yet reported.
  • Call up journalists and offer them this new kind of story. This is slightly different from traditional public relations. You are not calling to promote your own organization or your own service — you’re calling about an issue.
  • Give them something they can work with. Most journalists are skeptical of advocates. If you just call with advocacy, most journalists and editors will not fully believe what you’re saying – they need to hear other sides. Get a sense of the whole story and where your advocacy fits in with other legitimate opinions.

Crafting a competitive story idea

Rob offered a workshop in November 2016 where he talked more about how you can “give them something they can work with.” He outlined what you need to do to get your story idea to stand out among the hundreds of others that will cross an editor’s desk. Here are his five minimum criteria:

  • It’s important – not just interesting. It should have an element that is counterintuitive, surprising or weird, in other words, something that makes people think differently about the topic. This is the most important criteria.
  • It’s timely or urgent for the audience. Try to hook the idea to a lively, current public discussion.
  • It’s not yet well known by the audience. They might know about the topic, generally, but not about this specific view or angle of the issue.
  • It’s got tension. This could be a debate, conflict, or something that is changing. Keep in mind that in a debate, you are not advocating for a certain position. You are simply signalling to the editor that the debate is happening and is important for their audience to know about.
  • It’s got substance. For example, it has current data or examples – not just your opinion.

Of course, putting together a story idea that has all of these elements can be challenging, in part because we must step outside of our “bubble” to consider: What do others, reporters and people in the audience, know already about this topic, and what would be new to them? What do I know that they don’t, but should? Further, we must be willing to set aside our professional or organizational agenda and focus on stimulating smart public conversation. As Rob says, you have to trust that a smart conversation will lead to a smart result. For many of us, that can be hard to do.

Professional journalistic practices

The changing media environment presents a powerful opportunity to shape the Canadian discussion about complex issues such as poverty and human rights. As we seize this opportunity, we must learn and use professional journalistic practices.

The Fellowship in Global Journalism program at the University of Toronto is a ground-breaking program that teaches and mentors subject-matter experts to become journalists. It teaches you to cover your own specialty for top media around the world.

Maytree has created a scholarship for the program. It will support a professional or scholar in the Fellowship program to learn journalism skills that will deepen Canada’s discussion on poverty and human rights.

The Fellowship in Global Journalism is currently accepting applications for September 2017. The deadline to apply is March 1, 2017.

Further resources:

With files from Tina Edan and Markus Stadelmann-Elder.

Bonnie Mah is Lead, Strategic Narrative at Maytree.


Putting new, relevant information in front of an audience is the best way to shape the public agenda.