To help combat the confusion brought on by fake news, Honolulu Civil Beat is opening its doors to the public to help teach them news literacy. Civil Beat was founded in 2010 by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and First Look Media. The site began as a local watchdog journalism outlet that focused on storytelling that wasn’t being done by Honolulu’s local newspapers and TV stations. Since then, the site has grown and now has reporters covering all of Hawaii, as well as a full-time Washington correspondent.
But where Civil Beat really stands out is in its efforts in community outreach.
“What we’re doing here and on a statewide basis is trying to get out into the community, not just writing stories and publishing them, but trying to do more things that make us a good community partner,” says Patti Epler, editor and general manager for Civil Beat. “It’s not a normal role for a news organization, because newspapers really feel the need to be at arm’s length, but we try to do things that put us in positions to be open with the community that don’t create conflicts of interest or compromise our integrity or independence.”
When the Hawaii legislature is in session, Civil Beat will host panels with local politicians around the state to help explain the issues to the people who are impacted by them. The panels, which allow people to engage with Civil Beat reporters and Hawaii politicians, typically draw more than 100 people.
In addition to giving Hawaii’s citizens an up-close look at politics in the Aloha State, they’re also giving them a look inside the newsroom. “We have this thing called Member Coffees once a month where people come to the newsrooms about what we’re doing and how we do things,” Epler explains. “We’re also partnered with Stony Brook University for a program called Understanding the News, and we can use their curricula for things like news literacy and media literacy.”
Between the monthly coffees and the news literacy program, Civil Beat is working to help their community better understand how the news gets made and how to tell if what they’re reading is quality news.
“One woman asked, ‘Gosh, with all this news you can get online and on TV and bloggers, how am I supposed to figure out what’s legit and what’s just an ideological spin on something?’ So we decided that we could play a role in helping people navigate [the news],” Epler says.
For public events on news literacy, Civil Beat tackles topics like the internet echo chamber and how to determine if your news is trustworthy. They’re also in the process of putting together a new section of their website that will offer readers tips on avoiding fake news and finding the real facts. “It’s stuff we (journalists) do all the time,” Epler says. “Read the ‘About Us’ page, look and see where the website gets their money. There are so many things like that that people don’t generally think about [when reading the news].”
Another part of their strategy to support real news is to write a weekly column about their own work and dissect what they’ve done. While this column has not yet launched, they currently have a media watchdog column called Reader Rep, which takes a look at stories reported across Hawaii media and dives into the good and bad aspects of the coverage of different issues each week.
“We want to help guide people through this barrage of news that comes at them from all different directions,” Epler says.
She advises other local news outlets to follow Civil Beat’s lead. “My advice is to become part of the community and not always be at arm’s length,” she says. “We can really help the community, and in a way that’s not going to step over any kind of ethical line.”
Epler also believes that as a nonprofit news organization, it’s important to support the community that supports Civil Beat. “It struck me that if we’re going to ask the community to support us, we should find ways to support the community that go beyond just writing stories,” she says. “It’s still evolving, but it does spring from wanting to really help out the people who help us. We’re calling it ‘journalism plus,’ because it’s something that goes just a little bit beyond [typical journalism].”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.