Tip Sheet

Community engagement journalism is an antidote to the distrust and disengagement that can enable the spread of disinformation. We define community engagement journalism as reporting that responds to community needs and is created in collaboration with the communities that it serves: a mutually responsive and beneficial relationship. An intentional and inclusive practice of community engagement journalism can help newsrooms better understand and locate information voids–spaces that are especially vulnerable to mis/disinformation–and fill them with credible reporting. Community engagement journalism practices break down barriers between communities and those who report on them, therefore helping to build the trust necessary to freeze out disinformation.

The following resource outlines tips for journalists and journalism-adjacent professionals who are committed to fighting mis/disinformation through community engagement practices. It was inspired and informed by PEN America’s panel conversation with Derrick Cain from Resolve Philly, Annie Z. Yu of Politico, María Méndez of the Texas Tribune, and Lauren Aguirre of Votebeat on community engagement journalism.

Many thanks to our partners in this space who lent their resources and expertise to being part of this tipsheet: Hearken, Votebeat, and Center for Media Engagement!

Note: We recognize that community engagement journalism demands time and resources, and that the outlets best positioned to practice it–the local outlets embedded in their communities–are also the ones facing the greatest staffing and resource constraints. We believe this is an investment worth making, and one that will pay dividends in community wellbeing and connection over time, but we are also deeply aware of the realities facing local newsrooms across the country. That’s why PEN America also advocates for funding solutions to the local journalism crisis, and we are working to offer additional resources to facilitate and support newsrooms as they adopt these and other measures to counter disinformation and build healthy information systems.

Community engagement journalism in the context of disinformation and free expression

PEN America is committed to building community resilience against disinformation–through media literacy workshops, town-hall discussions with local journalists and community leaders, authoritative reports examining critical aspects of the problem, partnerships with leaders in the field, support for journalists and newsrooms, and more. This work has reinforced our view that free and equitable access to accurate information is an integral condition of free expression. But false information, media manipulation, the crisis in local journalism, antagonism towards the press, and historical and ongoing inequities in media coverage for communities of color, rural and low-wealth communities, and other marginalized groups all work against open access to fact-based, culturally competent reporting and can jeopardize opportunities for journalists to foster healthy, mutually supportive relationships with the community members they set out to serve.

How does community engagement journalism fight mis/disinformation?

To understand exactly how community engagement practices can equip newsrooms to better combat false information, we must consider how purveyors of mis/disinformation likely reach people in the first place:

But community engagement journalism can directly address these factors by identifying information gaps, building trusted relationships, reporting in-language, and meeting people where they are, including on social media.

Maria Mendez headshot

María Méndez

“If you build a relationship with people, you can find out what questions or concerns they’re hearing, or they personally have, learn about what type of information they’re already getting, and whether it may be factual or not. And then you can provide them with the tools, whether that’s news literacy of learning how to find verifiable sources of information, or actual news stories and content that helps them understand and provides context to different topics.” 

– María Méndez, Service and Engagement Reporter at The Texas Tribune


1. Start by defining what “community engagement” means for your newsroom internally. Make sure that it aligns with your external definitions and public actions.

  • Identify the communities that you want to engage with. Be as specific as you can be, and recognize when there’s a difference between who you’re reporting on and who you hope will read the story or aim to serve. Are they the same communities that are disproportionately targeted by disinformation? The same ones that are experiencing gaps in information or live in news deserts.
  • Define what success in community engagement journalism would look like for your newsroom. Here are some places to get started:
  • Does your newsroom differentiate between “community engagement” and “audience engagement”? If so, how? It’s a best practice to develop different strategies for engaging with new communities and for engaging with existing audiences.
    • Méndez said that part of the Tribune’s engagement practices involve “finding those communities that we are failing to serve right now and aren’t necessarily engaging with, but that we want to make the intention and effort to find and engage with, even if that doesn’t necessarily help our metrics.”
    • Listening and responding to consumers of your work whether on social media, correspondence, or in-person, is audience engagement. But community engagement requires expanding your reach and service, and meeting people where they are. 
Annie Yu headshot

Annie Z. Yu

2. Listen attentively and “early enough so that you’re allowing what you’re hearing from the community to actually shape your reporting,” Annie Yu said. “People respond to humans.” Her newsroom found success in filling information voids by responding to questions with regularity and a personal touch.

  • Keep in mind that responsive and mutually supportive relationships with the community and your audience take time, energy, and mutual goal setting.
  • Work with trusted messengers who can share their trust in you with their communities. Disinformation takes advantage of distrust.

3. Define accessibility and determine what it should look like for your newsroom. Some useful self-evaluation questions:

  • Do the communities you serve prefer a language other than English? If so, what percentage of your coverage is translated or interpreted?
  • Do you use simple, accessible language, especially when covering complex topics?
  • Is a paywall interfering with the community’s access to your news? If so, what steps can be taken to eliminate that barrier?
  • Are the topics and beats that your outlet covers pertinent to the community’s needs, questions, and culture?
  • Is your news and information offered in a variety of formats to bridge digital divides, e.g., videos, explainer explainer graphics, FAQs, multimedia, text message, and physical flyers? Meet people where they are–because mis/disinformation already is.

4. Establish deep-rooted relationships in the local journalism community and local trusted messengers to build infrastructure for getting out ahead of widespread disinformation.

  • Newsrooms should invest in local early-career journalists by training, mentoring, and hiring them so they’re encouraged to stick around and feed into the larger professional pool of local journalists who know the community best, as opposed to moving locations and outlets. (Chances are long-time local reporters will be more familiar with the communities than journalists newer to the location or community and have relationships with informative sources.)
  • Work with trusted messengers, community leaders, and influencers to elevate hyperlocal reporting, especially in times of confusion and widespread disinformation. Develop easily shareable articles and social media assets so that they can do this with ease.
  • Being online is not the same as being in the community. Make time to have in-person conversations, or at least on the phone.

5. Develop a responsive and reciprocal feedback loop with your community members and leaders, and consider dedicating resources to a disinformation tipline or form.

Try to humanize your feedback protocol, especially if it’s online, so that your community knows you’re hearing the feedback they offer. This includes letting them know what will happen to their feedback, if/when they can expect to hear back from you, and thanking them for their contributions.

6. Take opportunities to engage your readers and listeners in media literacy skills and communicate transparently about your practices around interviewing, fact-checking, and other journalistic processes that you and your newsroom may take for granted.

Explain explicitly how you cover disinformation, and why you might not cover falsehoods in some cases. 

7. Practice debunking and prebunking, or “preemptive fact-checking” as Annie Yu coined it in our conversation.

What background knowledge does your newsroom have on your coverage areas that would help readers navigate the topic? What questions or misconceptions are emerging on your beat that could be addressed before they become a misinformation talking point? The goal is to give your readers tools they need to navigate a confusing information ecosystem, and build trust first, rather than just correct facts.

8. Manage expectations for, be transparent with, and take care in your approach to the communities you serve.

Derrick Cain headshot

Derrick Cain

“I’m being very transparent of who I am, and why I’m there, and I think starting off that way helps peel back some of the mistrust, because now they know who you are and why you’re there. You’re not … swooping in and trying to just get any type of information and leave. You’re just saying: hey, I’m here to talk to you guys, build relationships, but also I am a journalist.”

– Derrick Cain, Director of Community Engagement at Resolve Philly



What not to do:

  • Don’t assign just a couple of reporters to focus on community engagement. The whole newsroom should practice community engagement journalism, “in the beginning, not just an afterthought,” as Derrick Cain put it. While engagement may naturally start with a few staff who are aligned, or as a project, the best results require it being part of the entire newsroom strategy.
  • Don’t “parachute in” to communities or groups for stories without following up or offering them service. This can happen at the national level and the local level.
  • Don’t use buzzwords or vague, progressive-sounding words without following through on what they mean in action and promise. Terms like trust, transparency, and, yes, community engagement can do more harm than good if they just come across as virtue signaling.
  • Don’t ignore historically harmful relationships with the media that certain communities may have experienced. Do familiarize yourself with that history, acknowledge it, and work to repair that relationship, and acknowledge harms that have been done.
  • Don’t take in more than you’re giving back to the community. If you are asking community members to offer their time, be sure that you are offering them something in return that is meaningful to them to avoid extractive behavior.
  • Don’t force it or give up if one experiment doesn’t yield. “You have to be selective when it comes to engagement. You can’t expect it to work for every single thing.” – María Méndez, Texas Tribune

Community engagement journalism approaches in action:

Watch the discussion with Lauren, María, Annie, and Derrick below:

Thanks again to our partners