Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Media Reporting of Community Indicators Reports

Two recent editorials in two very different cities commenting on community indicators reports got me thinking this week. When we prepare an indicators report for the community, how well do we convey the message of the report? How does the local media understand the report, and what do they say?

The Calgary Herald called the recent Vital Signs report "A brutal report card on Calgary's failing quality of life" that "could be the watershed moment that defines our future." The Boulder County Business Report said the recent Healthy Community report "left me a bit bewildered" and added, "I'm not one for mincing words when I think something's not up to par. I don't think our community indicators should either."

Those are a couple of extremes in reporting on indicators -- "brutal" or "minced." How do we get our message across in a way that's strong enough for people to take notice, but in a way that still inspires action and not defeat? How do we make sure the message doesn't come across as too hot or too cold?

A couple of years ago, our local newspaper took our Quality of Life Progress Report and used an editorial cartoon to describe how they saw the value of the report.

Here's Jacksonville, Florida's skyline:

And the editorial cartoon:

This is how the newspaper described the report: "For most citizens, Jacksonville is a wonderful place to live. To keep it that way, the community needs to deal with an underclass that is poorly educated and has little hope in the future. There is no better summary of challenges than the new Quality of Life Progress Report from Jacksonville Community Council Inc. JCCI's annual report has become a valuable tool to use to chart progress in Jacksonville and prioritize challenges."

And again: “In some ways, the best news for Jacksonville is the [Quality of Life Progress] Report itself. The very premise of the report, and of JCCI, is the belief in Jacksonville as a community where the problems of some are the responsibility of everyone.”

Sometimes, as Baby Bear might say, they get it just right. That's the message of our report, and they nailed it.

Different reports have different messages, and so "just right" may mean something different in your community. Your community may need "brutal" -- the editorial in Calgary ended with, "The initiative is a commendable example of community action at the grassroots level. It's this sort of leadership that will put pressure on our elected leaders to strive for and help create a better city."

Certainly it needs clarity. While we would all hope indicators would spark reflection and conversation, reporters often require the message spelled out for them. From Boulder again: "But the report, despite a concise summary section and updates from the last community indicators in 2005, left me a bit bewildered, scratching my head about what's important and what's not."

Don't make them (or let them!) guess as to the message of the report! Otherwise, the newspaper article will end up repeating the following: "It's a mixed bag -- some things are doing worse, some doing better. Overall, lots of progress has been made, but there's more to do. The report points to a need for more leadership and citizen involvement to make this a better community." Sound familiar? I can point to a dozen articles in Jacksonville that looked like that (and were usually found on page B-6 in the process) before we learned how to involve the media in understanding the message. And when they get it, the community gets it -- when they don't, the community misses an opportunity to engage with the data to understand where they are in relation to where they want to be and get energized for action.

What are your tips for working with the media?


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