4Storied, a collaborative journalism project between West Virginia University and George Washington University, sent students into outlying communities near the two schools to investigate where residents look for trusted news and information.
The project explored the relationship outlying communities have with news media. The communities on which the project focused were chosen for either their lack of coverage or their one-dimensional coverage in traditional media outlets.
In West Virginia, the student journalists explored the Black community on the West Side of Charleston and the community around western Monongalia County. In Washington, D.C., they explored the LGBTQ community in Dupont Circle and the Anacostia community, a largely Black community in the 7th and 8th Wards.
Mary Kay McFarland, an associate teaching professor in the WVU Reed College of Media, and Jesse J. Holland, an associate professor in the GWU School of Media and Public Affairs, each led students from their respective schools in this investigative journalism project. The students were charged with understanding how residents received information from the outside world, what they want the outside world to know about them, and what news they want to read, watch and hear about their own communities.
“The goal of this project was two-fold,” McFarland said. “First, we wanted to understand and share the real stories of residents in these communities that often aren’t represented in the media. And second, we hoped to expose students to the rigor of in-depth journalistic research while giving them an authentic view of a community that differs from their own.”
During the spring 2022 semester, students spent time in their respective communities conducting research, identifying key players, performing interviews and capturing multimedia content. The two classes met virtually to provide updates, compare notes and plan stories.
“We found out very quickly that the residents in western Monongalia County were not receptive to phone calls from strangers,” said Ciara Litchfield, a student in the WVU Reed College of Media. “They would rather speak face-to-face than give out their phone numbers, so it was a bit harder – we were going door-to-door and you really had to think on your feet.”
At mid-term, students had an opportunity to pitch story ideas and interview for one of four paid internships per school, for which those selected would continue creating in-depth multimedia stories in the summer for the website fourstoried.com. During the month-long internship, WVU students met virtually and on location with GWU students, traveling to each other’s communities. The inter-collegiate teams worked together to produce stories, video and photographs, and worked with Austin Rupp, the WVU Reed College of Media professional technologist, to design, populate and publish the website.
“I had not done collaborative reporting on that scale, but it went really smoothly,” Litchfield said. “We each had our own strengths and our own way of doing things, but we were able to really complement one another and accomplish something truly amazing.”
“It was also so rewarding to be able to showcase some of these residents who have the biggest hearts and go above and beyond for their communities,” Litchfield added.
This is the third project of a multiyear WVU-GWU partnership funded by Reed College of Media alumnus Scott Widmeyer. The first project, which began in spring 2018, assessed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s economic and environmental impact in West Virginia. The second project tackled the opioid epidemic and ultimately led to a published article in the Washington Post.
The current project kicked off in November 2021 with a joint virtual panel between the two schools called “Who Informs the Citizenry: Finding Trust and Truth in a Fractured Age,” where journalists and media experts from around the nation discussed where people get their news and whom they trust.
“When community stories go untold, when governing bodies are not covered by the media and when our citizens are not included in these stories, we further seal the death of our democracy and the fate of so many communities,” Widmeyer said. “This WVU-GW student reporting team goes into these communities and what one sees from it is great content, storytelling and putting faces on real people problems. I commend these students for their enlightening work. I know it has had an impact in their learning and how they can grow as media professionals who can hopefully reshape the future of journalism.”
“In the end, we learned as much about ourselves as we learned about the people in these communities,” Holland said. “We also were able to bridge many gaps between what journalists think about people in these outlying communities and what people in these outlying communities think about journalists who want to tell their stories. Hopefully, we are all the better for these conversations.”
Scott Widmeyer is a 1975 graduate of the WVU Reed College of Media and chairs the National Council at the GW School of Media and Public Affairs. Scott is Founding Managing Partner of Finn Partners, recognized as one of the largest independent communications firms globally. Prior to joining Finn in 2013, for 25 years, Scott led Widmeyer Communications, a firm known for award-winning work in public policy and effecting change on issues impacting education, health, the environment, trade and safety.