How the Knoxville News Sentinel’s investigative reporting is building back trust with Black readers

By Katelyn Chedraoui, CISLM intern

Legacy news organizations have a reputation that proceeds them. On one hand, they have been trusted mainstream sources of information for decades. But in that coverage, they have a long history of abandoning or harmfully misrepresenting non-wealthy, non-white communities.

The Knoxville News Sentinel is no exception to this. But they’re working to change it.

The Gannett-owned paper was a 2020-21 participant in the UNC-Knight Table Stakes transformation program. During that time, newsroom leaders identified their key challenge as needing to deepen relationships with Black communities in and around Knoxville, as they had been historically underserved by the paper. Throughout their time in Table Stakes, they were able to evolve their strategy to more prominently center community voices and cultivate more meaningful relationships with community leaders.

Since the end of their time in cohort four in September 2021, the Knoxville News Sentinel has continued working toward those goals, through a “recalibration of every aspect of journalism,” said Joel Christopher, executive editor of the News Sentinel.

A fundamental shift in thinking, Christopher said, was just the beginning. Bridging the divides between the newsroom and communities cannot be done in only weeks or months. In practice, that shift takes many forms:

  • Reprioritizing sourcing guidelines to give equal weight to community sources compared to traditional sources like police and prosecutors. This meant redoubling efforts to make meaningful relationships with community sources and not always taking information from traditional sources on their merit. “This is a particularly hard lift when the newsroom for generations neglected to create and nurture bonds with our full community, and (it) required us to put front and center efforts to broaden our sources,” Christopher said.
  • Contextualizing individual news stories in terms of ‘the big picture’ for maximum reader understanding. Feedback from an outside group of nonsubscribers in their Digital Advisory Group said that readers who had not read every other previous investigative story had some confusion about the full context of each piece of an investigative series, as these series include multiple stories published across a span of several months. This feedback prompted the News Sentinel to rethink how investigative pieces are initially structured, explaining topics in coverage more clearly so that those readers fresh to the series are able to grasp the full story more easily.
  • Rethinking the presentation and delivery of news to best represent the nuanced scope of stories and best serving the audience. Great reporting had gotten lost behind a poor presentation of it, whether it was paired with an insensitive headline or accompanying image, or if it was locked to nonsubscribers behind a paywall. Reassessing and giving extra care to how stories are presented and delivered are key to the News Sentinel’s audience-centric strategy.
Joel Christopher, editor executive editor of the News Sentinel

“We talk frequently, in individual reporting efforts and collectively, about setting aside the time and attention to build relationships that are not purely transactional,” said Christopher. “We continue to learn and emphasize the importance of listening fully and without defensiveness.”

For two reporters, the way to implement that strategy is by leading all reporting with a strong sense of intentionality and working to build trust by building meaningful relationships with BIPOC communities. For Tyler Whetstone, a government and politics investigative reporter for the News Sentinel, that means pursuing investigations that tell the story of underserved communities and holding officials accountable. For Angela Dennis, a social justice, race and equity reporter, building trust means working to repair historic mistrust both inside and out of the newsroom.

Tyler Whetstone, a government and politics investigative reporter

In pursuing this practice, much of Whetstone’s investigative reporting has focused on holding the Knoxville police department accountable. In 2021, Whetstone reported the coverup of an officer’s racist comments, police chief Eve Thomas’ retirement and arrests of protestors after the death of Austin-East Magnet student Anthony Thompson Jr., who was shot and killed by police in the high school’s bathroom.

Part of being intentional means actively working to keep the government accountable, one of the core functions of

journalism. “We hope that this type of reporting shows that there are some issues that need to be worked on, and that (investigative reporting) can lead to better policing,” Whetstone said.

Dennis’ reporting on social justice, race and equity in Knoxville covers a large number of stories. Most recently, she wrote about “How Black activism birthed Knoxville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue”, the fight for a Sullivan County teacher to regain his job after being fired in a critical race theory debate and Zenobia Dobson’s pardoning by the governor of Tennessee. She and Whetstone also recently published the next article in a series covering the search for Knoxville’s next police chief, following up on an arrest of an activist that stunned participants at a community listening meeting meant to give the city input about the next chief of Knoxville police department.

Guiding Dennis’ reporting is the need to tell all stories. “(Intentionality) goes well beyond simply reporting on Black communities,” Dennis said. “How are we reporting is the question. What is the extent of our coverage of Black American life? Does it include the good, the joy, the positive images? That is a must for me.” Dennis’ personal slogan “All Black news isn’t bad news” reflects this practice.

Angela Dennis, a social justice, race and equity reporter

For any news organization, trying to measure or quantify trust built is difficult. A change in reputation, how news is perceived or a willingness to engage with the newsroom staff could indicate impact, but they do not always correlate to easily measurable data, such as increased subscribers or followers. For the News Sentinel staff, they realize the process might take years as they continue to work to repair their community relationships.

“I see the signs in (BIPOC communities’) willingness to talk to me and allow me to tell their stories,” Dennis said. “I am often contacted by sources in these communities without seeking them out. That alone says they feel they can trust me.” She added that she has heard from community members that efforts to diversify the newsroom has made some more inclined to work with the News Sentinel.

In November of last year, Whetstone, on account of his investigative reporting, was invited to join Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange’s 16th racial justice town hall. The town halls are a series designed to “identify practices to support a more racially equitable world,” created after the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020. Whetstone was the first solo panelist of the series, discussing with moderator the Rev. Kesler how clear and accurate journalism was essential for keeping Knoxville communities informed and how the pathway to this kind of reporting had been “a journey of faith.”

Dennis was also a panelist for a previous Beck Cultural Exchange’s racial justice town hall focused on Black young adult leaders in Knoxville. She was also recently awarded a prestigious Gannett Greatest Award for “‘community cultivation’ efforts in Knoxville and beyond.”

“If we’re not telling the story of our whole community, then we’re not doing our job,” Whetstone said at the event. “Some of it’s being intentional when we tell stories and being intentional about who we talk to for stories, and we’re not there yet, we’re not even close, but we’re getting there.”

“If we’re not telling the story of our whole community, then we’re not doing our job,”

“Throughout history, the media has done incredible damage to Black people and people of color. I have the power to change that, and so does the rest of our newsroom. That means the world to me,” Dennis said. “It’s personal. It would be impossible for me to do this work if I couldn’t make a difference or right the wrongs of media in general, and especially in my own community and at the Knoxville News Sentinel.”