Even in the age of Trump, and with trust in journalists at historic lows, much of the industry remains convinced that it can triumph on truth-telling alone. But the problems are self-evident: News makers and consumers alike are overwhelmed with a constant frenzy of terrible news. For news producers, the questions feel urgent: Why are we telling the stories we tell, and whom do they serve? What ethics and values should govern our work? Should journalism, in short, take a lesson from activism?
In June, I co-organized a series of workshops at the Allied Media Conference, a gathering of media-based organizers, hosted annually in Detroit. This year the conference drew over 3,000 people, and the track focused on “movement journalism” drew hundreds of mostly independent and left-wing journalists, activists, and organizers. The journalists, predominantly people of color and women, came from around the country to participate in conversations about transforming journalistic ethics, economics, and aims for the twenty-first century.
As journalism organizations reckon with audience distrust and failing business models, they continue to gravitate towards “engagement,” often just a word for using community organizing tactics in journalism. Grassroots community organizers listen to groups of people to assess their needs, analyze power, and then use that listening and analysis to develop campaigns. Journalists may not be campaigners, but there are two skills that more journalism organizations can and should be using.
Accountability to the audience
Engagement seeks what community organizing already has: participation from a well-defined group of people. What makes the difference? Grassroots organizers are accountable to their constituents.
Sarah Alvarez, one of the presenters at Allied Media this year, has shaped herself into a community-accountable reporter. She started Outlier Media in response to a clear problem: Most news media (in particular public radio, where she worked for five years) is targeted toward upper-income audiences. She set out to start a news service that would provide high-value information for low-income people in Detroit.
Careful assessment of call center data on the needs of Detroit residents led her to focus on housing and utilities—“Detroiters’ number one and number two information needs,” she says. Rather than publishing on a website, she primarily communicates with her readers through text messages; news consumers can ask her, the journalist, for information about the ownership, utilities, and tax status of houses they plan to rent or buy—information that is public but can be hard to access. Instead of working on long investigative pieces about tax foreclosure geared towards audiences outside Detroit, she individually tailors her reporting to consumer needs in Detroit. The information isn’t award-winning storytelling, she says, but it’s useful for the people who need it.
Rather than publishing on a website, Alvarez primarily communicates with her readers through text messages.
“There are many people who have saved their homes with this information,” she says. “There are many people who have avoided eviction.”
She believes journalism should be as deeply involved and accountable to its community as community organizing.
“I definitely have an agenda,” she says. “My agenda is for low income Detroiters to have the same access to information as high income Detroiters.”
“You can’t have accountability without relationship,” Alicia Bell says. She works across North Carolina to connect journalists with underserved communities through an organization called Free Press (which just this week brought in $5 million in new funds for local news in New Jersey). Her project, News Voices, is focused on empowering historically underrepresented groups to work directly with their local media.
Her tactics for organizing with journalists are similar to the ones she used when she was organizing to stop evictions. She has one-on-one conversations with journalists and community members, then convenes people in groups to analyze problems and power structures together. These gatherings have led to story ideas and new coverage streams for reporters, and the hope is that they will also lead to new audiences, or at least more committed and trusting ones.
Like Alvarez, Bell confronts resistance from journalists who feel that deeper connections to community could compromise their independence. To Bell, the ethic of objectivity is in conflict with the effort to be more representative and accountable—or perhaps appears as an excuse not to be.
As an outsider to journalism, Bell says she’s stricken by how actually subjective this ethic is—each outlet she works with has a different process for establishing what is important and what is true. And, she says, “the thing that’s really salient for me is that it wasn’t people of color, it wasn’t queer and trans folks who created that ethic and decided that that was important for journalism.” Straight, white, non-trans men created newsroom structures and continue to hold disproportionate leadership positions, which means that changing newsroom culture is also about addressing power.
Alicia Bell says analyzing power structures is part of the responsibility of journalism; to address rising white supremacy and the realities of workplace sexism, to stop violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people, and to serve the rural communities we have long overlooked or oversimplified, journalists need to look at how we operate. That means, in Bell’s words, “shifting away from the kind of reporting that dehumanizes people and promotes transactional relationships, to media rooted in community that prioritizes deep listening and collaboration.”
Some of us don’t want to just describe this messed-up world. We want to describe its power dynamics in such a way that helps and motivates people who are working to change it. And we want to work in organizations that don’t discriminate against and oppress us.
The framework of media-based organizing could help journalism reckon with its own power structures. Allied Media Projects defines it as “any collaborative process that uses media, art, or technology to address the roots of problems and advances holistic solutions towards a more just and creative world.” Not a bad definition for the process of journalism, if journalists were willing to try it.