The *Social* Journalist and the Murderer

Thoughts on big, hard questions and how we need to move through them.

Allison Dikanovic
Sep 29, 2019 · 7 min read

On the bus on the way to the mattress store this week (read: I officially have a bed and moved into an apartment, so New York is stuck with me), I opened up a book that struck a chord.

Our reporting professor Terry Parris, Jr. — engagement director at The City and formerly of ProPublica — recommended that we each read “The Journalist and the Murderer” by Janet Malcom some time this semester. The book explores the inherent tensions of the relationship between journalists and the people we tell stories about. The difficult and oftentimes problematic dynamics that we as journalists must recognize and wrestle with are laid out very clearly from page one.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom

So many questions came up in my mind like: In our quest to do a public good, are we at times actually inflicting harm? Who truly benefits from our stories? Where is there room to incorporate more reciprocity, more genuinely mutually beneficial relationships and outcomes? How can we reduce if not eliminate the harm people experience as a byproduct of reporting?

Basically, how can we make journalism less extractive? And ideally, more of a service?

These are the kinds of tensions I think about often. They are tensions that have made me question my desire to be a journalist time and again, ever since I first started reporting five years ago.

They are tensions that I am so thankful to now get to grapple with in community.

This week, I realized that I was surrounded by a group of people in my cohort who were also eager to confront these tensions, and to ask these kinds of hard questions of each other, even when it’s not easy.

We continued working with our groups trying to learn more about three different neighborhoods in Brooklyn to help support The City’s new community listening “Open Newsroom” initiative. This felt and still feels really daunting to me, while also being so cool and exciting. I’m an outsider to both these specific neighborhoods and to New York in general, and I truly feel like it. I have such a limited knowledge of the history and current lived reality in these neighborhoods. It feels like the learning curve is immense to get to the point of being able to help foster greater connection and listening in these places. I know that’s the point of the assignment, and it forces us to approach the task with humility and curiosity, but it still feels challenging. I feel very aware of how little I know.

In our classes, we read Natalie Yahr’s brilliant Guide to Less Extractive Reporting that raised a set of questions about how to more ethically engage with sources and the communities we are reporting within. We heard advice on this and more from Allen Arthur — an alumni of the social journalism program, online engagement manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and thoughtful journalist who works with currently and formerly incarcerated people to produce impactful stories about the justice system and reentry community, as well as to regularly curate a live event called the Art of Return.

We also had to pitch a story idea/angle for someone we would like to interview in prison or jail for our reporting class. To some of us, making this kind of pitch for a relatively quick turnaround story about someone in a pretty vulnerable situation felt a little contradictory to a lot of the lines of thinking we had been drawing out earlier in the week. We were challenged in real time with how to best handle some of the power dynamics of journalism that we were just talking about.

A lot of big questions — and even some frustrations — came to the surface.

Allen Arthur accurately reading the mood of our class this week.

I found myself returning to one of my favorite quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet. I think it also applies to a young journalist.

“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

When Allen was talking with our class, he mentioned something briefly about a recent interview he did with some Jesuit priests doing reentry work with folks returning home from prison. A bunch of internal sirens started going off in my mind when he told our class about how the Jesuits use this way of thinking called “Ignatian spirituality” to inform their work, and that they value this idea of “accompaniment.” It means striving to “walk alongside” someone in their struggle, which is grounded in human relationship and in theory creates a more equitable power dynamic than thinking that you can swoop in and help someone.

He advised us to try to take a similar approach to our journalism, and this resonated very personally for me.

Though I don’t consider myself super Catholic or even really Christian, I’ve spent a strange amount of time surrounded by Jesuits and this way of thinking, and it has come to permeate how I view the world and my place in it. My university was a Jesuit school, and after I graduated, I spent a year in a service program led by the Jesuits trying to emulate some of their values (minus the inherent patriarchy etc.).

Until Allen brought it up in this context, I don’t think I would have been able to name it in this way, but a lot of the Jesuit values have been and continue to be a helpful framework for how I want to approach my journalism and my work in general.

One of the ideals that sticks out most to me is this idea of “cura personalis,” which means “care for the whole person” in Latin. It means that everything we do should consider the holistic wellbeing of those we are interacting with or impacting. It acknowledges that nothing and nobody are monolithic. We are nuanced multiplicities, and we are each deserving of care. In journalism, I think this means making space for complicated narratives and making sure that our work honors human dignity.

The other Jesuit thing that I think about often is this idea of being a “contemplative in action.” It’s this notion that we need to be both reflective, intentional and analytical, as well as pragmatic, involved and in motion. The Jesuits have a tool for practicing this that they call the pastoral circle. When you take all the weird bible jargon out, I think it’s really helpful for life, and specifically for journalism and confronting some of these questions that we raised with each other in class this week.

It has four steps, and it’s cyclical. So it’s a process we’re always moving through and evolving in.

  1. Immersion: asking what is happening here? Who is being most impacted? Who isn’t being heard? Etc.
  2. Analysis: asking why is this happening? What is the root? What is the context? What is the history? Who has the power in this situation? Etc.
  3. Reflection: asking what does it mean? What does it mean for the broader community? What is our role in this? Why do we want to learn more about this and tell stories about it in the first place?
  4. Response: asking how should I respond? What action should I take? What is the next step right now? After thinking about all this, how can I best approach this and move forward?

It’s important to think about and to reflect on these dynamics like:

  • the power differentials at play
  • the archaic models of both business and operations that we sometimes are functioning in
  • the unknown nature of outcomes we can’t guarantee
  • our questionable ability to remove ourselves from the story, to take a healthy step back and view people with humanity and situations with measured judgement
  • who our responsibility is to (Is it to our editors, to our sources, or is it to our readers, to our communities, to the broader public and to the functioning of our democracy?)

As social journalists, we need to be able to ask hard questions and to choose to continue asking them. It allows us to be more self aware and transparent about our goals and our methods with our soures, with our readers and with ourselves.

It’s also just as important to constantly choose to move forward amidst the questions, to not get paralyzed by the questions, but to take action with intention and to be open to learning, self-correcting and evolving along the way.

Even when it’s messy, it is heartening to be amidst people who are in good faith pursuing the best possible way of doing our jobs, of interacting with the communities we’re hoping to serve and of listening to each other.

Allison Dikanovic

Written by

becoming a better listener & making journalism more of a service at @newmarkjschool. new york via milwaukee.

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