- or why we brought together local journalist to attain critical mass of citizens’ voices
I was asked the other day — in one of the last smoky pubs of Copenhagen, of all places — I was asked how we could regain credibility in journalism.
A crucially important question at any time, painfully important in times when trust in journalism is questioned by some of those in power as well as by some of those feeling powerless. Sowing doubt is a classic to destabilise. Yet journalists may not turn criticism down per se. Indeed excellent journalists think about such questions these years, and there need to be multiple practical attempts to develop journalism’s contribution to maintain journalisms’ valuable and stabilising role and the necessary trust.
Living in a part of Denmark that is labelled a ’disadvantaged’ region of the country while travelling throughout Europe for the work with Journalismfund, I have been thinking about the distance and lack of connection between the so-called ’disadvantaged’ citizens and those well-networked and often better off. So here is one take on how to work for trustworthy journalism that can claim legitimacy.
We live in times of extreme and growing economic inequality on international and intranational level and in times, where three decades of politics furthering economic inequality have left the remnants of the once strong middle class afraid — deep into their marrow — of losing out and sliding into poverty. And there are indeed large groups also in the developed world already living in poverty; geographically or socially divided and often right next to significantly wealthier people. All historical experience shows that insecurity among citizens and a sense of being powerless furthers the temptation of yearning for a ’strong man’. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen large groups of voters in Western democracies turn to conflict-seeking political movements promising national grandeur and offering scapegoats of all shades. We’ve seen it before. We see it right now. Journalism and media have been instrumentalised by such groups — in complete accordance with historical patterns of how political groups try to destabilise established structures including the media for their own gain. Established credible media are systematically cast in doubt by those in power or those wishing to benefit from turbulence in our societies, causing further uncertainty among citizens
Yet the loss of trust in journalism and media as we know it can not only be connected to that. The initial question is timely and there is an urgent need to answer it. Journalism at any time in history should rejuvenate itself constantly, today we need to be bolder and reinvent journalism. This is a cumbersome but rewarding process, because it allows us to focus.
Essentially journalism is human interaction in a structured way. One important role of journalists is to secure communication between societal groups. Journalists listen to citizens to make their voices heard, journalists facilitate public discourse and journalists hold those in power to account. All this with the ultimate purpose of a stable society, where human life can unfold freely. On an abstract level this answers the initial question.
So, when journalism is human interaction in a structured way, general rules of human interaction apply: Respect, attention, honesty are elements of this interaction each of us appreciate and need. In human interaction, respect, genuine interest and attention equal food, air and water in importance for survival.
And this leads us to how journalism can and should reinvent itself.
If you are in fear or in pain and you scream and people walk by without giving you anything but maybe a wry smile, you’ll be happy to accept anyone who stops asking how they could help. Some more extreme political movements have stopped to listen or at least given people the impression that they listened, they even offered solutions, scapegoats, national grandeur, external enemies. The usual. Local journalism also does stop and listen and make voices heard. Because local journalists are nearby. Much encouraging local journalism is carried out these years. But even the most committed and enthusiastic old and new local journalism groups lack one thing: Critical mass to call upon those in power. Unless they team up with other local journalists.
Listening is the crucial and indispensable first step. But it is not enough. Serious journalism does not just listen, publish what was heard and then walk away. Serious journalists listen, gather and compile, contextualise, analyse — and then translate what they’ve gathered to bring those in power into the conversation. Along the road they will publish to keep the citizens in the loop and the topic in the public eye. Journalists must listen to what citizens have to say about developments all over Europe and bring their findings to the attention of those actually making the decisions: In Europe, this most often are decision makers in Brussels.
In short: Serious journalism listens to the citizens and then journalism uses its professional competences to achieve the critical mass so those holding the power to act are called into action. Case by case.
Obviously there is a demand for a new way of thinking journalism. More interaction with the citizens, more collaborative efforts, a more international outlook. It includes a new task for journalists: To go through the additional efforts of connecting with fellow journalist elsewhere with the purpose to make citizens’ voices heard. One attempt to work in this direction was Journalismfund.eu’s recent effort to bring together local journalists from all over Europe. Let me explain why — through the power of the example.
A start at the recent Dataharvest conference
Throughout Europe, excellent local journalism is carried out, taking citizens’ concerns seriously. But even the best and most committed local journalism — using the most modern methods of investigative, data, constructive journalism, entrepreneurial and inclusive set-ups — will end up appearing toothless, and the effect of fabulous publications on local level will evaporate, if we do not connect the dots to achieve critical mass. Critical mass not on local level but on national or European level, where decisions are actually made.
Take home ownership, rent and housing. It is a problem all over Europe when even middle-class households have difficulties to afford living in our cities. In Bristol, a lively new local newsmagazine writes about the housing crisis. In Hamburg an established newspaper teams up with the new investigative centre to document property ownership — because of the housing crisis. These are just a few examples, we can follow very similar patterns of foreign direct investments, raising rents, changing cities throughout Europe. Housing policies are national competence, foreign investment is regulated by the EU. So, shouldn’t we bring all the local journalistic coverage together to national and European level to reach the European critical mass?
Losing one’s home, causes — if anything — deep insecurity, likely also anger. Listening to tenants — still residing in their homes or already expelled — fulfils the listening part of the exercise. Publishing these reports at local level fulfils the need to raise attention to the problem — local power structures such as mayors are likely to wish to prevent local unrest. But who ultimately decides on legislation about the protection of consumers including tenants? If journalists in the service of their community want to make the voices of the concerned tenants heard, they have to liaise with colleagues from other places, where tenants are under pressure. Only by adding this level of analysis and the networking effort, journalists can gather a critical mass of local voices to make tenants’ concerns heard.
All this was the thought behind a presentation during the recent European Investigative Journalism Conference & Dataharvest, short EIJC18, organised by Journalismfund.eu. We invited a panel of journalists working on the housing crisis and property ownership and asked the editor of a European newsroom to moderate. Once addressing the shared interest and via the European news outlet as an obvious centre of coordination, the panellists immediately after the conference started to organise a team to continue working together. This is new journalism emerging.
Being the program responsible for the conference and the one who brought the panellists together, it is a great pleasure to watch and I cannot help being a bit proud. I see competent and knowledgeable journalists working together in the service of the citizens they have been talking with in each their city. Now they are connecting their findings to bring citizens’ voices to where they should be heard.
A single teamwork is then more than just a bunch of journalists collaborating. It is a test of developing a new journalism. Each such collaboration contributes to reinvent journalism adapted to our networked societies: Journalism that is credible and significant.