Take Some Advice From a Social Journalism Student

You may learn a thing or five

Photo by Kristine Villanueva

I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an undergraduate professor of mine at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He said something that I thought was pretty interesting. According to him, there’s two types of journalists — straight, cut and dry facts. The other, watchdogs.

He was onto something.

I’m now a social journalism student at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I am learning ways to put the communities I cover at the heart of my work. That means moving beyond traditional journalism and building tools that my community will find useful. My concentration will be the DIY or underground art and music scene with a focus on gentrification and unregulated spaces.

After a fire broke out at an unregulated art and music space in Oakland, California and killed 36 people, a national conversation on affordability and live-work spaces broke out among the arts community. I found that artists wanted to be able to afford to live in the cities they called home as well as have a place to build their craft and show their work. Because cities will often capitalize on the arts to promote vibrancy and culture in gentrifying neighborhoods, artists I interviewed felt that there should be initiatives to keep the arts alive. Artists often move into unregulated spaces because they feel they have nowhere to go and having any place for creative freedom is worth the risk. I wouldn’t have found this out without implementing a few things I learned in my Community Engagement class with Carrie Brown and Jeff Jarvis.

Listen: I can’t stress this enough. I gleaned valuable information from the DIY arts community by simply asking artists what I should cover. I asked about their concerns, the challenges they faced and eventually built relationships. It’s also important to connect on a human level. You’re a journalist but it’s OK to say I’m a human being too.

Collaborate: These relationships are important to maintain so I can work with people to contribute a solution to the problems surrounding their community. Collaboration could also mean bringing people together and engaging the communities we serve.

Recognize Your Bias: Whether or not we’re talking about the arts, I think this is a crucial thing in journalism. Hiding behind objectivity can be cop out. The methods are objective but as human beings, (remember?) we have biases. Remaining neutral in circumstances of injustice is taking the side of the oppressor. And so, taking a stance does not make your journalism less valuable. In places like the Philippines, journalists who take a stance against these injustices like mass killings are doing impactful work.

Be Transparent About the Process: Let people know exactly what you’re working on and perhaps involve them throughout the reporting process. In class we used a tool called Hearken to ask our communities what stories we should investigate. We then kept in touch with the asker who submitted the question that received the most votes. They felt more invested in my work. It’s the ideology that’s important to consider. Instead of coming into the communities we cover and leaving after getting a good quote, show that you’re invested in people as much as they’re invested in you.

A Different Set of Metrics Matter: Prioritize your audience’s needs over what goes viral. This doesn’t mean journalists will only cover what their audience wants to know. There’s news out there that’s equally important to know. Meet communities where they are and tailor the information you provide in a way that can be useful to your audience.

So, back to watch dogs. Social journalists certainly have the watch dog spirit, though they might look different in the internet age. We still believe in accuracy and truth. But we also must make the most of our resources to provide for the communities we cover. For the DIY arts community, I’ll be working on breaking down regulations and policies to help artists better organize and regulate themselves. That could look like coding something responsive based on policies by city. It will take a lot of work. Many of the projects we’re working on this semester requires much. But someone’s gotta do it. If not journalists, then who?