Getting Out Of The Newsroom For Your Community
Martika Ornella

Thanks Martika for that wonderful recap of Linda Fantin’s talk. She shared many insights that are very much in line with what we’re learning, as well as with my own documentary film work. The assertion that everyone is an expert about their own lived experience particularly resonated, as well as the question around what it means to build deeper relationships with community. By diversifying perspectives through listening to the community, we allow multiple perspectives to shape not just the stories we tell, but the questions we ask in the first place.

I do have one slight caution about allowing the community to direct the reporting. Yes, I think it is crucial that we humble ourselves, to allow the community to lead us in the discovery and understanding of their story. On the other hand, we have to reckon with all “truths” that may inform our process of reporting and storytelling. One of those is that communities, like people, may have their own agendas, and we have to know the difference between authentic sharing and manipulation, even if unintentional. I’ve written about filming in New Orleans, about two years after Hurricane Katrina. Much of the destruction of the Lower 9th Ward appeared to have remained undisturbed, as if the hurricane occurred weeks ago, not years. I was focused on the efforts of a local activist, and met his partners and volunteers. Everyone had a story to tell, and it became clear to me after a few conversations that this community of activists was fractured, divided by different philosophies about how to affect change in the Lower 9th Ward, notions of “good guys” and “bad guys,” with varying theories about how the latter were trying to destroy the organization and the movement. Everyone was motivated to tell their story in order to advance their own agenda, and make the case for their own point of view. Add to that a view of the media these folks all seemed to share, that it is a vehicle to shape perception in one’s favor, and invalidate all other views, and you have the makings for interactions that are more a collection of overwrought soundbites than authentic communication. The motivation for this on the part of the community, I believe, is well-intentioned, however misguided, and it’s something about which to always be vigilant. The journalist, the director, has to strike a balance between being led and being a leader of her own project. Always the diplomat, you have to know when you’re getting deeper, and when you’re getting played. However well-intentioned, of course ;-)

1. When has journalism positively served your community?

I’m finding it hard to give a simple positive/negative answer to this question. Of course, whenever journalism is able to take an issue and humanize it, to foster empathy and galvanize thousands, millions of people into civic action, that is “positive.” But journalism isn’t a monolith. The very same story may be covered by different outlets, each taking their varying approaches and imposing their own framing. What can be empathic coverage from one outlet, can warp into sensational exploitation on another. Take the playing of the video of Eric Garner being murdered by the police. Seeing that footage on the news served to memorialize the truth about what happened to this man, it served as a clarion call for police reform and accountability, and galvanized people into action through demonstrations and demands for justice. At other times, that very same footage seemed to serve a much more cynical aim, that of a real-life snuff film played in heavy rotation for high ratings.

2. Can you recall a time when journalism has failed your community?

One of the motivations for the film that I’m working on now — a story of an inner-city, black family impacted by gun violence when the baby of the family, a 13-year-old girl, is struck by a stray bullet — is that journalism has failed those communities through stereotypical, reductive framings, and biased reporting that presents people in those communities more like perpetrators and predators, and less like victims of the problem of guns and gun violence in America. The hope is that this film will humanize members of these communities throughout the country, that people will see themselves reflected in the narrative of this American family, and it will help to reframe the conversation about gun violence as one that has victims from Sandy Hook to North Philly.

3. Are you planning to serve a virtual community? If not, how have you physically engaged your community?

In terms of physically engaging my community, we have been filming and collecting stories. We have begun developing partnerships with local community and violence prevention organizations. We’re planning an event with a local gallery, consisting of photographs we’ve taken over a decade of filming, inviting organizations to be part of the event, to share their work and to create a space for our subjects to share their stories with the public.