The need for journalism following times of crisis
This is not what you think. This is not a call for balanced, calm and fair reporting nor a parade of recognition that journalists are hard working professionals in times of crisis, although of course the latter is true.
These are the words I have been meaning to write for three, maybe four years now: We need journalism because we need to care about diversity.
We need journalism because we need to connect with one another at a fundamental human level.
We need journalism because we need to see empathy modelled through channels of public communication.
We, therefore, need journalism because we must use its tools of communication to fight hate, not incite it.
I, unfortunately, know about hate. On Friday, 15 March, the world around me shattered in New Zealand when a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslims across two Mosques during their afternoon prayers in Christchurch.
It’s been horrific, and as a New Zealander I feel like my soul has been crushed, my heart ripped in half as the reality and hurt of this terror attack sinks in.
What happened? How did we get to this point? And how can this utter crisis enable us to start having meaningful conversations in societies like New Zealand, where we have for so long buried our heads in the sand about casual racism and widespread yet largely unchallenged discrimination?
To answer part of this, we have the tools of a journalist. Listening, accurately reporting, conversing. Deep listening to communities. Deep listening to people who are different from ourselves. Acknowledging multiple truths as opposed to a singular, scientific and objective one.
If we are creative, if we are committed, then these tools of journalism can be one of the greatest means we have to learn about empathy, and therefore, to care.
But, somewhere in the collective history of the West, we have decided that empathy is aligned with subjectivity. That to care is to have an opinion. The story we have told about journalism is that we must present all sides of a story for fear of bias coverage. This has meant that time and time again we have given equal space to those who perpetuate harmful stereotypes because their views are seen as equally important as the — often minority groups — who dare to speak out about their lived experiences of discrimination.
Meanwhile, thinly disguised hate is allowed in the comments section, in commentary and in the name of balance and right to free speech.
I saw this when I lived in Australia throughout the same-sex marriage plebiscite as far right Christian lobbyists got given airtime to talk about how my sexual identity makes me less worthy of equal rights than them. I’ve seen this in the anti-trans women’s lobby groups who have been given ample media coverage to share their views in the name of balance and fairness. And now, I’ve seen this in the past few days as the same old commentators use their large, public and journalistic platforms to suggest that we should pause our collective reflection because we might be politicising this terror attack. The realities these commentators might have to face through this conversation aren’t convenient to their world view, so instead, they tell us all that we are wrong to start questioning and demanding more, better.
Don’t get me wrong: many other organisations like government agencies and tech companies have questions to answer about their role in Friday’s heinous terror attack too. Particularly about online radicalisation of white supremacists.
But for now, journalism.
Because we have been reminded in the most heartbreaking way of how, ironically, skewed a ‘balanced’ approach to reporting can be.
So, in practice, how can the act of journalism enable empathy and better support us to understand difference?
First, through a shift of professional values and decision-making processes by newsrooms.
What about instead of promoting subjectivity as an inherently bad quality in news media, we shift our thinking and instead start talking about a revised set of values and principles for journalism?
What about an empathetic approach to journalism that enables journalists to act as humans first and to care, to express emotion, to side with diversity and stand up for minority communities that struggle to have their voices listened to?
What about enabling journalists to denounce politicians who spew hate? This, instead of standing by and giving them airtime in the name of professionalism and neutrality. After all, those with power and popular voice are often not those who need our support the most. We’re now seeing this as accounts from the country’s Islamic Women’s Council emerge as to how hard they’ve tried to raise attention to violent threats against Muslims in New Zealand over the past five years.
What about news networks partnering with community organisations and supporting communities to safely share their stories on their terms? Surely there could be a win-win situation in this approach if news organisations got quality content and community organisations got quality coverage.
What about giving preference to reporting stories on minority groups who time and time again are told their experiences aren’t important enough for media coverage, are too niche, or that someone with a different point of view must counter them?
What about refusing to allow extremists onto panels for the sake of balance?
Or refusing to accept and give air time to the casual racism that so many commentators take as their birthright to share and perpetuate?
There are so many ways we can introduce ethics of care and empathy back to journalism.
Minority issues are never going to be the hot topic of the majority. But if we take an approach to reporting that grounds human rights and dignity as a key framework, then we might think about centring these stories because we know they are important, regardless of what any rating metrics might say.
Second, there is a personal component. And by this, I’m talking about what you can do.
Of primary concern is thinking about the way news is framed and served up to you. Be critical, consider the angle, consider whose voice you’re listening to in a story and who gets to speak.
On this note, there is also a need to consider how the tools of journalism are used in different spaces outside of mainstream media.
Just as online networks and ad hoc media can be weaponised for hate, so too can alternative media sources be used for promoting empathy and dialogue and understanding.
In many instances, because (in non-crisis situations) accounts by minorities of their lived experience aren’t told through mainstream media, we tend to think they do not hold the relevance of a journalist telling the story. More often than not, these accounts, many of which are part of broader narratives focused on highlighting the need for social change, do hold relevance.
We can all be aware of the need to broaden our scope of what public forms of communication we consider to be qualified and authoritative sources of new information.
For example, this morning a Greens politician shared words from a Muslim friend of hers in Auckland. It was a powerful testimony to his experiences as someone growing up brown and Muslim in New Zealand.
You are smart enough to distinguish source from story; you do not need to vote for a politician just because you engage with something she has shared. You can still accept the truth in this person’s narrative.
So. How about, instead of dismissing someone’s account of discrimination because it’s not reported fact through a mainstream outlet and therefore may not be ‘trustworthy’, you instead operate from a perspective of care and solidarity. Consider the alternative. Listen first, listen deep.
Take the word of minorities about their experiences above that of a commentator who is paid to be divisive.
On this note, we all, as members of the public, can also engage in a practice of journalism by listening, sharing stories informally through our own networks, challenging bigoted opinions and again, listening to those in our communities who are different from ourselves. This happens in conversations with friends, on our own social media accounts, through our own communications channels whether these be a blog or a dinner party. In essence, we all have the ability to co-opt the tools of journalism to build connections with one another, to develop empathy, to care, to learn about difference.
These are the ways we can start to fight white supremacy and extremism at a grassroots level.
This is why we need journalism.