What “Journalism as a Service” Means to Social Journalists
It’s not just more of “what we’ve always done”
When I talk about our social journalism program at the Newmark Journalism School at CUNY and our focus on listening to and engaging communities, one response I get *over and over* is:
“I don’t understand how that’s different than what we’ve always done. I’ve always seen journalism as a public service.”
To some extent, this is, of course, true, and I understand why people say this. It is passion for public service and informing people about important issues so that they can participate in democracy that inspires most people to get into this business, according to surveys I did while working at the Committee of Concerned Journalists, as well as the research that went into the book Elements of Journalism.
It’s also true that great beat reporters have always had an ear to the ground and a close connection to the communities they cover. When I traveled the country helping to lead training workshops for reporters and editors at newspapers in the early 2000s, the metro dailies large and small we worked with had no shortage of people that inspired me with their hard work and their ability to uncover important stories and watchdog the powerful in their beat.
But friends, let’s not drink too much of our own Kool-Aid. We need to recognize where traditional journalism has often fallen short when it comes to public service, and develop new skills and practices that will allow us to do better.
Traditional reporting often suffers from the following problems, among others:
- Writing for our bosses, peers, awards judges and prominent sources in ways that do not always make what is important or relevant to many members of the community clear. How many city council meeting stories have you read that are primarily inside-baseball accounts of power squabbles in which the impact of policies on residents is murky at best? How many election stories are all about the horse race?
- Over-reliance on official or even just convenient (e.g. picks up the phone on deadline) sources of news. This has been documented over and over by academic research going back decades and one of its largest impacts is a bias toward the status quo.
- Whole parts of a community that are largely marginalized and ignored, e.g. maybe you cover the Puerto Rican Day Parade every year but you rarely talk to or quote people from this community in your stories on education, taxes, you name it. Did many black communities have concerns about police actions before the past few years, when hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter became prominent? Hell yes, they did, but you didn’t tend to see much mainstream news coverage….were we listening?
- Tendency to see newsworthiness through an unacknowledged white male bias masked as “objectivity.” Editors that are unable to see how decisions they make about the prominence or value of a given story vs others is based on their own biases because these biases are so deeply ingrained that they are simply seen as “normal” or unquestionable.
I could go on, but this is a good start. Does this mean *every* reporter or *every* story or *every* publication falls short *all* of the time in the ways listed above? No. But we can, and we must, do better. One of my early mentors from my CCJ days, Geneva Overholser, a long-time distinguished journalist and former director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, put it best:
“We became so enamored of topple-the-mighty journalism that we forgot about raise-up-the-people journalism.”
In other words, we are pretty damn good at holding powerful institutions accountable to the public, and we should absolutely keep doing that. If you didn’t get chills from reading the New York Times’ blockbuster story on Trump’s finances and outright fraud last week, you aren’t a real journalist. But we haven’t done as good of a job understanding citizens’s needs and perspectives from the bottom-up — especially those citizens who have the least power in our society.
So that’s where social journalism comes in. We are trying to develop new skills — in addition to, not instead of, those critical traditional reporting skills — in listening, in using new tools to engage people to participate in the news process, in helping to connect people with each other, in building stronger, less transactional, trusting relationships, in delivering information in ways that is more actionable and relevant to people, whether that’s a story or a text.
We bring in community organizers, ethnographers, social psychologists, pioneers in new ways of fostering dialogue among people that disagree, and others on the cutting edge to see what techniques journalists can learn from them that may be outside of our normal practices.
We know we have a ways to go before we restore trust with communities we’ve often ignored or harmed, and we believe that we have the tools to do that by working harder, smarter, and in less transactional ways.
So in other words, we are taking this commitment to public service that journalists have always had and broadening, strengthening and developing it.