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Making a Case for New Taxonomies in Journalism

By Jan Schaffer

In March, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson addressed the pervasive narrative that Hillary Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy in her column in The Guardian.

However, she weighed in from a particular base of knowledge: “As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising:

Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” Abraham declared.

Now, I’m not penning a political post here. But her column stuck in my mind as an example, not just of opinion, but also of a certain kind of knowledge-based journalism that offered a different value proposition to readers. I was surprised that media pundits didn’t weigh in.

Yet I think it merits attention as one example of some new forms of journalism populating the new media landscape –much of it, by the way, emerging from entrepreneurial news startups.

I think there are enough examples that we can begin to develop taxonomies. I’d also suggest that journalism educators need to figure out how to teach their students about these developments because many of them depart from the more rigid conventions of journalism — objectivity, neutrality, balance — that we traditionally teach.

We have seen the launch of dozens of regional investigative news sites, scores of hyperlocal sites, a rich brew of niche sites covering schools, the environment, healthcare, the arts and the built environment.

Not all subscribe to dispassionate newsgathering and reporting. Some are bringing different motivations and metrics to the table. Consider The Marshall Project, which Its editor, Bill Keller, calls mission-driven. “We see a system from law enforcement through the courts system and into prisons and the supervision of people who have gotten out of prison, [and it] is a mess. Our mission is to expose things that aren’t working and to look for things, reforms, new inventions, that seem to work, and go test them, try to hold them up to the same scrutiny that we do to the failures, too,” Keller said in a Women’s Wear Daily interview last year.

The Taxonomies

“Journalists are killing journalism,” declared Jim VandeHei, on his way out the door of Politico, the successful political news site he co-founded. How? By “stubbornly clinging to the old ways.”

Most of the new taxonomies of journalism are replete with conventional journalistic DNA, but often are overlaid with aspirations that differ from the “Speak Truth to Power” and “Afflict the Comfortable” mantras of yore.

Many of these efforts share pronounced traits. They tend to:

· View journalism as, in the words of CUNY’s media thinker Jeff Jarvis, a process, rather than a product.

· Embrace the idea of building community not just covering it.

· Advocate for the common good.

· Avoid the me-too echo chamber.

· Let their readers participate — before, during or after publication.

· Entertain multiple “truths.”

· Share specialized knowledge.

· Advance ideas on how to solve problems.

Many of these emerging forms of journalism aspire to be responsible, while also providing new kinds of value for readers. Some actually seek to help to solve problems. To date, only limited research has been done on their impact.

Here is a start on some of the taxonomies.

· Knowledge-based journalism

· Soft-advocacy journalism

· Activist Journalism

· Restorative narratives

· Social journalism

· Solutions journalism.

Knowledge-based Journalism

Harvard’s Tom Patterson, in his newest book “informing the News,” makes a case that journalists should move away from interviews and observations. He thinks they should rely more on systematic knowledge so they can know what’s true and false instead of just reporting different viewpoints and leaving it to the news consumer to figure out what’s right.

Arguably, the journalism that climate expert Bill McKibben or poverty expert Barbara Ehrenreich produce could rely on the expertise of these authors.

Soft-Advocacy

Legacy journalists squirm at the label “advocacy,” even though muckrakers of the early 20th century were some of the earliest advocates. But have a look at the journalism being produced by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, which reports aggressively and independently on public education but unabashedly advocates for good public schools.

When the respected Catalyst Chicago found there were too many empty seats in the city’s pre-school programs, it didn’t stop with a news story. It worked with local community organizations to produce a series of forums on early childhood education. A year later, nearly all the pre-school slots were filled.

I like to show my journalism students two UrbanMilwaukeen.com photos. One shows a Milwaukee streetscape in need of renewal. The other shows a graphic artist’s rendering of how it might look if some improvements were made. It leaves some journalism students flummoxed: Was this ethical or not?

The community didn’t seem to have a problem with this visualization exercise. In fact, two years later, community momentum triggered by the website’s report helped make the changes happen.

Activist Journalism

With cutbacks in international coverage at many news organizations. NGOs are, in effect, the covering international stories. How do their reports differ from what traditional journalists might report?

Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, is transparent in his suspicion of government and national security protocols. He suggests that an activist journalist might have a point of view, but it is mediated if it is accompanied by a forensic approach to newsgathering.

Restorative Narratives

A hallmark of restorative narratives is a conscious effort to cover the aftermath of a tragedy or a catastrophe with an emphasis on rebuilding and recovery.

For instance, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the local paper, The Newtown Bee, focused reporting efforts on bringing people together to recover from the tragedy.

Much of what Justin Auciello did in creating the Jersey Shore Hurricane News Facebook page in 2011 in the days before Hurricane Irene had to do with spotlighting capacity and resilience in the community. His site went on to be an important resource during Superstorm Sandy. The community has valued his efforts enough that now nearly 250,000 people follow and contribute stories to his news efforts, which now include a website.

Solutions Journalism

When more than 70 news outlets coordinated coverage of the homeless in San Francisco in May 2016, The San Francisco Chronicle imagined one way to fix the problem then reported on the feasibility of that solution — building a city health center to address the mental health issues.

The civic journalism movement in the ’90s had a pronounced emphasis on reporting about public issues and including some solutions that were working elsewhere.

The Solutions Journalism Network advocates rigorous reporting around a solution to a problem and has even built a database where you can track solutions stories via issue or region.

One study by the Engaging News project found that solutions journalism led to a greater sense of optimism and self-efficacy among readers. The study also suggested solutions journalism might correlate with greater time on page as compared to news that focuses narrowly on problems.

Social Journalism

News entrepreneurs are clearly re-imagining the value proposition behind their journalism startups and much of that value seems to involve re-inventing news and information as more than a commodity and re-imagining it as a catalyst as well.

Jeff Jarvis, in announcing a new masters degree in social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said he would also call it “outcomes-based” journalism. He has asserted that journalism must shift from being primarily a producer of content to becoming a service to individuals and communities.

“Content fills things; service accomplishes things,” he likes to point out. In order to provide a service, you have to figure out how to get to know your community and then you have build a relationship with them that goes beyond nabbing some quotes for your story.

I have had the pleasure of helping to mentor the first two cohort groups in this program and I can attest that a journalist who pursues a social journalism focus can have documentable impact.

The current presidential campaign highlights the need for a re-invention of campaign coverage. Journalists adhering to standard conventions, such as balance defined as false equivalencies, have trapped themselves in reporting both sides of the story even when one of the sides was patently false. Calling out lies is not a universal aspiration. “That’s not my job,” said forthcoming debate moderator Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday.

But there may be signs of change. In April, media analyst Clay Shirkey storified examples of journalists finally applying the loaded label “racist” to describe some of the GOP presidential frontrunners, and he planted the media’s extreme discomfort with uttering such labels in historical context.

“Here’s an odd thing, in the Age of Trump: the mainstream press is willing to write about him, his policies, and his supporters, as racist,” he said.

“You could reply “Duh. He and many of his policies & supporters ARE racist.” But the odd bit isn’t that its true, it’s that press now says so.

The press isn’t some detached institution. They participate in political life, and have shied away from calling out racism for decades.

Will there be some new taxonomies for political campaign coverage after this election?

Journalists operating amid richly funded disinformation campaigns and playing catch-up with social media spin need some new examples of how to create campaign coverage that is more valuable to voters.

I’d posit that many of the news forms of journalism impart more than informational value. They help readers navigate through today’s media noise and they help build individual and community capacity. All of this may implications for reaching audiences of Millennials and Gen X’rs.

Above all, an exploration of evolving taxonomies can help news organizations expand their focus beyond new business models for journalism and experiment with new journalism models for news. I think that long before the collapse of business models, the value proposition of journalism was evaporating.

Jan Schaffer is Executive Director of J-Lab and Curator of the Entrepreneurial Journalism Facebook Group.