Want to support accurate journalism? Fund solidarity reporting.

Last summer, solidarity became a national buzzword. Thousands of people declared and demanded solidarity against racism in the wake of police murdering George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Some news organizations swiftly moved beyond the statement by implementing and amplifying solidarity reporting: the practice of going directly to marginalized communities to inform accurate coverage instead of solely relying on authorities and elites to tell the story. But many news outlets did not go this route, and remain caught between a desire to appear neutrally “balanced” and the growing understanding that mistaking balance for accuracy can promote misinformation with grave repercussions.

As journalism funders regularly pledge to support accurate reporting, it’s time to be more specific — and more discerning — about what qualifies as accurate reporting, particularly in coverage of marginalized people.

Journalistic accuracy must be substantive — not surface-level

News organizations often achieve surface-level accuracy by amplifying the words they hear on a police scanner or during a press conference without mistyping or omitting any talking points. The problem is that accurately repeating what someone says doesn’t mean their statements are true: distortions, decontextualized self-validation, and outright lies are common. And as we know from research in the last five years alone, fact-checking after publishing doesn’t easily fix misinformation.

Substantive accuracy, on the other hand, is a hallmark of solidarity reporting and means more than centering institutions of power and people employed by them. It means amplifying the voices of those who live the news every day. These reporting practices represent affected communities first.

Substantive accuracy is a hallmark of solidarity reporting and means more than centering institutions of power and people employed by them. It means amplifying the voices of those who live the news every day.

Think of it this way: if a reporter were writing a story about injustice affecting the house you live in, who would know the most about it? The answer is likely you. Imagine, though, that the reporter never reaches out to you. Instead, they speak with the city council, police officers, and your landlord or mortgage lender. This story might provide surface-level accuracy through amplifying “expert” voices, but it would lack the substantive accuracy that your perspective, as the most directly affected person, would provide.

Members of marginalized communities don’t need to imagine this scenario. They live it every day when even the best-resourced local news outlets persistently quote credentialed experts, law enforcement, and bureaucrats at the expense of representing the people who are living, struggling, and dying due to the unjust conditions under discussion.

Solidarity journalism prevents misinformation

Surface-level accuracy sets the stage for journalism to amplify misinformation, while substantive accuracy through solidarity practices remedies it.

Let’s consider a recent example: When police murdered George Floyd, the initial report made no mention of a police officer’s knee on his neck. At a surface-level, it is technically true that this report said, “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” It is far from true that this report accounts for how George Floyd died. We know this because of more reliable sources who lived the moment. Four children who witnessed the murder provided the most accurate account of what happened. And in March 2021, in stark and undeniable contrast to the original police report, they provided accurate court testimony about how George Floyd was killed.

Cases like this make it so clear that when reporters center sources with institutional power and stop there, the public does not get a substantively accurate story. All too often, surface-level reporting further amplifies misinformation. Fortunately, we know that solidarity reporting can address this problem.

…When reporters center sources with institutional power and stop there, the public does not get a substantively accurate story. All too often, surface-level reporting further amplifies misinformation.

Solidarity reporting strengthens substantive accuracy across a range of issues

Any newsroom that covers timely and important issues should provide substantively accurate coverage. Solidarity reporting improves accuracy across a range of these issues and communities, including:

As news organizations promise to learn from their past mistakes, journalism funders can support solidarity reporting as a way to help news outlets move beyond statements and apologies and toward achieving greater substantive accuracy.

A call for funders: Supporting accurate reporting means supporting solidarity reporting

Funders have the power to accelerate a trajectory toward a more accurate, ethical, and equitable news ecosystem. As more foundations invest in a growing range of news outlets, news initiatives, and news partnerships, solidarity reporting offers a set of criteria that funders can use to make — and justify — their decisions. Next time you’re reviewing a proposal, ask yourself these three questions to understand how or if solidarity is part of the reporting process:

  • Is the project striving for substantive accuracy in journalism, which means including the perspectives of people directly affected by ongoing injustice?
  • Are the terms, frames, and definitions of the project aligned with affected communities’ self-described needs?
  • In the face of injustice, will leadership and contributors be able to name it and stand against it, or is the project structurally tied to maintaining a façade of neutrality?

A minimal standard of surface-level accuracy in journalism cannot suffice. Such a low standard breeds misinformation about marginalized communities and perpetuates harm against them. Solidarity reporting, and the substantive accuracy within it, offers a way for journalism to contribute to a more just future.

Anita Varma, PhD leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative. She is an incoming assistant professor at UT Austin’s School of Journalism & Media and senior faculty research associate at the Center for Media Engagement. Previously, she was at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (Santa Clara University). The Solidarity Journalism Initiative helps journalists implement solidarity in their reporting on marginalized communities. If you are a journalist or journalism supporter and would like to learn more about Solidarity Journalism, please contact anita.varma@austin.utexas.edu. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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