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Doing less harm, not just more good

“Doing good entangles us with moral righteousness, the problematic ‘giving voice to the voiceless.’ Doing less harm instead means understanding how we have conditioned ourselves out of listening to those voices.”

A few weeks ago, my best friend of 18 years, Lisa Kim, posed a question: “What if we told people to do less harm instead of more good?”

In that moment, Lisa, a true Aquarius, made sense of 2018’s noise for me. Because amid all the talk of reimagining journalism, I’m not sure we’re doing less harm. Less harm ultimately means we must slow down, listen, and reflect.

In 2019, we will have that choice, to create a culture of engagement framed around doing less harm, not more good.

We’ve seen news organizations hire engagement reporters and test new tools. But these are the first steps of many. If journalism is to fulfill its function as a public good, we must integrate engagement at every level in our newsrooms. As fellow City Bureau cofounder Darryl Holliday says: “Engagement is like accuracy; it’s a pillar of journalism, not a specialty.” When news organizations concentrate engagement into a singular role, we are perpetuating the idea that one new trend or tool — instead of a systemic overhaul — will save journalism. When we concentrate engagement into a singular role, we also perpetuate a problematic hero complex. So how can your organization engage better? Take inspiration from Taylor Blatchford’s great overview for MediaShift of outlets integrating the practice.

This culture needs to shift from doing more good to less harm so that journalists can reckon with how capitalism has ravaged this industry. Doing less harm means we stop perpetuating the “ideals of acquisitive and achievement-oriented democracy” that Catholic priest Ivan Illich broke down in his 1968 speech, “To Hell with Good Intentions.” It was an address to U.S. volunteers in Mexico who, to him, were perpetuating the “deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity.”

Paternalism underscores journalists’ training also, resulting in things like parachute reporting.

Think about the demographics of the folks who are often told to do more good. They’re the people Illich addressed, the ones still most represented in newsrooms: my fellow white folks. And the problem with white folks diving into doing good is that we don’t often reflect on the harm of the systems that benefit us.

Journalists must repurpose medicine’s Hippocratic motto: “First, do no harm.” (Yes, I am binge-watching “Grey’s Anatomy” for the first time.) Because the “less” in “do less harm” more correctly captures journalism’s violent history.

Doing good entangles us with moral righteousness, the problematic “giving voice to the voiceless.” Doing less harm instead means understanding how we have, as Ta-Nehisi Coates said in 2010, conditioned ourselves out of listening to those voices.

The humbling of the journalism industry could be a great moment to heal these harms. So if this is our Matrix/Morpheus moment, which pill will you take?

Andrea Faye Hart is cofounder and director of community engagement at City Bureau.

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