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Let’s talk about power (yours)

“If we don’t use it in ways that give people quality news, useful information and power, people will find a way around us.”

Journalists like to say that we hold powerful people to account. But are we being honest and accountable about the power we exert?

Journalists have power. Real, visible, make-or-break power. Expert, investigator and publisher power. We get access to the highest levels of government and celebrity, we determine what questions are asked of them and we control the public narrative. Our power can restore justice — and it can just as easily do real harm. If you haven’t taken note of exploitative crime coverage when it comes to people of color, unpaid internships that prioritize the elite at the expense of new, less-privileged voices and, let’s face it, a dicey stance on objectivity that upholds the status quo (men — mostly cis white men 👋🏿) — I have a bridge to sell you.

This is figurative, but over-achievers should feel free to take it literally: It’s time for us to draft a new contract with the public; a commitment that reframes our relationship into one of co-creation, working together to produce a public good. This can take many forms like hosting trainings that democratize journalistic skills, inviting readers to participate in data collection and review that supports quality reporting and forming community advisory boards that meet face-to-face with editors to discuss how coverage is filling information gaps. But that means we’ll have to quit our habit of “deficit-lens” reporting. People aren’t powerless players — they can be active participants who bring their own assets to this work. And we could use the help; imagine how much further we could get if we equipped others to step in when power is being abused.

I won’t go so far as to predict a power-shift in the coming year — because it’ll involve a wholesale reimagining of our (outdated) role as gatekeepers. But the first step is to challenge our assumptions on who wields power and who checks it. As Eric Liu points out in “You’re More Powerful than You Think,” “there is no inherent limit on the amount of power people can create.”

It wouldn’t hurt to remember Liu’s first two points as well: Power concentrates, and power justifies itself.

While we’re busy holding power forces to account in 2019, I’d like to consider how we use our own—and for whose benefit. Because if we don’t use it in ways that give people quality news, useful information and power, people will find a way around us.

Darryl Holliday is a cofounder and news lab director at City Bureau.

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