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We are responsible for how we use our power

“We must collaborate on rewriting the power dynamics between newsrooms and each other, our audiences and those we seek to hold accountable.”

Newsrooms are examining their relationships with each other, with audiences and with those we seek to hold accountable with a new sense of urgency, need and vulnerability. The time of surviving without the explicit support and trust of the public is over. The time of being able to do the work that we need to do in isolation from one another is over. The time in which we endeavor to both serve society and default to centering reporting around the interests or perspectives of the most powerful is long past due for being over.

Since Acta Diurna we’ve focused on news about the world around us — stories about crime, politics, international diplomacy, war, economies and labor, science and arts and in each of these subjects, the people at the center of the issues at hand. We create stories that have a cast of characters and a plot, told with the intention to inform or provoke. This structure does not serve all of our audiences. It leaves behind vulnerable and marginalized communities. It ignores the reality of many people.

We must collaborate on rewriting the power dynamics between newsrooms and each other, our audiences and those we seek to hold accountable.

To start, we need to replace the traditional process of “Reporting About” with intentional practices that take into account the respective power of the people involved.

For + With > About

Instead of considering only the object of the reporting, we must consider the greater context.

Each piece of reporting should be contemplated in terms of power and representation, so that the those with the least amount of power and whom are represented or affected by what the reporting is “About” are always part of “For” or “With”?

To pretend power and influence has nothing to do with our work is to be recklessly naive about how the world works and how journalism plays a role in enabling or exposing how power is wielded in our societies.

If we start from the place of who we are reporting for and who we are including in that reporting, we reduce our chances in excluding those with the least power from the conversations around issues they are most affected by.

For example, if a newsroom wanted to cover economic hardship, many newsrooms would still follow this general editorial process:

  • Decide that’s the topic to be reported about;
  • Find some numbers and statistics to convey the scope of the issue;
  • Interview an expert or two (most likely academics) about the topic;
  • Interview political figures (most likely ones that disagree with each other on how to address the issue or whether the issue even needs to be addressed);
  • Interview a few people experiencing economic hardship in order to have colorful quotes to illustrate the story (likely accompanied by imagery that slightly or explicitly verges on exploitation);
  • Publish the story.

What if instead, the process was more like this:

A newsroom responds to a need or request for reporting about economic hardship because it’s in the best interest of the audience or society. From there, the process is answering three questions.

Who is the reporting for?

  • Is it meant to help people experiencing hardship navigate their situation better?
  • Is it meant to inform and persuade people with some form of social, political or economic capital to engage with the problem and participate in addressing the issue?
  • Is it meant to inform the general public to create a more knowledgeable electorate and community that can engage with the issue in whatever form they choose?

Who should this reporting be done with?

  • Who is most directly affected by the issue and how can they contribute to the reporting?
  • Who has the most power or influence over this issue and should be asked to account for how that power or influence is being used?
  • Who has unique or valuable expertise to contribute to a fuller understanding of the issue and potential solutions?
  • Are there other newsrooms or potential partners that can be partnered with to better serve the reporting?

And ultimately, are you prioritizing those who are disempowered over those who are empowered?

What does the reporting need to be about to serve who the story is for?

  • What questions should be answered (or maybe just posed) by this reporting?
  • Who is centered in the coverage?

This is likely not the final version of this formula, but it’s a start in reorienting what we do so that we serve the needs of our audiences and societies rather than entrenched powers.

The intersection of capital “J” Journalism — the institution of service and information that we’ve protected because it’s essential to society — and journalism-the-industry has created a complicated information ecosystem that has left our audiences and our societal institutions vulnerable. Our decisions as reporters and as organizations must reflect not only our commitment to the ideals of journalism, but also our role in the power dynamics of our societies and the accountability required of an institution as powerful as ours. In the coming year, we will be held to a higher standard for editorial decisions, organizational affiliations and use of our power — and we should be.

Heather Bryant is the founder and director of Project Facet.

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