Journalism prioritizes the basic need for survival

“Journalism will do justice to millions of people’s lived realities by representing these shared conditions from the ground up.”

There are more than eight billion people in the world, but often fewer than eight people featured in top news headlines and trending topics of the day. What makes a handful of individuals special enough to attract widespread and ongoing media attention? Usually, the answer is that they have elite status as officials, celebrities, or credentialed experts. Add scandal, shock value, and outrageous events, and you have a “winning” formula for top news billing in some of the best-resourced and largest news platforms and publications.

On the other hand, coverage of issues like the unprecedented scale of flooding in Pakistan tend to rely on brisk numerical shorthand: “millions are now homeless as a result of the floods,” for example. The same shorthand comes up, again and again, in coverage of local issues related to people’s basic survival like housing instability, water supply contamination, food insecurity, and mass shootings. People become statistics, and officials presume to speak on behalf of people affected.

An exasperating exception often takes the form of a profile of an exceptional, upstanding marginalized person who has, against all odds, lifted themselves up by their bootstraps to reach admirable heights by escaping the structural conditions they were born into. But where does that leave everyone else who is still affected by these conditions? Invisible, ignored, and presumably insignificant.

In 2023, I predict that journalism will prioritize people’s basic needs for survival as an act of solidarity. This will take two forms:

First, dominant newsworthiness decisions will refocus attention on entire communities’ struggles and grassroots efforts to address steep (and rising) barriers that prevent people from having the basics like stable housing, clean water, sufficient food, and the safety of simply existing in public without being attacked. Journalism will do justice to millions of people’s lived realities by representing these shared conditions from the ground up — instead of isolating an exceptional individual who has had unusual strokes of luck.

Second, journalism on basic needs for survival will include journalists as among those in need. In Austin, Texas, the Austin News Guild has called attention to the many ways that local journalists struggle due to not being paid enough to live in the city they cover. While some journalism leaders may bristle at the idea of journalists “becoming the story,” we need to recognize that reporting the truth of journalists’ lived reality isn’t a conflict of interest. Instead, it is a sign of the urgent and growing need for solidarity across society to demand change.

As cost of living rises, the likelihood of recession looms, and extreme weather due to climate change escalates, journalism that only offers a sliver of the story can no longer suffice. We need more journalism that rises to the occasion by representing people’s unmet needs, explaining root causes, and accounting for grassroots pursuits to build a society in which everyone’s humanity is recognized and respected at the level of concrete (material) lived conditions. In solidarity, journalism unapologetically reports the truth of people’s ongoing struggles and collective efforts to fight for better.

Anita Varma leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative at the Center for Media Engagement and is an assistant professor focused on media ethics at UT Austin’s School of Journalism and Media.

There are more than eight billion people in the world, but often fewer than eight people featured in top news headlines and trending topics of the day. What makes a handful of individuals special enough to attract widespread and ongoing media attention? Usually, the answer is that they have elite status as officials, celebrities, or credentialed experts. Add scandal, shock value, and outrageous events, and you have a “winning” formula for top news billing in some of the best-resourced and largest news platforms and publications.

On the other hand, coverage of issues like the unprecedented scale of flooding in Pakistan tend to rely on brisk numerical shorthand: “millions are now homeless as a result of the floods,” for example. The same shorthand comes up, again and again, in coverage of local issues related to people’s basic survival like housing instability, water supply contamination, food insecurity, and mass shootings. People become statistics, and officials presume to speak on behalf of people affected.

An exasperating exception often takes the form of a profile of an exceptional, upstanding marginalized person who has, against all odds, lifted themselves up by their bootstraps to reach admirable heights by escaping the structural conditions they were born into. But where does that leave everyone else who is still affected by these conditions? Invisible, ignored, and presumably insignificant.

In 2023, I predict that journalism will prioritize people’s basic needs for survival as an act of solidarity. This will take two forms:

First, dominant newsworthiness decisions will refocus attention on entire communities’ struggles and grassroots efforts to address steep (and rising) barriers that prevent people from having the basics like stable housing, clean water, sufficient food, and the safety of simply existing in public without being attacked. Journalism will do justice to millions of people’s lived realities by representing these shared conditions from the ground up — instead of isolating an exceptional individual who has had unusual strokes of luck.

Second, journalism on basic needs for survival will include journalists as among those in need. In Austin, Texas, the Austin News Guild has called attention to the many ways that local journalists struggle due to not being paid enough to live in the city they cover. While some journalism leaders may bristle at the idea of journalists “becoming the story,” we need to recognize that reporting the truth of journalists’ lived reality isn’t a conflict of interest. Instead, it is a sign of the urgent and growing need for solidarity across society to demand change.

As cost of living rises, the likelihood of recession looms, and extreme weather due to climate change escalates, journalism that only offers a sliver of the story can no longer suffice. We need more journalism that rises to the occasion by representing people’s unmet needs, explaining root causes, and accounting for grassroots pursuits to build a society in which everyone’s humanity is recognized and respected at the level of concrete (material) lived conditions. In solidarity, journalism unapologetically reports the truth of people’s ongoing struggles and collective efforts to fight for better.

Anita Varma leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative at the Center for Media Engagement and is an assistant professor focused on media ethics at UT Austin’s School of Journalism and Media.

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