[Solidarity reporting calls on journalists to push beyond
reporting the easy soundbite from an official press release in order
to do the work of representing people experiencing injustice. ]
WHAT SOLIDARITY JOURNALISM REVEALS TO US
December 22, 2021
_ Solidarity reporting calls on journalists to push beyond reporting
the easy soundbite from an official press release in order to do the
work of representing people experiencing injustice. _
Imagine that a reporter is writing a story about your house, which has
become practically unlivable. The reporter wants to understand the
issues in the house, how it affects people who are still managing to
survive in it, and what might be done to make the house livable again.
But instead of talking to you, they talk to the mayor’s office, a
real estate developer, and a housing researcher at an elite university
across the country. Lacking any insight from people inside the house,
the story ends up only partially accurate, at best. Including you
would have led to a more truthful story, since you know the issues
best from being inside the house.
I often use this analogy when introducing journalists and journalism
educators to the benefits and logic of solidarity reporting over
dominant reporting practices that exclude people from coverage of
their own lives. If journalists are striving for accuracy, then
solidarity reporting is better aligned with that goal than reporting
that focuses exclusively on officials, elites and academics.
Let’s start with a few definitions: solidarity is a commitment to
social justice that translates into action. Social justice means that
everyone’s dignity is respected in a society — regardless of their
credentials, qualifications or achievements. Solidarity reporting is a
commitment to social justice that translates into the action of
reporting on marginalized communities. This is not just any reporting
that vaguely gestures at a social justice issue — instead,
solidarity reporting focuses on issues that disrespect or deny
communities that are disrespected or denied their humanity and
represents the perspectives of people directly affected. It
intentionally moves beyond parroting officials’ or outside
experts’ claims about a marginalized community to centralize the
truth of people whose knowledge is based on lived experience.
Solidarity reporting isn’t new or niche — though it often isn’t
given its due in conversations about why journalism matters. In many
countries, the origins of an independent press are rooted in viewing
journalism as an act of resistance against state power that may
otherwise deny that inhumane conditions endure within its domain.
In the United States, we can trace the logic of solidarity reporting
all the way back to mobilizing for independence, abolition newspapers
that reported the truth and consequences of slavery for people living
it (instead of focusing on those benefiting from it) and coverage of
issues like child labor, factory conditions, suffrage, voting rights
and immigration. This list goes on and continues today with a growing
set of examples, like climate crisis reporting that focuses on
communities affected and displaced rather than amplifying the
preferred frames and excuses from companies responsible for it.
We need more solidarity reporting because elite and official-focused
reporting hasn’t brought about accurate portrayals of
marginalization. Vaccine inequity, labor struggles, housing precarity
and policing are making frequent headlines — yet all too often, the
stories that accompany these headlines do not represent the people
directly affected by these issues.
“Objective,” “neutral” and “impartial” reporting
encourages amplifying people who have official titles and relegates
people experiencing marginalization to only having a chance to speak
if they provide emotional “color.” This means that self-interested
officials often receive tremendous media attention, even if they are
uninterested in acknowledging truth that does not serve their aims.
Some officials and experts are surely pragmatic public servants, but
many are advancing agendas that are far afield from the needs of
people who are suffering the most. That’s not a conspiracy theory
— it’s an assessment based on the routine distance between
official narratives and community-grounded narratives.
Reassurances that economic plans will work in economies that have
already failed as a result of similar plans, insistence that housing
is stable amid rising homelessness and claims that there are medical
resources for anyone who needs them in countries where people die due
to insufficient care in a global pandemic are just a few examples of
how officials have advanced misinformation and leveraged dominant
reporting practices to do so — and why solidarity reporting is so
crucial right now.
Given that corporate media owners and elite officials often share the
same interests, the prospects for widespread solidarity reporting may
seem bleak. It stands to (unfortunate) reason that corporate media,
with their abundant reporting resources and reach, tend to amplify
sources that affirm their preferred profit-aligned frames. The good
news is that even in corporate-owned media, we see examples of
solidarity reporting occasionally break through. This is usually a
result of journalists being determined to report a previously
misconstrued story accurately, often out of respect for sources who
have thoroughly convinced them that dominant frames are incorrect.
These moments of breakthrough are infrequent, but indicate that
solidarity has a fighting chance even outside of mission-driven news
outlets — especially when journalists take a stand.
Solidarity reporting calls on journalists to push beyond reporting the
easy soundbite from an official press release in order to do the work
of representing people experiencing injustice who know all too well
what the issue is and how it could be immediately addressed.
Solidarity reporting starts by seeking out people directly affected by
an issue. With solidarity reporting, journalists ask questions like,
What do you think about this issue? What causes this situation? How
long has this been going on? Why hasn’t it changed? What would help?
These questions elicit perspectives, and are different from just
asking, And how does this make you feel?, which is a question for
eliciting emotions. People who struggle may not have elite or academic
credentials, but they have unmatched insight into what changes would
address the biggest issues constraining and harming their lives —
which makes their perspectives newsworthy.
I began my work in 2008, during the rise of digital media and the
decimation of print journalism. At the time, the greatest promise and
hope was that internet freedom would achieve what the press never had:
Instead of relying on gatekeepers, operating within the constraints of
narrow professional norms and preserving steep barriers to access the
means of widespread communication, the internet would ensure that
everyone received an equal platform. The truth of marginalized
people’s lived experiences, long denied by media conglomerates’
preferred narratives, would rise to the top like cream rising from
milk and would finally be heard without advertiser-friendly editing.
This promise has never been fully achieved. Influencers and marketing
interests have risen to the top on many platforms, and calls for
social justice are often re-marginalized and de-amplified,
particularly when they come from groups that are small relative to the
largest trending interests online.
Solidarity reporting, which is not often amplified through digital
platforms, offers a way for journalists to develop more accurate
representations of enduring social injustice and possibilities for
change that are grounded in reality. Since 2008, we have seen time and
again that the largest internet platforms will not structure their
systems of amplification to align with social justice. Journalism,
then, still has a crucial role to play in fostering solidarity so that
social justice is one day fully realized for us all.
_Anita Varma leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative, and she is an
assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of Texas
at Austin. She is the author of “Evoking Empathy or Enacting
Solidarity with Marginalized Communities?” which was published
in Journalism Studies in 2020. Her book on the role of solidarity in
U.S. journalism is currently in preparation._
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