Good writing should enrich. It should not incite malevolent action and misdeeds

This week I was slated to write about social journalism – about how the local connections and relationships forged between reporters and communities can help illuminate and articulate issues so often muted. It’s an approach to news reporting that highlights the importance of fostering a personal connection with a community or issue, of living that issue or living in that community, of not parachuting in and observing without having sufficient context to do so.

“The idea is to reimagine journalism as a service and to serve communities in the broadest sense of the word” – Rachel Glickhouse, Medium

I had found some interesting cases in the States, in particular from the graduates of the CUNY program, who have taken this approach to journalism to their hearts, to the core of their very professional existence. “The idea”, writes Rachel Glickhouse, International Audience Manager at Medium, “is to reimagine journalism as a service and to serve communities in the broadest sense of the word – using reporting”. Her own experiences working with immigrants in her local neighbourhood helped bring cases to court that might otherwise have failed to see the inside of courthouse. This isn’t – as is sometimes described elsewhere – a byword for citizen journalism: it’s an approach as Jeff Jarvis clarified on announcing the graduate program in 2014, that “we’ve considered calling… a degree in community information and engagement. I will also argue that it is a degree in outcomes-based journalism. It is all those things.”

“There’s no better way to engage a community than physically situating yourself within that community,” notes Martika Ornella, another CUNY grad. Being part of a community, you share those highs, those lows. You celebrate together, you mourn together.

So, the idea of social journalism – ‘beat reporting on steroids’, as Glickhouse puts it – seems interesting as an example of the way in which the world of reporting is reinventing itself. The notion that journalism could, in some cases, develop as a way of working with people on a localized scale to highlight issues and concerns on a more national one, seems interesting.

But then, on June 18, the Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed. She died shortly afterwards from her injuries.

Shootings are rare in the UK. They’re not a part of the local culture, or even the local culture of crime.

Jo Cox was, at the time she was attacked, leaving her MP’s surgery in her constituency where she had been meeting with constituents, listening to their concerns. Celebrating those highs, perhaps. Mourning those lows. Listening. Explaining. Helping.

The front pages of the press the next day, unsurprisingly, relayed the events, told the story, proffered opinions.

Then on a talk radio show, James O’Brien, a well-known presenter of a current affairs segment, raised this issue: is it possible that the way political debate has been reported in the press over the past few years provided the catalyst for the actions of the man guilty of this crime?

Was, in short, the media partially to blame for Jo Cox’s death?

Only time will tell what the motivations behind her murder were. Perhaps O’Brien’s observations today will prove trenchant. Perhaps they’ll be quickly forgotten.

What can be said to be true is that the kind of incendiary headlines and hate campaigning he was alluding to in his segment needs to be extinguished if journalism is to regain its trust, its respect and its legitimacy.

veracity-index-all-professions

An Ipsos Mori poll published earlier this year places only Estate Agents between government officials/ politicians and journalists as the least trusted profession. Given the extent of the public distaste for the banking profession in the months and years since the crisis of 2007, falling below those in the world of high finance is a worrying place to be in the hearts and minds of the public.

A poll published earlier this year places only Estate Agents between politicians and journalists as the least trusted profession

If journalism exists in the world to serve, as Rachel Glickman suggests it does, there seems to be a problem, doesn’t there?

Journalists, in the stereotypical mould, are news hounds: ever sniffing out a story, revealing wrongs, misdeeds and issues, and championing causes without a mouthpiece. Yes, the trilby hat and press card may be something that has passed into legend (as I noted on these pages a few weeks ago), but the nose for a story and the impulse to investigate are traits that have a very real value, no matter what the medium.

Is the point of journalism then, as Joe Amditis suggests, “to find and tell the stories nobody’s even thinking about yet”? To present balance and considered opinion in the face of controversy and click-bait-y newsflashes?

Surely it is – at least in part. For every sensationalized headline preying on fears or insecurities, there are many others exploring the same issues with reason, questions and debate, but given the weight assigned to certain fear-mongering issues in the past few years, something that shouldn’t be forgotten is, as Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian shortly after the Jo Cox murder, that ‘even the mentally unstable hear the conversation around them’.

The language and headlines used in the days since have been no less political or sensationalist: was it mental health issues or austerity? Immigration or psychosis? The explanations, particularly given the timing of the murder just a week before the EU referendum, for which the journalism industry has been widely criticised for being partisan and heavy handed, only seem to bolster the current distaste for the media as a whole.

This seems brought into relief by the one consistency in the reporting of the incident as summarized by one of her constituents: ‘There is a lot of disillusion with politicians, but Jo was different.’

The murder of Jo Cox has been so hard to understand for so many people largely because she did not fit the accepted profile of a politician. She seemed in many ways to have won the respect and trust of many people who felt they had been unable to trust a politician before.

As expenses scandals and broken political promises may have shattered public trust in politicians, so too have phone hacking scandals and vested interests done a great deal to erode public trust in the world of journalism: millennials are happier to share information and news amongst their peers, suggesting that a personal recommendation holds more weight than a bi-line, something borne out by a new report by Reuters Institute, outlined at the GEN Summit last week:


And, given this shift in trust, isn’t this outline of a new paper about upcoming issues in the newsroom enlightening?

‘Regaining public trust’, ‘Change is the only constant’, ‘the value of community’…

The industry understands the public’s perception of it – at least in part. But, as the adage goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

And so, back to social journalism.

There’s a fine distinction between placating the demands of a readership who apparently respond to nothing more than sensationalist demagoguery and being led by that readership into areas that are of interest. I’m not sure I can put it any better than Mark Little when he says that, “in an age where everyone is telling a story, social journalists help us find the people worth listening to and rescue their stories from an ocean of noise”.

“Journalistic privilege is based on the previous scarcity of publishing,” wrote Clay Shirky in his book, Here Comes Everybody. “Now that there is no limit to those who can commit acts of journalism, how should we alter journalistic privilege to fit that new reality?”

This should give us all pause for thought: with a seemingly infinite platform to publish whatever takes our fancy on any given day, it’s a paradoxical truth that what we publish now matters more than ever.

No, journalists do not exist to placate the demands of an inarticulate readership, give a voice to hatred or demagoguery. The role of the journalist should be to educate and inform, using engagement as a barometer of its success.

Good writing, from whatever standpoint or perspective, should make us think, question and enrich. It should not incite malevolent action and misdeeds

“What is the point of journalism school if we’re just going to turn around and ask Average Joe how he thinks we should do the news?” postulates Amditis. Skills learned both in an educational setting and a professional one should serve a purpose over that of something on an open-source blogging platform, shouldn’t it? Good writing, from whatever standpoint or perspective, should make us think, question and enrich. It should not incite malevolent action and misdeeds. We should not be asking people what they want, we should be asking them what they want to know. What they want to understand.

The challenge now is to ensure that writers who wish to, should have the opportunities and conditions to tell stories in sufficient depth. “Social journalism means seeking impact aside from pageviews,” Glickhouse points out. “Only when we reconceive of journalism as a service rather than as a factory that churns out a commodity we call content, only when we measure our value not by attention to what we make but instead by the positive impact we have in lives and communities, and only when we create business models that reward quality and value will we build that quality and value.” says Jeff Jarvis of CUNY. We need to embrace different methods of measuring engagement: focusing on a broader-picture response to writing; to attention over likes, to interaction over clicks.

“Social journalism means seeking impact aside from pageviews” – Rachel Glickhouse, Medium

The field of social journalism may have emerged as an antidote to ‘parachute journalism’, but its core values should be applicable to all fields of reportage. We absolutely need to strive for engagement over headline scaremongering in news reporting, whatever the field. A change to a different approach will never alleviate the actions or motivations of individuals hell-bent on violent behaviour, but it might just provide some political and social efficacy in a world that, if we were to believe the current narrative, seems like a pretty terrifying place.

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