The First Question for Journalism
My mother was an alcoholic, from long before I was born until the day she died.
I’m not going to go into her backstory but suffice it to say, hold your judgement of her. We all know the world can be a complicated and tragic place.
When you grow up in volatile circumstances you learn how to watch people, because watching what people say and what they do, where those things align, where they diverge, is how you survive.
The odds were that someway, somehow, I would manifest in my life some form of the circumstances I grew up in. I avoided the most common outcomes that are likely with my background. But for a long time now, I’ve been uneasy because I still feel like I’m in the space of someone struggling with an addiction.
It’s the job. It’s this industry.
As an industry, journalism is forever asking for an extension on borrowed trust, talking about how good things used to be and how how they will be some day if only…, counting on a big break to save us all and coming up with all manner of excuses and justifications when we fall short of our best effort.
I watched her want to save herself. She was constantly writing lists in notebooks and on the back of bill collection envelopes. It was all the odd jobs she could do to bring in money in little bits until enough could be cobbled together to pay a bill. And while money was a huge problem, it wasn’t her biggest problem.
One of the most damning experiences of trying to save someone not ready or able to save themselves, is when you see what they could be if only they could change in the ways that they are forever promising.
It’s not the bad times that threatens hope. It’s the good times. That’s what makes you stay. When you see what’s possible.
I always knew that she could be good, and she could manage it for a time. But the inevitable always loomed.
I think a lot about who we ask to be good and whom we require it from. One need only to look at a day’s worth of headlines to see it play out. Our job includes showing the world who’s failed to measure up, and so often it’s based on standards designed by people invested in guaranteeing which groups come out on one side of the line or the other.
I stumbled into journalism having been angry for a long time. The first journalism class I took, on a lark because I was interested in writing, dangled the promise of taking my anger and tempering it into a righteous purpose.
Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — I hate that saying — I lean more toward ‘that which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.’
We seek to shine a light on lies, injustice and corruption. And those good times. The stories that matter. The reporting proves that it can be done. It’s real and good and there are many who work so hard to do that. But so often too, the effort is distracted and scattered. Not wielded equally and fairly. And sometimes it burns, by carelessness or intention, the people it’s supposed to serve.
The other challenge for someone trying to overcome is the fear of what life is on the other side. A fear of not knowing who they’ll be, what they’ll have to give up. The unknown and the path to get there is more terrifying than familiar suffering.
What would journalism be if we actually changed all the things we say we want to change?
What if we stopped valuing the men who abuse their power, both in and outside of our organizations, more than all the people they harm?
What if we hired fairly and paid and promoted equally? If we actually pursued diversity in newsrooms not just in conference panel titles?
What if we reported for all audiences not just the ones that make good consumers for the advertisers or paid subscribers and donors?
What if we stopped acting like two is the only number of always equally valid sides and instead we sought reported the complicated truth in all it’s messy and nuanced reality?
What if we stopped using the language of war to report on our institutions and the political process?
What if we carefully considered the harm that we can unintentionally inflict on our sources and communities?
What would we be if we evolved beyond commercial-driven competition and into service-driven collaboration?
What could journalism be, on the other side of our worst tendencies? What are we afraid of giving up to get there? Who is afraid of giving up their power?
We could be different, if we could be brave enough, if we could be wise enough. We could be better.
The greatest demand for being good is always placed on the shoulders of those with the least amount of power. It is our society’s most effective way of ensuring those with power not only keep it but accumulate more while holding those without responsible for their lack. This isn’t news to anyone who moves through a world that won’t let them forget their class or race or gender or any other descriptor or identity that results in being held to a standard whose burden only benefits more powerful people. Journalism plays a required role in enabling or exposing these structures.
It’s a hard time to be in our newsrooms. But it is a hard time to be almost everywhere else too. And while we are attacked for many things we have no control over and many things that just aren’t true, we still have a lot of power. Not as much we’d like to have, but we damn sure have more power than the people who make up our audiences. And we have to use it better if we are to be worthy of it.
We’ll publish articles and editorials about how people of color are arrested at far higher rates than white people because they are unfairly targeted by police and in the police blotter still publish the full names of everyone arrested because it’s good for page views.
Fully 1/3 of people in the United States are experiencing or on the cusp of poverty, barely able to make ends meet, deciding which meal they will skip or which medication to stop taking while barely a few percent of news coverage in the past few years covered poverty and most of that content is about people and not news that would serve them. Oh, but please buy a subscription or donate, because journalism is essential.
We will write 400 editorials defending the value and importance of news media but when have we written 400 editorials on behalf of what our audience needs? And don’t get me wrong here, collaboration is my day job and I was thrilled and proud to see that effort and eager to see more but I also recognize what it looks like when newsrooms combine their power in defense of ourselves if we’re not willing to do it for our audiences.
We lurch from one potential savior of journalism to another. It’s stats and data. Pivot to video. Social media. Events. Podcasts. Newsletters. AI. Blockchain. And aren’t you tired?
It is a never-ending list.
None of these things are going to save us.
I remember so clearly how my mother hoped to save herself. If only she could find the right job, or if we walked from sunup to sundown picking up cans from the ditches at the side of the road we’d have enough money to pay a bill. And while the bills mattered, that wasn’t her biggest problem. But dollars are easier to focus on than fixing fractured relationships.
The future of journalism is and always will be people. The thing that will save journalism is people. The ones in our newsrooms and the ones outside our newsrooms. People from all kind of backgrounds and perspectives. People who seek to use their voice to empower others. People who work together. Our future depends on how we treat them, how we include or exclude them, how we represent and serve them and how we invest in them.
Millions of people are watching us, what we say and what we do. Where those two things align and where they diverge. Because what we do, when we do it well, can help them survive. And when we fail, we make survival harder for them and for our industry.
So my first question for journalism, before how we scale or innovate or devise a successful business model is the same question I asked my mother the last time I saw her. A question that I know now she couldn’t answer.
I have to ask it, because it’s the question that should be required of those with power.
Can you be good?
This piece is based on my ignite talk at Newsgeist 2018.