One of my many takeaways from Ferguson coverage over the last two weeks has been a confirmation of a suspicion I’ve held for awhile: journalists have more than earned their bad rap. Sources don’t assume that we’ll quote them unfairly, that prejudice and stereotypes will dominate our narrative, and that we’re after “the story” rather than the truth because they’re paranoid. They assume those things because we do them all the time, and we need to do better.
Based on the biggest lessons I’ve taken to heart as a young journalist, here are questions I suggest reporters, especially white reporters, ask themselves while writing every story.
Are my sources diverse?
White people are accustomed to speaking for everyone, to being the default, and to being considered authorities on issues whether they’ve experienced them personally or not. Fight this bias, and the tendency for reporters (of whom the vast majority are white) to only present people of color in a negative light, by working hard to find diverse perspectives on every issue and making a special effort to find perspectives from marginalized people affected directly by a particular social issue.
What are my assumptions?
Good reporting is also good skepticism. Are you fitting your story into a particular narrative or stereotype, like the mainstream media’s depiction of Ferguson’s peaceful protestors and violent police as police attempting to control a “mob”? Are you assuming that anyone’s actions are justifiable, or that any particular narrative is the “right” one?
Is this a time for compassion?
While Michael Brown was getting posthumously smeared as “no angel” and the grieving community of Ferguson was being described as “looters” and “rioters,” Robin Williams’s house was getting stalked by ambulance-chasing paparazzi. Those of us who want to build a career on something more than tabloid fodder need to understand that the New Media allows for humanity. For an example of how journalists can introduce compassion constructively, look no further than Sarah Kendzior, an outstanding St. Louis-based journalist who has written powerfully and unapologetically from within the story.
Is this about me or my subjects?
Reports of journalists treating Ferguson as a career-making networking fair have circulated since just a few days following Michael Brown’s death. Rather than placing ourselves above it, we need to recognize this as the all-too-common tendency that it is, and call it out from within. The film Capote deals with the writer’s struggle to balance personal ambition and responsibility in one of the most raw and honest ways I’ve seen; ultimately, we are in a profession that profits off misery, suffering, and sensationalized violence, and we alone have the power to reshape that.
What can I learn from the birth of Twitter reporting and death of print journalism?
If you are still in the “Internet is killing journalism” camp, go watch the first season of House of Cards and then retire gracefully with Tom Hammerschmidt. Twitter gives a voice and a platform to anyone with something to say, and as such, it is saving journalism from the biases and constructed narratives of yore. By the same token, recognizing Twitter as a viable journalistic medium means respecting intellectual property (and, one hopes, someday actually protecting users from harassment): you can’t just compile a bunch of manual retweets and curated tweets of others and call it your own reporting. If not for Twitter (and Vine and Instagram) we would not know what’s really happening in Ferguson. Think about that, and learn, and humble yourself before the population you claim to serve.
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