An Answer to the Failings of Traditional Journalism

September 12, 2021By Focal NomadCOVERAGE, EJ Reflections

If you’ve been following me on social media lately, you’ll notice that I stopped sharing content around January of this year. That’s nine months, of near-silence. For someone who likens themselves to be a photographer, content creator, and blogger, that’s a huge gap. Even I was surprised when I noticed that gap this evening. But it makes sense, given the trajectory my life has taken since then.

In January I was studying my ass off for my entrance exam for the last bit of my application for the one graduate school I gave a damn about: the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY (ie, Newmark J-School). Alongside the application process, I’ve learned more about a movement in journalism that I never knew existed, called “Engagement Journalism.” Carrie Brown, who founded the program at the Newmark J-School, sat down with me over Zoom a couple of times to try and explain what exactly this was, and each time I left both intrigued, and scratching my head. I know I’m not the only one who has had this reaction, as Brown found it necessary to create a video interview series with former students of hers, who each expressed what it meant to them.

In the video with Luis Echegaray, class of 2015 and current on-air analyst at CBS Sports Digital, I was most taken by what he said about this being a form of journalism where you have to check your ego at the door. This has sort of expanded on the assigned summer reading on the myth of objectivity in journalism, “The View From Somewhere,” by Lewis Raven Wallace. Which, perhaps you guessed it by now, yes, I got into the program, and yes, this MA is the one I chose to pursue. I had been thinking about applying to this school, but not this MA, for six years. The goal for me was always to have a career where I could come home and feel like I did something good in the world. Maybe there’s ego in the whole “leaving something of value behind” adage, but when I look back on all of the projects I’ve been a part of in my life – the ones that no one coerced me into doing, that didn’t pay me a cent, and resulted in almost zero recognition – were always projects that involved engaging with an underserved community, and putting my resourcefulness and leadership skills to work to try and find a solution to what these communities were grappling with. When I realized that I have accidentally been doing engagement journalism in this way since I was 19, that kind of made my decision for me. And that natural flow into those things, to me felt more void of ego than anything else I’ve pursued over the years.

For this program, we were tasked with choosing a community that we will be working with during the next 18 months of this program. The intention here is to collaborate with community members, as well as top-down sources, to assess the needs of the community, and how to best address those needs.

I’ve known my whole life that I was adopted, and was very fortunate with the family that raised me. It being a closed adoption, however, has left me with a lifetime of questions, and some attachment issues. I’ve known for years that I wanted to do a very long-term project centering around adoption as a way of both raising awareness of issues surrounding the many complex scenarios related to it, as well as hopefully doing a bit of healing myself. Because of this, I’ve chosen to focus on birth parents who have placed children for adoption, as my community. As I was speaking with a top-down source today, Ellyn (founder of Queer Birth Project), the topic of trust came up. Together we realized, that a space that is not being taken care of very much, is teenage parents – and to connect with this community, she recommended a few TikTok accounts I should check out. This made me realize that my TikTok account had been dead for nearly a year now. It also dawned on me that I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve talked about my own adoption story, as well as the intersection of my being queer, openly on social media.

I think my privilege of having ended up with loving adoptive parents who are pro-LGTBQIA+ prevented me from feeling like I should have a say in this narrative. But then every time a doctor asks me about my parent’s health, without stopping to ask me first if I’m blood related or not to my parents, or the insurance coverage issues I’ve had for not knowing my medical history, or every time someone says to me “but who are your real parents?” I remember that I am in a community that has been historically underserved, even if I’m still a relatively privileged person.

In a piece by Pacinthe Mattar for The Walrus, she used the term “Only One in the Room” to describe her experiences as a Racialized Journalist in a predominantly white industry. Having to walk the very thin balance beam of writing pitches from her lived experiences, but not go too far as to seem “too unbiased;” to be the voice of her race, and yet, be questioned and made to cross-examine all of her sources if they weren’t white. When she asked an anonymous Black colleague of hers what she thought of covering stories that hit close to home, she was uncomfortable by the notion, because it was to somehow engage in advocacy. Mattar’s argument was that her interests were to just be allowed to report the truth. My question to this, granted as someone who doesn’t wear her adoption story on her skin, is why is it not okay to be an advocate for the communities you’re reporting on?

I think this is possibly where Engagement Journalism and traditional Journalism diverge. The reason readers and media consumers are trusting journalists less, is because those who hold power in newsrooms aren’t answering to them, and further, readers don’t have any way of holding the fourth estate accountable. The fifth estate however – bloggers, influencers, independent content creators – is acting by it’s own internal compass and therefore garnering more and more traction. I would argue that the future of news rests in the hands of these creators, and if we want to prevent movements like QAnon from continuing to hold this much weight, we need something to counter that focuses on the needs of the people first. With that we have to think about how to reach the people where they are, not where we think they should be. And with that I realize that by speaking out about my own experiences, on platforms that the communities I may want to connect with are active on, I am building this sense of solidarity, and thereby this sense of trust.

In the Q&A with Anita Varma, found on the Humanitarian News Research Network’s website, Varma says that “reporting aligned with solidarity represents people’s lived experiences with a central focus on shared conditions, as well as structural factors that create and uphold communities’ marginalization.” Her argument is that studies have down that empathy has psychological limits. When people meet those limits, they begin to hold resentment for the source that made them feel. This is counterproductive to the goals here. While solidarity journalism focuses on a more fact-based approach, that puts the communities most afflicted by the news events, front and center. What I loved about this, is that the focus is on directing the reader’s motivations towards creating solutions; rather than, by way of empathy, feeling so shitty that it seems hopeless to try.

When I first got into documentary filmmaking nine years ago, I was most inspired by the film, Food Inc. Every doc I had seen up until that point was either an entertaining history lesson, or something that just made you feel like the you were helpless to the evils that were occurring in the world. At the end of Food Inc, however, the filmmakers argued a very simple point: that Walmart had only started carrying organic products because people were buying them. That money talks more than anything in America, so every time we buy something at a store, we are casting our vote for it. As someone who was a dedicated vegan at the time of seeing this film, this message gave me a lot of pep. Here was an actionable thing I could do, every single day, to try and enact change on a systemic level. And sure enough since then, the plant-based organic movement has been growing at a rapid rate; so much so that now even the small Bodega on my corner in Brooklyn carries Veganaise.

It’s this reason I got into documentary filmmaking, and it’s this reason I chose the Engagement Journalism program at the Newmark J-School. This is just the first of what I’m sure will be many weekly reflections as I move through this masters program. I hope you’ll join me for this journey, and would love to hear what your thoughts are to anything I’ve said in the comments below.