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Reinventing Journalism to Strengthen Democracy: Insights From Innovators

The loss of newspapers and fracturing of the information ecosystem have weakened our sense of a shared identity, but many people have long felt excluded, misrepresented, and unable to see themselves and their experiences reflected in news reporting. This volume, edited by Paloma Dallas and Paula Ellis, highlights opportunities that are emerging as old practices give way to the new demands of an engaged, diverse, and restive public. They call on us to create a more inclusive democratic narrative that better captures the rich diversity of our nation and its complicated history. We live in a time of deep distrust ― of each other, the media, and institutions of all kinds. In this volume of essays, innovative journalists from newspapers, public radio, civic media groups, and new media collectives examine how we’ve reached this point.

Subramaniam Vincent, “Reorienting Journalism to Favor Democratic Agency”

In the book’s opening essay, Subramaniam Vincent, who directs journalism and media ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, describes how journalism and liberal democracy evolved together around ideas of truth, public reason, and multiculturalism. Today, both journalism and liberal democracy face threats and pushback around the globe. American journalism has experienced the destruction of its business model and other challenges brought on by the internet and social media. And its culture, dominated by white elites, has distanced it from the people it purports to serve. Vincent makes recommendations for changes, one of which is complicating simplistic narratives by including “the perspectives and lived experiences of impacted communities,” which could help journalism more directly and intentionally serve democracy.

Doug Oplinger, “Journalism: Evolving With the People” 
Over the span of more than four decades, reporter and editor Doug Oplinger was part of the Akron Beacon Journal’s experimentation with a different kind of journalism, engaging the community it served in different ways, and sometimes drawing the accusation that it was dabbling in advocacy. Oplinger draws a contrast between such experiments and the “parachute journalism” that has led many citizens to believe that the media doesn’t care about them. While at the Beacon Journal, and later through Your Voice Ohio, a media collective that Oplinger led for five years, journalists covered topics such as racial inequity, economic revival, and the opioid crisis, and they heard from people who aren’t normally listened to — that is, not “experts.” Today, local news sites usually aren’t part of the “living fabric” of their communities, Oplinger writes, but to play a constructive role in democracy, they need to be seen by the people in a community as vital to improving their lives.

Michelle Holmes, “Fostering Human Connection Is the Heart of Media Reform” 
For much of American history, newspapers have reflected communities back to themselves. Through local news, sports scores, weddings, obituaries, and events, people saw themselves as part of a community as a whole. Michelle Holmes worked for two decades as an editorial writer, news executive, and producer in American newsrooms; and in 2020, she opened Heart’s Ease Love and Freedom Center, a hub for collaboration with artists, journalists, healers, and facilitators. Holmes writes that building on this historical foundation, there is a new opportunity for a more-connected journalism “to tell a new, common story of our humanity in the 21st century, and to bring us together—literally—in new ways.”

Martin G. Reynolds, “Dismantling Systemic Racism in News”
During summer 2020, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sent shockwaves across America. Newsrooms and the journalists in them also felt the shock. Martin Reynolds, former managing editor and editor in chief of the Oakland Tribune and co-executive director of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, was one of them. Even though Reynolds saw himself “in Floyd, in Taylor, and in the faces of countless other people of color who had been slain by police,” his initial instinct was to maintain his objectivity and to frame these events through the lens of a media professional and not a Black man with a Black son. Reynolds examines this experience and suggests some ways the dismantling of systemic racism in newsrooms might begin.

Jennifer Brandel, “Public-Powered Journalism”
Journalism plays an important role in democracy, but neither journalism nor democracy are working as they should. In this chapter, Jennifer Brandel writes that journalism’s routines are rooted in the machine age, when information was scarce and “newsrooms competed with one another to be the go-to source for truth.” There were incentives to create as much content as possible, as fast as possible — to “feed the beast.” In the digital age, we’re oversaturated with information. Brandel, who has been a reporter for NPR and The New York Times and is cofounder of Hearken, suggests an alternative system where journalists are “incentivized to support collective sense-making . . . or to provide a forum for people to find common ground and other like-minded people to take civic action.” Would a public-powered journalism model where the public is engaged in the editorial process increase public trust in the media? Could there be economic benefits from optimizing for relevance and trust rather than speed and distribution? Brandel describes some experiments with interventions that begin to make this paradigm shift.

Ben Trefny, “Working with the Community” 
Despite well-intentioned efforts, journalists often do not represent many people they are supposed to serve. In this chapter, Ben Trefny, interim executive director of KALW Public Media in San Francisco, discusses several experiments the news outlet has tried to connect with communities, examining what worked and what didn’t. The takeaways from these efforts are the power of partnering with other journalism organizations to leverage the work, the importance of connecting with local organizations serving communities the news outlet also hopes to serve, and that journalism is best practiced with the people in communities where they work.

Eve Pearlman, “Dialogue Journalism: Adapting to Today’s Civic Landscape” 
The 2016 election accelerated the fracturing of our information infrastructure, but most journalistic institutions still do what they have always done, even as the landscape has changed. This led Eve Pearlman, a reporter, editor, blogger, and columnist in the San Francisco Bay Area, to ask some questions. What can journalists do to support and create an informed public, an educated public, a public whose members need to be able to engage with one another about the issues that matter in a democracy? How could she use her moderating/mediating skills and her more traditional journalist’s toolkit to be part of a repair? One answer was Spaceship Media, which Eve co-founded, formed with a mission of reducing polarization, restoring trust in journalism, and building communities. Spaceship Media’s Dialogue Journalism, a seven-step process for convening and hosting journalism-supported conversations across social and political fault lines, is an effort to adapt to the reality of today’s civic information landscape.

David Plazas, “A Framework for Building Trust with Communities”
“Why should I trust you?” This question was directed at David Plazas, the opinion and engagement director for USA TODAY Network Tennessee. It is a question, Plazas says, that should be top of mind daily for journalists. At the Tennessean, a part of this work of building and keeping public trust has been an initiative called Civility Tennessee. This chapter describes this initiative and some other efforts, including a podcast and two newsletters, Black Tennessee Voices and Latino Tennessee Voices, which are about meaningful and intentional public service to help preserve and strengthen our democratic republic.

Linda Miller, “For Democracy to Work, Journalism Needs an Ethic of Care”
Linda Miller, who leads the Multicultural Media and Correspondents Association’s Equitable Media and Economies Initiative, writes that “‘care,’ as a journalistic ethic, is defined primarily as respect for others. But this limited interpretation discounts the many other aspects of ethical journalism that help define it as a care practice.” And while it is acceptable for journalists to care about accuracy, issues, seeking the truth, and holding the powerful to account, it is believed that caring openly about communities or people could interfere with news judgment. Miller wants journalists to better learn what to listen for, by which she means the work people are doing or willing to do to care for themselves, one another, their communities, and the planet.

Darryl Holliday, “Journalism’s Civic Media Moment Could Be a Movement” 
In the final chapter, Darryl Holliday, a writer, journalist, and network builder and co-founder of City Bureau in Chicago, envisions a civic media movement. He imagines thousands of people who care about their community, networked by central, open-source technology and participating in journalism as a public good, who would monitor civic actions and institutions in a way that supports collective action. Community-based news products can foster civic engagement, which is critical to a thriving democracy. Holliday writes, “A civic media freed from journalism’s ‘view from nowhere’ can better engage and connect vital and often disparate functions of democracy that inform traditional civic processes, from voting and petitioning elected officials to authentic mechanisms for collective problem-solving.”

Published:

01-01-2023

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English

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