Monday, August 10, 2015

Democratic Journalism 01: Neutrality and the Staus Quo

Over the week I attended the Center for Popular Economics 2015 Summer Institute: Confronting Capitalism & Climate Crisis, I met activists from across the United States (and Jamaica!) who expressed some interest in what I do as a journalist/blogger here in Rhode Island and how what I do is different from traditional journalism/blogging. I give a lot of thought to how I conduct my journalism, and my conversations with activists got me thinking that it might be useful to outline my ideas in a series of occasional blog posts.

The philosophy of journalism, to my mind, concerns questions of journalistic ethics, that is, how to conduct oneself as a journalist. Traditionally, journalism has taken the position that journalists should be honest and that journalists should present stories from as neutral a point of view as possible. While I heartily endorse honesty, and all its attendant good values such as humility, integrity, rigor and openness, I am less sanguine about neutrality.

I simply don’t believe it is possible for journalists to be truly neutral. The choices we make as journalists influence our positions. Who we work for (Fox News or Mother Jones?) what stories we cover (Labor or Wall Street?) and the choices we make when we interview people (protesters or the protested?) bias our stories and coverage either consciously or unconsciously.

Another philosophical question I think about concerns the point or objective of journalism. Conventional thinking says that journalism is an attempt to learn the facts and present them to readers (or listeners, or viewers) in a coherent fashion. Complex stories are boiled down to the essentials and presented in a way that allows consumers of media to stay informed. However, there is another purpose of journalism that is often overlooked, and how we approach this idea is premised in large part on how we feel about the issue of bias, as outlined above.

Journalists have the power to give voice to those who have none, or as I like to imagine, provide an amplification system for voices that the larger society is not hearing. Journalists can investigate, and reveal to their audience stories no one suspected. Investigative journalism can topple Presidents, expose terrible workplace environments, or even show the police committing murder.

As my last example indicates, in one sense, anyone with a camera in the right place at the right time can be an investigative journalist.

I strongly believe in investigative journalism, but more importantly, I believe in Democratic Journalism, sometimes referred to as citizen journalism. In this model, people are empowered to write about, photograph and video the world around them. They create blog posts, memes and videos that are often raw and often unrefined, but also essential and true. This is the voice of the previously voiceless, attempting to bypass the gatekeepers of the media landscape.

I am proud to be a small part of this new tradition in journalism, but there is a downside. The gatekeepers of the media are constantly working to shut this torrent of truth down. They want to take over the Internet and commodify access. If successful, this period of time will quickly become a forgotten golden age of media access. We have the Internet, right now, and if we use it right we will have it forever. But there's no assurance that we will.

Another issue is that too many “real” journalists look down on the rest of us, vested as they are in corporate media and faux neutrality. Some of these journalists, knowingly or not, help to preserve a status quo that operates solely to keep us all in the dark about what is, and what is possible. There are journalists who "play ball" with connected politicians and corporate leaders, sitting on important information to preserve access to official stories. These people are little more than press secretaries pretending to be journalists.

Finally, there is the problem of time. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a terrific piece recently explaining that, “In America, only the rich can afford to write about poverty.” Ehrenreich notes that there are many able journalists strewn accross the country, but access to the time to create content is scarce, especially when you need to do things like pay the rent and eat. (This is an issue that RI Future writers are well familiar with. If it wasn't for those who donate to our efforts, RI Future would be long dead.)

Traditional media is, in their neutrality, fine with this situation. It protects their jobs if more talented writers are too preoccupied by the minutia of living to develop their craft. There is a pleasing lie we all tell ourselves when we realize that our security and comfort is premise on the insecurity and desperation of those less fortunate: the world is as it should be, there's nothing I can do.

At the end of every post at RI Future, there is a short description or bio of the writer. My bio ends with quotes about neutrality from Elie Weisel and Desmond Tutu. I’d like to close with their words here:
"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

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