I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent event I attended featuring Jennifer Brandel of Hearken. If you haven’t heard of Hearken, the best way I can explain it is to send you to Curious City, a WBEZ program she also founded that has served as Hearken’s inspiration. It’s a model of journalism rooted in the community it serves: sourcing stories from listeners and reporting right alongside them. It’s been going in Chicago for years and is one of my favorite destinations to learn things about the city that I can’t find elsewhere. With Hearken, Jenn is spreading this methodology to newsrooms across the country.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll watch Jenn’s presentation and think to yourself – this kind of journalism seems obvious. Because it should be. Of course journalists should be sourcing news needs from the people who consume it. Of course newsrooms should welcome and include the public into its reporting process. Transparency builds trust and this is an obvious way to do it. But it’s not the way most journalists think, because it’s not the way most journalists are taught.
I do believe that most reporters enter the field to fulfill a sense of public duty, but I’m having a hard time remembering any part of my journalism education where that was a critical component. I learned how to write news stories and feature stories, got AP Style drilled into my skull, learned how to put together b-roll footage, edit stories, do live shots and produce newscasts. I had all the pieces in place to play journalist without the guiding principles to be a good one.
There’s a slide in Jenn’s presentation that depicts a journalist standing alone shouting at a crowd of people, and so much of my experience in school and in the field felt exactly like that. I pitched assignment ideas based on what I thought was interesting. I determined what I thought was newsworthy and told people what I felt they should know.
So when I look at some of my friends and classmates who are still in the industry today, and I read their sarcastic tweets about companies or organizations trying to pitch stories, I can’t help but see this problem manifesting itself over and over again. This mindset that only the journalist knows what’s newsworthy, and only the journalist can decide what’s written about. Outside influence is a waste of time (but let’s be fair – a fair number of times, PR pitches are), and we all need to sit back and wait to be told what we need to know.
When crowds of angry voters started calling journalists elitists, I took a ton of offense to it even though I had been out of the field for years. But after thinking more about Hearken’s model of community engagement journalism, I get why the old model is so broken. I understand that when someone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or even live anywhere near you gets control over the information you receive and the stories you get told, the entire thing feels out of touch.
Luckily for Chicagoans, Jenn isn’t the only visionary here pushing the boundaries of what journalism should be. One of my favorite organizations, City Bureau, pioneered a new way of news gathering by training and paying people in the community to actively take part in it. Today, you’ll find City Bureau documenters regularly out in the field attending and recording municipal meetings and events, which benefits the communities they serve as much as it benefits the documenters themselves.
I’ve been worried about the fate of journalism ever since I graduated college and had to watch as one newspaper after another shuttered its doors or went on hiring freezes. But maybe that had to happen to wake us up to a better, more sustainable way of reporting and consuming news. I consider myself lucky to be able to watch and (in City Bureau’s case) monetarily support these efforts here in Chicago and I hope my alma mater will take a hard look at them, too. And then prepare the next generation of journalists for an ecosystem where they’re a humble servant and participant instead of a chief.