If it’s not anti-racist, is it still responsible journalism?

Note: In my experience, you often need a period where people are encouraged to rant, share frustrations, assure each other they’re not imagining things, etc., before you can get down to working productively among each other. This is a polemic to that purpose.

Since I got involved with municipal politics I’ve met and befriended a lot of people in journalism—a profession that I didn’t really know much about before. I’m consistently impressed by their hard work, tenacity, and commitment to journalistic ethics: fact-checking, research, protecting people’s privacy, respecting “off the record” information, speaking truth to power.

But (of course there’s a “but”) journalists and editors and columnists themselves have power. They play an important role in determining what’s newsworthy and what’s boring. They can change not only the media landscape, but the way we go about making media. They can change how we see the people and events they’re covering.

I only rarely see people in Toronto political media talking about this.

In the days after the Danzig St. shooting and the ones that followed, I was filled with frustration and despair. Part of it was knowing people were dying and hurting and afraid. And part of it was the racist responses from the media…and then consequently finding out how very little the other white people in my life know or care about race. Racist stuff, intentional or not, from all corners, and then people want to be patiently, politely educated for their personal improvement.

Teaching this kind of thing is way too painful (not to mention time-consuming) to do for free. So I am choosing not to explain here why Lorrie’s column, De Adder’s cartoon, etc., are bad. If you really have no idea, ask yourself: why don’t you know? Why are you only having to learn about race issues now? What questions do you reflexively shy away from because they don’t have anything to do with your life? What are you afraid of?

It’s time for people with no connection to stigmatized and racialized communities to consider that they are nevertheless accountable to these communities, and that their ignorance can hurt. Journalists are not passive observers. The act of reporting is an act performed upon a community that may or may not have consented.

It’s not enough for well-intentioned, progressive people to condemn blantly obvious race-baiting from the likes of the Sun. The well-intentioned progressive people have to take a hard look at the role they play in the media—who they speak for, and who they speak over. It is time to amplify the voices of the people whose bodies are on the line—who have actual experience and tangible investment in the issues.

And being accountable doesn’t just mean writing better stories; it means making a better industry. Making sure the people making the news are as diverse as the people in the news—can’t this be journalistic ethics? Looking over your pitch (for, say, a fluffy piece about Hennessy) and asking “Am I being responsible to the community affected?”—why isn’t this a part of a writer’s job?

Compare and contrast these two pieces that break away from traditional formats to call for nuance in the way we approach urban violence, especially through the media:

Here’s Ed Keenan at the Grid:

If you are trying to solve a difficult problem, sometimes you need to re-examine exactly which problem you are trying to solve.

We face a similar issue—clearly a much more serious one—with approaches to gang violence and gun crime. We don’t understand what the problem is. Or we don’t understand all of it, although some of us seem to think we do. We know that people shooting each other, and especially shooting each other in the street where uninvolved bystanders get caught in the crossfire is a problem. And if we define the problem as the shooters in those cases needing to be caught and punished, then the solution is relatively straightforward: the police need to find those responsible and lock them up. But if we’re talking about how to prevent this type of thing from happening, we’re talking about something different. But most of the quick (and popular) solutions proposed—longer sentencing, bans on target shooting weapons—don’t seem to have any real evidence-based chance of putting a dent in the problem, and most of the other solutions could take years, millions of dollars, multiple levels of government and sometimes broad cultural evolutions to show results, if they show any. The problem is we don’t undersand the problem. Because [it’s a wicked problem].

A “Wicked Problem” is not one that is evil (though this one contains elements of that). It is a specific type of problem that social planners, business people and designers talk about as especially difficult to solve. An old fashioned “tame” problem is relatively linear: We might have a river we can’t cross. How do we solve it? Build a bridge. Make sure it is structurally sound. Problem solved: we can now cross the river.

A Wicked Problem is different, because it is complex and difficult to define—it is often a symptom or effect of other problems— it involves multiple stakeholders who cannot agree on what exactly the problem is, and it is difficult to define or measure what a successful solution would achieve.

Amanda Parris:

In order to shoot someone, I would imagine that there has to be a capacity of silencing humanity – your own and the potential victim. This capacity to silence the layers and complexities and nuances of humanity is strangely replicated in the “official” responses of mainstream media, politicians and police officials and the general public as they forget the human beings behind the stories.

Contrary to the stories we are being bombarded with, please know: It took A LOT to get us to this place and it will take A LOT to get us past it.

[…] Don’t get me wrong: telling our stories from our voices is so incredibly and vitally important. Responding to the garbage that is disseminated everyday by mainstream media is very very necessary and some amazing work has already been done in this regard by writers such as Simon Black, community mobilization in response to the Toronto Star cartoon and interviews with frontline workers who give layered and complex responses by the CBC.  But this is just reflex. It is a reaction (and defense) to the bullshit. It is not transformative. And it cannot be. Because it is limited by a structure of storytelling defined by sound-bites and segments and word counts that too often ask the wrong questions in the search for the quick (and sensational) answers.

Things are not going to get better if we keep asking the wrong questions and looking for quick and fast responses.

puts on pundit hat

The first piece is written by a senior magazine editor to supplement a print column, sources the expertise of about ten well-educated white men while conscientiously overlooking the racial divide between experts and objects of expertise, and admirably avoids injecting any relevant personal experience.

The second piece starts off by shocking the reader with references to the author’s body, physically and viscerally affected by unfolding events, and linked with ties of obligation and kinship. All of the people whose work she references are similarly compromised. She unnecessarily implicates mainstream media, which accomplishes nothing but making people feel guilty, and she reflects upon her own role in the process (ditto, plus alarming lack of objectivity).

pundit hat off

(Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system.)

Yes, Keenan’s piece is good. But a conversation that deals in TED-talk jargon and doesn’t explicitly address media race-baiting, the white-dominated industry, etc.…is the wrong conversation. It’s not going to bring about the transformative change Parris rightly calls for.

This sort of gang-related, poverty-related youth violence is not exclusive to any one group or community. But, when the focus is on black and brown youth dying, it’s disingenuous and a little irresponsible to refrain from addressing systemic racism. Not just in creating the conditions for violence—police brutality, access to employment, etc.—but in how we talk about it, and who talks about it, and who gets paid to write articles about it, and who they’re accountable to. Editors? Advertisers? Communities? Ancestors? Descendants?

Let us be responsible to each other.

Let’s talk.

Edit, August 7, 2012: TorStar has pulled Sway, a black community magazine. Welp.

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