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Reflections: How journalism can save the world

In light of rising disdain for journalism—often known merely as the “media,” that undifferentiated behemoth—as biased or corrupt or useless in this age of skyrocketing polarization and information overload, it’s time for an ode to journalism as a way to tell stories that change the world.

When journalists cover an event or investigate an issue, they bear witness to something not everyone has seen. Maybe they’re among the few people allowed inside that refugee camp. One of the few people who got to interview that hostage crisis survivor. Regardless of what they’ve seen (no matter how seemingly mundane), the journalist is somehow changed.

The journalist now knows more about who someone is, how something works. Maybe they bear witness to suffering, and they experience empathy in a way they hadn’t before. The lens through which they see an issue, or the world at large, is widened or even reshaped. Things look different.

It’s the job of the journalist to impart this to readers. The average citizen doesn’t have a press pass; they can’t go to Afghanistan or Ukraine to speak to refugees because how could they? But the journalist has the power to enable readers to come along, to be there, too. Through skillful storytelling, the journalist plants readers in the very seat they occupied, experiencing the events they experienced. The reader bears witness, their lens shifts, things look different.

This process requires an adept journalist and an at-least-somewhat engaged reader, but it’s universally applicable within journalism—from a short local story about a town hall meeting to a feature about a Key Issue Of Our Time. And I think it’s exciting and inspiring and the way we’ll save ourselves.

I think many of the most complex problems of our time are due to lack of information, or misinformation, or misunderstanding. And that the existence of institutionalized racism is something everyone could grasp if they only talked to certain people, read certain books. Same with anthropogenic climate change. Same with a global inequality gap that’s reminiscent of feudalism. I believe we as a country—even as a species—could get on the same page and fix some stuff.

But the people whose attention I’d grab if I could are not talking to those people and reading those books. And it’s no longer enough for people with an eye to social justice to live in an echo chamber, endlessly refining their own positions and basking in the sounds of their own voices while pretending those who disagree don’t exist. They do exist—people whose opinions on climate change were handed to them by Big Oil. People who refuse to acknowledge structural racism. People whose capitalist convictions have never been questioned. They exist. And in order to engage them, it’s time to appreciate the power of the most accessible, populist avenue for change we have: the viral article. (Especially contained within a viral tweet.)

Imagine this: a bill is being debated on the House floor that would impose some sort of controversial measure. Like a way to federally control rent, let’s say. A legitimate news outlet assigns a journalist to the story. The journalist crafts a beautiful, heart-wrenching, factually impeccable story about a few victims of the housing crisis and the way this bill would transform their lives. The story grabs you by the shoulders with its lede, lyricism, and pathos, but teaches you much through an excellent amalgamation of expert opinions and statistics. It offers nuance: interviews with people who have been affected in contradictory ways, experts with diverse opinions. The story goes viral.

In classic internet fashion, it owes its reach to the style of the writing and the appeal of the “characters,” rather than the bill’s crucial civic implications. But viral is viral. And it’s ubiquitous on platforms like Twitter and Instagram—hundreds of thousands see it.

Hypothetical Reader Amy is a conservative from the Midwest who thinks the bill harkens back to the days of Soviet Russia. Or maybe she’s a wealthy woman who considers herself liberal but is nonetheless worried about anything that would deflate the income she receives from her Airbnb. She could assume any number of identities that makes her inclined to oppose the bill. Whoever she is, she finds the article because her son sends it to her, or an old friend reposts it on Instagram, or someone she follows on Twitter posts something criticizing it. But for whatever reason, she clicks.

And that’s all you need. Because true stories told well often speak for themselves.

Probably, Amy’s mind isn’t changed forever, just like that, happily ever after. But if the journalist did a good enough job to keep her reading, then something changed for Amy. A spark of empathy, some facts she never thought to consider, even a flash of curiosity that leads her to do some research. Because of the journalist’s skillful storytelling, Amy was able to bear witness. And because of that, somehow, things look a little different.

I think that’s how we save the world.

Above: Photo of Zella Hanson by Rebecca Schneid — The 9th Street Journal