Posts about ferguson

What could social journalism do for Ferguson?

It took too long, but finally the attention of American journalism turned to Ferguson. Is the crush and focus of network cameras and big-paper reporters helping Ferguson or exploiting its struggle? The answer to that is obvious; see, for example, Newtown.

The better, more constructive question is: How could journalism help the residents of Ferguson?

The rationale behind our new, proposed M.A. in Social Journalism at CUNY — the thinking behind my argument that journalism must see itself as a service — is that journalism should start by listening, not speaking. It should start with hearing the needs of a community and then and only then deciding which tools to bring to bear to help a community meet its goals and improve its lot: reporting, explanation, education, convening, connecting, organizing.

As I try to apply these notions to Ferguson, a few observations:

It is, of course, possible now to listen in so many more ways. I was struck by this tweet that pictured community talking points about Michael Brown.

When I retweeted that, a journalist objected that this is from an advocacy organization. Well, yes, of course. This group speaks for some people. The first question is: For whom does the organization speak? For whom does it not speak? What are the goals of the various communities in the town? Where are their disagreements? What in their discussion is correct? What is incorrect? What questions does the discussion raise? What information is missing? How can journalism help answer those questions? This document is a helpful starting point.

See, too, this post by a teacher in Greece advising members of a community — whether Ferguson or the Gaza Strip — how to use the tools now at their disposal to affect the conversation: don’t rely on or trust mainstream media but still cultivate them; use your own networks to distribute your own content; use Creative Commons to control use of your content in media. Now some would say that is the community as not only advocate but as flack: media manipulator. Of course. But that’s a mediacentric way to look at this. See it from the community’s perspective and it’s a statement of power: We have a voice at last.

There are more ways to listen to communities now because communities have a voice and ways to be heard. But the social journalist cannot just sit back and hear what people are saying on their blogs, in Twitter, and in their press conferences. The social journalist must also talk with the people who aren’t speaking and listen to them, asking them what their goals and needs are, what they know and don’t know and want to know and why.

When I posed my first question above — about service v. exploitation — on Twitter, I got a response from a resident of Ferguson:

But then I realized I was asking the wrong question and so I probed more:

That is telling. But the conversation is still mediacentric, not communitycentric, telling the world about Ferguson rather than serving the people of Ferguson. So I keep asking:

I asked whether reporters had asked him questions. He said no but was confident they would. Indeed, they did — though from Spain:

My conversation with Mr. McCleery never left media: telling Ferguson’s story outside Ferguson. But what about telling the stories that will help Ferguson? It’s clear that showing up on someone’s doorstep and asking them what they need — “Hello, we’re corporate and we’re here to help” — is inadequate: journalism as focus group. This is why we will teach students to understand communities as best they can before they engage. They will use the tools I’ve listed above plus data skills to do that. But that is not sufficient. They will go meet people in the community — geographic or demographic, built around interest or event — and listen before speaking. They will observe and discern the community’s goals without imposing their own. That is why we think that social journalism must bring elements of social anthropology and community organizing to the task.

But what will be hardest to teach — what is hardest for me to learn — is tamping down the journalistic reflex to start with the assumption that we know what’s needed and that our stories will meet those needs. As I watch the news in Ferguson, I can’t help but do what an editor does, imagining stories to assign: on, say, the racial composition of the town and its history and tensions, on prior cases of police brutality, on the politics of the town — who’s in charge and how does that match the composition of the community, and so on. We call that news judgment.

But the truth is, of course, I don’t know Ferguson worth a damn. I don’t know what its needs are. I am in no position to decide how best to use precious journalistic resource to help them — let alone tell their story to the world.

In classic journalistic structure, the best person to try to do these things is the beat reporter, whose first job is to learn about the constituencies she covers, whether that’s a town or an agency or a topic. This is why I am working to grow the news ecosystems of New Jersey and New York with more beats; this is why we study their businesses at CUNY; this is why we are going to give intense training in running a beat business at the school this fall.

But not every community is lucky enough to have a beat reporter dedicated to its coverage and needs. And beat reporters classically still operate as story machines because that’s all they could do and that supports the economics of their business. But now, in the age of the net and social media, there are so many more ways to not only publish (and promote) but listen, so many more ways to understand a community’s needs and meet them, so many more ways to see people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass served with a necessarily one-size-fits-all product we called news.

It’s not going to be easy to turn journalism on its head, starting with listening rather than publishing, with serving the needs of a community over telling its story to others, and with judging one’s success on the community’s terms rather than media’s (those are the terms of service Jay Rosen has been challenging me to provide in this vision of service journalism).

I don’t know what Ferguson needs. I know that the country needs to pay attention to what is happening in the town and so I’m glad that social media — that is, people using social media to report what they witness — forced Ferguson’s issues onto national media. I also know that it won’t be long before the town will get sick of that attention and of the sensationalism that will emphasize everything bad about Ferguson and nothing good: simple stories that can be told in 1:30 of time or 13″ of type. I also know that when the reporters leave Ferguson’s McDonald’s and the satellite trucks rumble off its streets, then Ferguson will be left little better off for all the journalism that occurred there. It will still have needs and goals and could use help to meet them. That is where social journalism begins.