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.

  • rosenblum

    This is an interesting insight: ”


    @jeffjarvis as a Ferguson resident, feeling is 80% exploitation. This town is not what you see in the media.

    When I taught at NYU (a long time ago), I would send my students out to find people whose stories had been reported on local news. To a person, they all said that the news story that had aired did not really reflect what they felt was the ‘real’ story.

  • Eric Hydrick

    You use the term “social journalism”, but I think “community journalism” is a better description of what the goal is. The “social” just seems to refer to social media which are a valuable tool for determining needs and communicating to the very people you’re trying to serve. I just think you’re running the danger of confusing the ends with the means.

    • Carrie Brown-Smith

      It is tricky coming up for the “perfect” name for this program. (I’m the incoming director). While I like the term “community journalism,” I also think that has traditionally been associated with small towns/small newspapers – and there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it also doesn’t quite capture what we are going for. One thing I like about “social journalism” is that it is often through social media that many people first really grasp the power of “journalism-as-service” and the ways in which we can leverage tools to create impact and give “voice to the voiceless,” to use the old cliche. For example, I have a lot of non-journalist/non-techy friends who didn’t really “get” social media’s potential until events like Ferguson transpired. You are exactly right that social media is just a tool, but I hope the term “social journalism” will come to encompass something much broader. But who knows, maybe there is a better term out there we haven’t thought of yet.

    • Khari Johnson

      Couldn’t agree more. I kept thinking this as I read the article. I don’t know where these terms come from but in many instances social journalism and community journalism could probably be interchangeable. In my ear social journalism seeks to be an advocate whereas community journalism seeks answers. Both have to be good listeners, or at least better than most.

  • Nice piece!

    I’d like to propose clearhealthcosts.com as an example of what you’re talking about, though we might call it “participatory journalism” rather than “social journalism.”

    Our Knight-funded prototype in California, crowdsourcing the prices of health care with KQED and KPCC public radio, is both journalism and service: we’re creating not only stories, but also a place to have a conversation about prices. And! we’re building a database of prices– actionable information that people can use to make decisions — as we join hands with our communities to address the problem of rising health costs, one of the biggest problems we face as a nation. We are also members of the community we serve: people puzzled by (and upset over) health-care pricing, and over the notion of a completely opaque marketplace in this age of transparency and technology.


    Here’s our new Tumblr, collecting much of our work together in one place. We’re 6 weeks old and learning as we go! http://pricecheck-healthcosts.tumblr.com/

    About Ferguson: Local reporting is really tough, because you both oppose and depend on the local powers that be in your work. For people parachuting in from the outside, you’re right, the best thing they can do is listen long and hard — IOW, learn about the constituency you’re covering.

  • Mike Johansson

    The other aspect of this is: Who pays? What I’d like to see is a kind of UNESCO for journalism. In other words a not-for-profit that has a team of journalists to call upon (a pool if you like) that get sent to the secne of large nationally important stories to listen for and report on the context that is clearly lacking in much current journalism. This would be a service to all involved.

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  • Fanny Agutu

    Good work with this article, it
    hits right at home what is increasingly wrong with the way we cover news
    today. Often times the journalist wants
    to be at the forefront of the story at hand, while struggling to demystify what
    the members of that community really think and need.

    I couldn’t agree more with your
    statement that “what would be 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”.
    This resonates with me on many occasions. Having been born in a third world country, I
    have seen journalists, especially from big news organizations go into countries
    and report about what they think is happening in that country, based on some
    not so true history. The end result often
    is that, the locals get angry at the news organizations and want them to leave.
    Ever questioned why a journalist is being asked to leave a certain country? Most of the time, it is because the members of
    those communities feel disrespected by the inaccuracies.

    I think the program you are
    starting at CUNY should be called Social Movement and Community Journalism

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