MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is, of course, inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its creation wasn’t specifically a part of his plan, but when you lead a life of service and sacrifice it’s bound to move people in varied ways.
I wouldn’t say Dr. King was one to declare “I was here” in the Beyonce way but I do think he was conscious of impact. As he led marches, made speeches and talked to legislators, his goal was to have an effect on hearts, minds and policy.
We talk about impact a lot at MLK50. We want every story to cause some kind of shift that helps workers, low-wealth people and the disenfranchised.
And yet, as a growing but still small and young operation, we sometimes wonder what kind of impact is best to invest in.
Our stories have led to terrific outcomes. Writing about the predatory collection policies of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare led to erasing nearly $12 million in medical debt and helped increase wages. Writing about the Byhalia Connection pipeline inspired a people’s movement that stopped it in its tracks.
Those types of stories have a clear before and after; the impact, while not exactly immediate, were visible in ways all could see.
But other kinds of stories aim for impact as well. Our housing reporter Jacob Steimer said one thing he’s consistently heard from those who work with unhoused people is that they wish people would recognize the humanity of those forced to the streets. That’s why his series, No Shelter, features interviews with the unhoused, giving them a chance to share their stories and obstacles.
Leading up to the Aug. 4 election, we published stories ranging from a visit to the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center to ask those directly impacted by the criminal justice system what they thought a new district attorney should focus on, to the promise of changes in the bail systems, to the changes youth want to see from the juvenile court judge, to how different judges handle eviction cases. For this upcoming election on Nov. 8, our work and labor reporter Brittany Brown broke down the ‘right-to-work’ amendment that will appear on the ballot.
The impact those stories make are murkier. But I think of something former Just City court watch curator Joia Erin Thornton told me on that August Election Day. She talked about how the election of DA Steve Mulroy was the result of years of work in the community, of giving people the language to start demanding and asking questions.
So, yes, growing a collective consciousness around issues can also be a kind of impact. Or maybe a better word here is “progress.” At a conference this summer, another journalist suggested that as a better word because it speaks outward, toward the community, while impact is directed inward, toward an organization.
That idea has stuck with me because I know that’s where both kinds of impact meet: in the community. Dr. King’s work resided there; his vision was for a more just world and that can only be achieved through community effort.
At MLK50, we will continue to determine what kind of impact (or what blend) is most potent for the work we want to do with our stories. Yet we understand that hearts, minds and policy all need to change if we want everyone to thrive.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.