It takes continuous work to unlearn and rebuild the structure of journalism. It takes peeling back notions that seemed right, even righteous. It takes understanding you may have unknowingly done harm even as your intentions were good. It takes examining not just what you believe but the words you speak in support of those ideas. 

Last week, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism sponsored a webinar hosted by Interrupting Criminalization fellow Lewis Raven Wallace called “Building Relationships with Journalists.” It was meant for activists and organizers to learn how to develop those relationships and respond when coverage is lacking. 

There’s long been a kind of adage in journalism: Journalists are not activists. It has been a truism in the field with scorn as a subtext. We’ve been dismissive of activists — they take sides! We journalists, holier than them, do not. 

But there’s been some rethinking around that belief. I know I’ve come to see that some of the standards and structures I learned in my training to become a journalist are just ways of affirming our power over the community we aim to serve. Many journalists are willing to acknowledge the choices made in deciding what gets coverage, what and who’s included and how stories are told. They admit choosing to believe a police report over an accused person’s statement is taking a side.

And, if one meaning of activism is to campaign for social change, isn’t a reporter digging in on an issue with the goal of holding power accountable aiming for just that?

Our visuals director Andrea Morales was one of the discussion’s panelists. Andrea came to town in 2014, just after Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson, Missouri, became a hotbed for the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking protests nationally. Then an independent photojournalist, Andrea says those representing the state basically gave her no choice but to connect with activists. Without formal credentials, police didn’t consider her a journalist. So she was penned in behind barriers with activists giving her the opportunity to speak with them directly (At the same time, Andrea was also surveilled for her work as a journalist!). And so, trauma bonding her with Memphis activists.

Those experiences helped her abandon the idea that working at arms distance with the community is the correct way to practice journalism. “I think that’s a tired approach,” she told me. Instead, she said, we have to examine how much we take from people when we ask them to tell their stories and think more about what they will get from the experience. How are we helping them?

“Where journalists and activists can work together is beyond the publication of stories,” she said. Journalists need to recognize what the community needs to be fulfilled and, she says, “find a way to publish around that. 

MLK50’s workers and labor reporter Brittany Brown participates in discussion during the Community Change Cross Movement Convening she attended last weekend in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ilhana Brown via the Center for Community Change

“We have to continue making journalism nimble; journalism is a tool we can use in certain ways. We can take this thing of shared stories and engendering change and learning through each other’s lives and make it truer to the moment, rather than the way journalism now functions.”

While Andrea was in Memphis having this discussion, our workers and labor reporter Brittany Brown was in Washington, D.C., a journalist among many activists at the Community Change Cross Movement Convening. She heard a lot there from activists who don’t trust journalists and the media, mostly because they often repeatedly tell the same stories about a subject and write about issues in the same way.

Brittany said her days at the convening made her think about sharing power with our community and the urgency of what our community tells us. And she said it also confirmed that MLK50 is on the right track.

I think we are too. Our guide for the public explaining how to interact with journalists was born from the idea of providing practical information and sharing power with our community. Yet we know there’s so much more we need to do to change the dynamic, to build trust, to be activists in the purest sense of the word — those who take action to understand, explain and upend policy and power the community tells us is repressive.  

We’ll keep working at it.

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com


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