Community-Centered: The Evolution of Journalism
The standards we follow when reporting and writing serve a purpose, but they must evolve with the world we're trying to cover.
This is the third in a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Journalism is a classic institution, and the best of it has long been associated with specific rules and standards that must be kept in order for the work to be deemed credible by its readers. Many of these rules make sense, and The Postscript abides by them, like using reliable sources, fact-checking at multiple levels, and being transparent about mistakes or corrections. These types of standards should never be dismissed, but others can evolve.
It’s 2021 and more people are now understanding that existing systems have not always had everyone’s best interests in mind. We’re learning that, oftentimes, rules or standards that were put in place — in journalism or other industries — were of benefit to very particular communities. The modern world we live in has a richer blend of cultures and identities than it did when many of those guidelines were created; it also has a more open mind to what’s considered to be newsworthy and how individuals should and should not be represented. More people and publications are approaching stories in new ways, in order to allow the reader to gain a stronger understanding of the issue and perhaps even to have an emotional tie to the situation and the outcome represented. Areas in particular that we’re finding journalists pushing back are that you cannot report on your own community, that you cannot become tied to or interact with a story in any way in order to cover it responsibly, or that to be considered a true journalist you have to meet certain predetermined criteria like studying at university.
This series, Stay Close, looks specifically at these rules and calls them into question. It has showcased meaningful conversations with a variety of journalists that are doing the opposite of what many of us were taught in school and by editors, and proving that their work is intelligent, impactful, consequential, needed — and responsible.
Lack of Coverage and Understanding
Part of the reason there is an evolution in journalism happening right now is because we have seen what happens when the traditional standards of reporting are strictly followed. There is a lack of coverage of specific communities, communities that have voices that should be amplified and stories that should be told. When these communities are covered — like when trans or diaspora communities receive coverage — the reporting is sometimes false or inaccurate, or it’s done by someone who is so far removed and lacking any care or concern for the community that their coverage is biased because of their perception. This is not just harmful to the community, it’s harmful to the audience.
This is one reason why Serena Daniari, a trans reporter at Condé Nast’s Them, is covering the trans community specifically in her reporting. “When the community is being covered there were so many inaccuracies in the ways that these stories were being reported on by CIS reporters,” she says. “This really reflected a general lack of understanding of my community. Oftentimes subjects would be referenced by their dead names or oftentimes they would be misgendered. There would be a fixation on surgeries and medical processes, so many times the narrative was very much focused on just the body and the transitioning. You can tell this coverage comes from a very sensational perspective instead of one that was humanizing and accurate.”
In a conversation, Daniari also pointed out that many of the stories she covers wouldn’t even normally be deemed as newsworthy by other outlets that don’t have LGBTQ or trans reporters on staff. The community is left out of the conversation despite being relevant. “There are fewer and fewer outlets dedicated to covering [LGBTQ and trans] stories,” she says.
Sanya Mansoor, a Muslim reporter at Time, is another journalist who has seen her community inaccurately reported on and oftentimes disparaged, which has inspired her own coverage. She and her senior editor at Time, Lucy Feldman, talked about how they came to cover a specific angle for the magazine’s coverage of 9/11 this year. Feldman had shared what she thought was a compelling idea and Mansoor discussed with her that she understands why someone outside the community would think that angle was the strong choice, but that Time needed to go deeper and report on a story that is much more important to Muslim Americans and how many of them were affected in ways that the mainstream news has yet to cover.
They decided to follow Mansoor’s suggestion and cover how mosques and the Muslim community were surveilled post-9/11 in “‘Who Else Is Spying on Me?’ Muslim Americans Bring the Fight Against Surveillance to the Supreme Court.”
“I appreciate that so much,” Feldman says. “Obviously, we want to be telling the most important story, and if she has a perspective that helps us get there, even if it’s not what my mind immediately goes to, then great. I’m going to listen to her.”
Mansoor and Daniari, in separate discussions, both emphasized that coverage done by reporters from their communities can feel tokenizing right now because newsroom leadership across the country has largely looked the same for decades. A lack of diversity in journalists has spilled over into lack of diversity in coverage. Now, we’ve started having conversations about ensuring that all communities are covered, and it can display as pushing a particular agenda. Eventually, when all types of stories are covered more readily and more often, and a variety of voices are elevated, it will all just be considered news. “Evolving our newsroom starts by asking for space and centering fresh voices within it,” Feldman says.
But this isn’t a one-off project, or something that can be solved by a special issue. No one person from a specific community is representative of all from that community. “There are so many differences in the Latino community. There are as many differences between myself and a Mexican as there are differences between you and I,” says Marcia Facundo, a Dominican-American reporter who has lived in the United States for several decades and covers Latino, Hispanic, and immigration beats for Politica Ya. “In culture, in language, in writing, the way we talk, the accent, the words, everything. As a journalist, I learned to be more aware of our differences when I’m communicating and reporting; that is so important.”
Mansoor agrees. “Muslims are not a monolith,” she says. “I see myself more as a reporter who happens to be Muslim, as opposed to a reporter who speaks for the Muslim community. Part of my job as a reporter is not to report on my worldview; my specific experience as a Muslim. I have a very specific experience. I’m an upper-middle-class Muslim, I don’t wear a hijab, I’m a woman, I’m not Black. All of these things are so specific. I’ve gone to Friday prayers and it’s an important aspect of my life and worldview, but also, within that, I’m very self-aware to know that I have a lived experience of being that kind of Muslim. But I don’t have the lived experience of being a Black Muslim or a Muslim who is incarcerated. And these are all very specific experiences and I feel like as a good reporter that it’s a balance.”
Who Are the Journalists?
Nicole Cardoza, founder of the Anti-Racism Daily Newsletter, still doesn’t know if she would call herself a journalist, despite writing and editing an informative newsletter for thousands of subscribers almost every single day since June of 2020. “I have a lot of freedom writing my own publication, having my own platform, and being able to tell the stories that matter to me and my community,” she says. “In that sense, yes I am a journalist. But I have so much respect for people that have been doing this work for so much longer than I have, and I still have a lot to learn.”
The ARD newsletter started with 80 subscribers and Cardoza launched the first article when she had people in her network reaching out to her specifically and asking how they could take direct action after the events of summer 2020 following George Floyd’s murder and the strong push for social justice that came immediately after. The first installment was about cash bail but took a more active approach in its coverage, including direct information on what the individual and community can do to enact change. “There were so many conversations at that time on how important it is to donate to bail funds, but what was missing was the broader context of how harmful they are and how we need to think about abolishing cash bail altogether,” Cardoza says. Since then, there has been a daily newsletter highlighting systemic oppression, from health to environment to politics. Cardoza initially pulled from her own knowledge and sources online but very quickly started reaching out to community organizers and brought them in as guest writers. Now the newsletter is at 275,000 subscribers and is written by Cardoza, community organizers, journalists, and those that are directly affected by the issues it covers. Cardoza has full-time staff members and works with around 70 writers from all kinds of backgrounds. Though its approach to coverage might not be what we’re used to from a traditional newspaper, the newsletter goes through formal stages of editing and fact-checking.
Cardoza is actively pushing against the standards that society has placed on who can and cannot be considered a journalist. Although she has no formal education in the field, she launched and runs an independent media platform and holds herself and the platform to many noted journalistic standards. Beyond that, she’s also holding space for the voices of those directly affected by the issues she and her team report on, such as incarcerated individuals or people experiencing homelessness. By working with them, many without a formal writing background, Cardoza is pushing even harder.
One way to think of journalists is as storytellers, in which their role is to go out, find stories, particularly those that illuminate some larger truth about the world, and share those with their readers. For many, they do have an agenda, and this is to try to make the world a better place by publishing research, investigations, and other forms of reporting in order to inform people. The notion that one is not a journalist unless they studied it in school or wrote for their school newspaper or practice in a certain way is mistaken.
“We think of journalism as academically sound but we forget the institutions that built academia,” Cardoza says. “We forget that personal experiences are as powerful, if not more powerful, and should be seen and credited. For example, how can we say that an incarcerated writer doesn’t know anything about the incarceration system just because they didn’t study it in school? We consistently, as a society, minimize the voices of the people who have the experiences that we’re speaking about.”
While the word journalist may, for many, bring to mind visuals of a CNN news desk reporter or New York Times writer, both reporting exclusively on politics, the truth is that there are dozens of different types of journalists covering every type of subject that exists. Whether it’s incarcerated individuals reporting on prisons, opinion writers covering legislation, photojournalists in nature, newsletter editors covering racism, or citizen journalists that are helping provide boots on the ground reporting in dangerous or inaccessible areas, the view of who is considered a true journalist should be expanded.
Saving the Child, and Other Aspects of Humanity
Photojournalist Kevin Carter famously won the Pulitzer Prize for a photograph taken during the 1993 Sudan famine; it showed a malnourished child with a vulture hovering behind it. Although the image won awards and was critically acclaimed, it depicted something horrific. Many people questioned Carter as to if he had saved the child from the impending predator after the shot was taken. He had not, because journalists are often taught that they should not involve themselves in the story; they’re there to observe. According to the New York Times, after taking the shot, Carter “sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, and cried.”
The child reportedly made it to a United Nations feeding center shortly after the photo was taken. Carter was villainized for his inaction and ended up dying by suicide the following year at the age of 33. This particular story is unique, and extreme, but journalists are often trained not to interact with their subjects, regardless of the severity of the situation they’re capturing.
When presented with an imagined scenario of actively reporting in a war zone where bullets are flying and asked if they would take a lost child away from the area or leave them, four journalists interviewed for this piece said that they would save the child, and they all provided an explanation as to why they made that choice. “Yes, there are journalistic ideals about maintaining a certain distance from a story, but there’s also just the ethics and morality of being a good person,” Daniari says. “I think it would be wrong; these are real people.”
This particular scenario is dramatic, but every day journalists are faced with situations where they are expected to remain detached, all while being human and interacting with humans. “I think that the journalist has a very tough job to do, which is to get close but at the same time to stay away,” Facundo says. “That’s a balance that you need to find in your professional life, because it’s true that you should be close in order to tell the story properly. It’s just like the balance where you try to be fair in your coverage. I think it’s an exercise that the journalist has to do and find a way to get it done correctly.”
Facundo remembers a time when she first started reporting in the Dominican Republic after college. She attended a press conference, where a family was actively pleading with the new government to let the father, who had been deported for being a part of the guerrilla movement, come back. A child was crying and “I started crying with her,” Facundo says. “I think that was one of the first experiences where I felt like, ‘Oh my God — I am into this.’ I knew I needed to remain objective and they tell you that you have to separate yourself from the news, but yet you feel for people. People have their stories just like you have your own and sometimes you connect with the person you are interviewing.”
“I learned in moments like these that you absolutely can report the story without letting your feelings interfere with the way you report it,” Facundo says. “You’re either a good journalist or a bad one, but connecting with someone doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. I think this helped me see the story more clearly. From then on, I almost want to get emotional because it helps my writing. I am more passionate when I am telling the story because at its core these are human stories, and if you’re able to show the human side of any issue to the readers, I think that’s the main point of it all.”
Many of the other journalists I spoke to as part of this Stay Close series have experienced times where they got close to those they were interviewing or allowed themselves to experience emotions deemed to be unfit for a journalist to experience on the job. Mansoor notes that, if she’s interviewing anyone where there is trauma or a difficult situation involved, she is the first to impress upon them that they don’t have to speak to her, they don’t owe “us” anything. She acknowledges that she may be sacrificing a great quote but believes, even as a reporter, that people are more important to her than stories.
Fresh Voices and Other Benefits
Many of the journalists and publications that are broadening their view of who should be allowed to report on what are seeing benefits to their coverage. Regarding journalists that cover their own communities, this can include understanding who would be a great source to interview and having contacts that can connect reporters to sources more easily. They also have a higher level of understanding of the subject matter than someone without ties to a community. This can come from understanding unique parts of a religion or tradition, or even knowing terminology that isn’t used in a general lexicon. While research will always be needed for a story, having this knowledge going into a piece helps to strengthen the reporting. Being a part of the community adds a level of depth and understanding, but it also opens up doors.
“Additionally, I feel like there’s a trust element,” Mansoor says. “Particularly if you’re a community that has not always been represented favorably by the media and you have a skepticism. I think that’s a reasonable skepticism. Obviously you still have to earn people’s trust, but it’s in the active small things. For example, if I call someone up and say ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ because that’s the way that I greet someone who is Muslim, instantly there’s a comfort level.”
Daniari has had a similar experience when working with the trans community, a community that generally has an intense distrust of the media because it’s been covered poorly. Being a trans journalist working within the community provides a level of trust. This may not be enough to break through barriers entirely, but reporting subjects often trust that Daniari is not going to make the same kinds of mistakes a cis reporter with no understanding of trans issues might. Additionally, understanding a community means that you’re clued in to what may be worth covering — stories that don’t get picked up by mainstream news.
“I think there is just a level of insight that I and other trans writers have into the big issues that cisgender people may not have, to be honest,” Daniari says. “A lot of the stories that we cover don’t even make a blip on the radar of what most journalists would like to cover. There are very real and extremely urgent issues for our community, like joblessness, lack of health care, the string of trans bills. But maybe a fraction of them may be covered by mainstream media outlets.”
For many journalists working to push the boundaries of traditional journalism standards there is a built in distrust from colleagues or readers they need to overcome. Additional time may be dedicated to fact-checking and interviewing, an asset to any story. Molly Jong-Fast, an opinion writer for Vogue and The Daily Beast, understands that she’s different from most journalists, because she’s writing from her perspective about issues that are important to her. She notes that, because there is already a spotlight on her coverage, she goes the extra mile to make sure she is factual and ethical. “I never, ever get stuff wrong. I’m really careful about that. You have to work harder to convince people that you’re not just about your opinions,” she says. “I am continuously asking: ‘Am I misleading my readers in any way? Am I not being honest?’ It’s something that I pay very special attention to because I’m on that side of journalism.”
This type of special attention is something that often gets missed in mainstream coverage. There’s a race to be the first person to report rather than considering who is best positioned to cover a story. Coverage can be sensationalized — or read as sensational — which leads to its own set of issues. Reporters who know their communities, who go out of their way to advocate for the coverage of stories that are important but often overlooked, who spend the time to ensure their coverage is not only factually accurate but address a community’s needs — these are the reporters pushing journalism forward.
For decades, mainstream news has seen the same types of journalists in the newsroom covering the same types of stories. By expanding to include diverse journalists and allowing them to cover what they deem to be important, we’re opening up the world to a greater level of understanding. For those who receive push back for their role in the evolution of journalism, Facundo notes that it doesn’t matter. “Let’s start a movement. I don’t think there’s more that you can do other than be a good journalist,” she says. “Do what you have to do and do it better than the others. Don’t give people room to say that you’re a bad journalist. Tell the story in a better way, make it more attractive. Make it impactful in a way that people read you or watch you or listen to you more than they do the people who are spreading misinformation or ignorance.”
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Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Stay Close: A Special Series on Journalists Covering Their Own Communities
Stay Close is a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Stories That Matter: How Serena Daniari Is Highlighting Trans Pandemic Triumphs
Stories That Matter: How Time Released a BIPOC-Led Issue With Journalists Covering Their Own Communities
Meet: About the Author
Jessica Kantor is a freelance journalist that writes about health/mental health, human rights, and issues facing underrepresented communities. She is a living kidney donor. Her work can be found in Fast Company, What’s Next Magazine, Healthcare Quarterly, and others.