Stay Close: A Guide to Pushing Journalism Forward
Tips from notable reporters and editors that are pushing back against journalism's unwritten rules to advance the profession by making it more inclusive.
This is the fourth 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 has evolved over the centuries; to think that it has stayed the same throughout history would be an injustice to the institution as well as those who have helped it to advance. The past decade has felt like change is being propelled faster than ever before, and the institution responsible for chronicling and sharing humanity’s stories must keep up.
This series, Stay Close, takes a look at specific rules — more often understood than specifically written — surrounding journalism and calls them into question, with the idea that our approach to reporting, especially on previously underrepresented communities, is already evolving through specific people and publications, and must continue to do so. The rules in question include the ideas that you cannot report on your own community, that you cannot become emotionally tied to or interact with a story in any way, or that to be considered a true journalist you have to meet certain predetermined criteria like studying at a university. There are thousands of journalists around the world that are already pushing back on these notions, and proving to their readers that they can bend the rules while still being factual, unbiased, and an asset to journalism.
Meet some of the journalists and editors that are a key part of the Stay Close series:
Marcia Facundo is a Dominican-American reporter who has lived in the United States for several decades. She covers Latino, Hispanic, and immigration beats for Politica Ya, a part of Entravision.
Sanya Mansoor is Muslim reporter for Time. She was a contributor to the BIPOC-led issue, “Visions of Equity,” and has included coverage of the Muslim community in her reporting.
Serena Daniari is a trans reporter for Them, a Condé Nast publication. She has been reporting on the trans and LGBTQ community the majority of her journalism career.
Lucy Feldman is senior editor at Time. She has written first-person narratives as an Asian American and she oversees the work of journalists who actively cover their own communities for the magazine. She was the lead editor on Time’s first BIPOC-led issue covering stories important to the BIPOC community.
Nicole Cardoza is the founder of the Anti-Racism Daily Newsletter, covering issues important to her community and overseeing writers covering their own communities.
Molly Jong-Fast is an author and opinion writer for Vogue, The Daily Beast, and The Atlantic.
This guide combines lessons from their past work to show how reporters can improve their writing, editors can improve their newsrooms, and professors can improve their classrooms. All of these individuals, whether they’re trying to or not, are working to move the institution of journalism forward, especially in regards to how it treats and covers people and communities that have previously been left out of the conversation.
“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. 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.” —Molly Jong-Fast, opinion writer at The Atlantic, Vogue, and The Daily Beast
Do use your existing relationships and knowledge of any community of which you are a part to make strong directional choices and get access to people that would be beneficial and appropriate sources for your reporting.
Don’t go to your friends and family as sources; make sure you vet your sources and go above and beyond to make sure that any source you are using is a benefit to your coverage.
Do push yourself out of your specific sub-community bubble. What other people or experiences are within your broader umbrella community? Open yourself up to experiences that are not innate to you but are a part of your community. Don’t be afraid to use your intimate knowledge of any people or place.
Do have multiple conversations with your editor. Whether it’s a conversation before getting started on a piece or a discussion during the writing process if you think that you may be leaning into an area too much. Having an open dialogue with your editor, colleagues, or other journalists in your newsroom can be beneficial and allow you to see potential blind spots. Keeping an open and honest dialogue will help you and your editor determine if a particular story or angle of coverage is inappropriate.
Do continue to fact-check, more so than normal. Leave no room for readers to doubt the accuracy of your reporting.
Do disclose personal ties, interests, or connections. Be very clear — with both your editors and your readers — about any involvement you have with sources or the subject of a story.
Do lean into your gut and personal instinct.
Don’t feel like you have to say yes to covering stories, or every story, about your own community. Individuals should be able to write about what they want; if a story or a request from an editor feels tokenizing, open the dialogue and decline if that’s what feels right.
Do still follow basic ethical guidelines in journalism: do not accept gifts from sources or people you’re covering, do quote your sources correctly, do not distort fact or context, etc.
“When I’m editing [a story of a journalist that’s covering their own community] we always have a conversation and I’ll ask, ‘What’s your perspective on this story you’re pitching?’ or often [they] will tell me, ‘Hey — the angle that you think is the most interesting one is not actually the best lead.’ For example, consider the coverage of 9/11 and what stories [Sanya Mansoor] might want to report on Muslims in America over the last 20 years. I had come up with an angle that I thought was really compelling. And she was like: ‘I see why you would think that! But actually, for Muslims in America, this other thing is much more relevant and I think we should do this instead.’ I appreciate that so much. 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.” —Lucy Feldman, senior editor at Time
Do encourage the journalists you work with if they want to cover their own communities. Be supportive.
Do keep an open dialogue with your journalists. Make sure you’re discussing why they want to cover a particular story and their unique perspective. Be open to discussions about what is integral to the story — as someone from the community, they likely know this better than you.
Do be a guide; help them edit anything that needs to stay but is coming off as bias or opinionated. Help them balance things out.
Do go to other editors and consider having them double-check sources. Keep a general dialogue with other editors about what stories or projects you and the journalists you work most closely with are pursuing.
Do not assume that, because a journalist is from any one particular community, that they will get everything correct or that they do not need you to be a strong editor.
Do look for new and fresh voices to hire and work with.
“I have to go against the kind of conventional wisdom that J-school has. They basically told us to stay out of the story; they just said don’t put your opinion in it, but they didn’t go into what that truly meant and of course they never told you that if you’re Muslim not to go to a mosque to find sources, but no one ever actually spoke about or taught the idea of using your ethnicity or your background as an asset when finding sources. The idea [in reporting] of using what you have available to you and using your knowledge to make a story stronger — they just never made me realize how much of an asset it really is. There are ways to avoid tokenization, and not tell every person from a unique community to do this, but there are ways in which J-school can open up this conversation more about reporting on your own community. There’s a more nuanced conversation that can be had about what it means to be a part or not a part of a story.” —Sanya Mansoor, journalist at Time
Do encourage your students to cover their own communities and have open dialogues with them about why it is important and how to do so ethically and effectively. As a professor, your understanding and encouragement is an intricate part in advancing journalism.
Do highlight the strengths that journalists covering their own communities have in their coverage.
Do not assume that, because something has not yet become widespread in journalism schools, it is incorrect or bad. Progress starts with a few key individuals, and can take place in any one classroom.
Do have open and honest discussions about what a journalist is capable of alongside what they cannot do. A great example can be found in Mansoor’s quote above.
Do take time to highlight the journalists, editors, and publications that are covering their own communities in a way you approve. Make sure you note what their roles are in the entire process. Make them a part of your class syllabus, and their work a part of your assigned reading.
Do showcase the work of journalists who have been close to the stories they write or the people they report on. There are examples of journalists and editors in this situation that have done their jobs poorly. Share those too. Show a balance for students to compare and contrast.
Do continue to press the importance of fact-checking, properly vetting sources, and keeping an open dialogue with — or leaning on — an editor when covering these kinds of stories.
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Read: Stories From the Journalists Included in This Guide
Lucy Feldman’s essay on how the BIPOC-led issue came together: “The Story Behind Time’s First-Ever BIPOC-Led Issue,” May 13, 2021
Sanya Mansoor’s coverage of post-9/11 surveillance on the Muslim community in America: “‘Who Else Is Spying on Me?’ Muslim Americans Bring the Fight Against Surveillance to the Supreme Court.,” September 16, 2021
Marcia Facundo’s coverage of a recent temporary wave from the Agency of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): “USCIS Suspende Temporalmente Requisito Para Prueba Médica de la ‘Green Card,’” December 10, 2021
Molly Jong-Fast’s opinion piece on the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade: “The Supreme Court Is Likely to Overturn Roe — What Then?” October 21, 2021
Nicole Cardoza’s coverage of the disparities of how missing people are reported in the media and how you can advocate for the missing: “Advocate for the Missing,” September 21, 2021
Serena Daniari’s coverage of how the start of the pandemic impacted trans surgeries: “Trans Surgeries Postponed Indefinitely Amid Coronavirus Pandemic,” March 25, 2020
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.
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.