Every year at this time, I am impressed by the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our Newmark J-School social journalism graduates reinterpreting and reinventing journalism. I’m especially impressed this year when they were hit by the pandemic and were forced to show up and listen indoors and online. During this last week of the semester, we saw the 2020 graduates and next year’s students present their work in the communities.
These students are consistently pushing the old, sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: Some experiment with fiction as journalism. A piece was planned to educate tenants about their eviction rights. Some reached their communities with posters in telephone polls. One allowed refugees to take their own pictures so they could tell their stories instead of letting others tell them. Attempts were made to get newspaper publishers to print absentee ballots (the newspapers refused). A zine of political cartoons was made to train journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them tell their stories in newsrooms. More than one realized that they had to be open to themselves to gain the trust they asked for. one gave her community the opportunity to ask her something, another tells the story of his addiction. One was pulled out of a meeting by a mayor for reporting; The mayor was soon defeated. A playlist created to help people with depression as journalism.
They serve a wide variety of communities: black transgender women; disenfranchised voters; Tenants at risk of losing their home in the pandemic; black women who fell victim to their natural hair; People starving in an American city; Kashmiris under occupation; Syrian refugees; Victims of gun violence and gun safety advocates; Teacher; young journalists; People who buy weeds; Residents of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley; People with depression; Recovery of addicts and those who care for them; Health care workers; Supervisor; School social worker; People with mental development disorders in group homes who suffer from abuse; Feminists Protest the Murders of Women in Mexico; the prisoners and their loved ones; Transsexual; Hair clips; the Venezuelan diaspora; Cyclist.
What was particularly gratifying this year was that – since we were on Zoom and not in a room that was too small – over a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their graduation project, and among them were dozen of ours young people’s social journalism program. They came to give their support and admiration which they could share as chat thanks to Zoom.
Our alumni are phenomenal. They are our Trojans who, with the skills they have learned – social, data, reporting, investigation, product, entrepreneurship – switch newsrooms, where they get busy quickly, but also their worldviews, their vision of what journalism can and should be. Like the director of our program, my brilliant colleague Dr. Carrie Brown says these alums preach the gospel of social journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do.
And what kind of gospel is that? That we don’t start with content, but with communities. That we listen to the communities first so that they can be heard on their terms. We empathize with their needs and reflect back on our understanding to make sure we listened carefully. Then we imagine what journalism we could bring to serve them. We believe in journalism as a service, not a product. As you can see above, we find and work with an incredible wealth of tools to carry out this service beyond just publishing stories. We try to build bridges and develop understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism without fear of questioning the Shiboleth of objectivity, realizing its roots in systemic racism and the damage our field does to communities, and the high heresy of journalism as an advocate for those to question who we serve.
This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates rethink and rebuild journalism.
We enrolled our first students in January 2015, just nine months after our Dean Sarah Bartlett asked me to imagine a new degree based on my deliberations on a relationship-based news strategy, and we were fortunate enough to find Dr. Engage Brown to build it and run it. Here is the 2020 social journalism class.
I’m proud of nothing in my career other than the start of social journalism. May my tombstone have the hashtag #SocialJ.