Today on Twitter I asked “What would a journalism dedicated to helping communities solve complex social and political issues look like? Who is already doing it?”
What would a journalism dedicated to helping communities solve complex social and political issues look like? Who is already doing it?
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) December 16, 2012
This, to me, is the question we face as the nation tries to not only come to terms with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, but also look ahead at how we can respond. Already we are seeing demands for a national conversation about gun violence, for new gun control legislation, even for a repeal of the second amendment. Each of these ideas is composed of a complex and interwoven web of policy, beliefs, and culture. How can we better report on those complex webs and forces?
In a post from a year ago Jonathan Stray asked a similar question about journalism and problem solving. He observed that “The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them. It’s not a journalism for the people who will put together the next generation of civic institutions.”
At the time he was writing about the global financial crisis, but the quote above could just as easily apply to violence in America. His post sparked a conversation about solutions journalism, a theme he returned to earlier this year. “I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future. This is the moderator’s role.”
At times like this, we need good moderators of public debate, we need caring facilitators of challenging conversations, and we need newsrooms that can create space for communities to talk to each other. I’m not talking about online comments on newspaper websites, I’m talking about a much deeper form of community engagement.
In response to my inquiry on Twitter, Joel Hoffmann pointed me to GunCrisis.org and the associated Twitter account @GunCrisisNews. GunCrisis was founded by a team of journalists and academics and describes itself as an “open source journalism project” intended to fill the gaps in reporting on gun violence in Philadelphia. Like the better-known HomicideWatch in Washington, DC, GunCrisis is dedicated to bearing witnesses long beyond when most news organizations stop reporting on the cases and victims of violent crime. But more than just reporting on gun violence, they are explicitly working to find and advocate for solutions.
Jim MacMillan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who started the project, advocates approaching gun violence through the framework of public health. When it comes to this work, MacMillan isn’t afraid of advocacy. “The goal is to reduce gun deaths and find replicable solutions,” he told Philadelphia Weekly.
To meet that goal, MacMillan is embracing the role of moderator. “First thing I’m trying to do is build a community of like-minded people and start to gather information on all the other individuals and organizations in the city working on it,” says MacMillan in the Philadelphia Weekly article. The article goes on to say that MacMillan sees gun violence as “the story of Philadelphia — and that it needs to be explored intensely, from every angle, with every journalistic resource in the city.” Taking everything they have learned so far, GunCrisis recently held a symposium with city council members to talk about possible solutions for the city.
Less than a year old, GunCrisis is just getting started, but as the nation looks ahead the news startup may be a model for journalists around the country who want to help their communities debate these critical issues and develop solutions.
Thanks, Josh, for including Homicide Watch DC. Our goal from the beginning was to be a place where conversation could happen. That means our space has to have a three very important characteristics: first, if we want people to have meaningful conversations, we need to make sure they have the tools to have those conversations. That means simple, straight-forward, unbiased reporting. Conversations are based on information; our job is to make sure that information is there and is understandable. Second, our community has to feel like this is a safe space to have a conversation. That’s meant applying a strict comments policy regarding profanity and threats and (most importantly) pre-moderating comments. Third, we need to show the community as often as we can that we value their participation. This comes across quite literally (see our Comments of the Day thread), but I think is also a tone that the site sets. I realize that I am a very, very small participant in how these stories are told and that what is most important is that people feel that they’re being treated fairly as participants in the coverage. An editor thinking about HW recently asked me how we built such an engaged community, and I think this gets at the heart of it. We make sure our community has tools for conversation, feels safe participating, and that their voices are honored. We believe that in order to address the problems of violent crime, the community needs to be able to have, really have, a conversation about it. We hope that we are a part of that process. A shout-out to the Trentonian in Trenton, New Jersey and the Chicago Sun-Times, both of which have committed to hosting these conversations as well using the Homicide Watch platform.
On Twitter, Susie Cagle also pointed me to the excellent Oakland Effects project (http://www.oaklandeffect.com) run by Scott Johnson (@scott_c_johnson) and publishing stories in the Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group papers. Johson is a Violence Reporting Fellow funded by the California Endowment. Right now, the project is only set for 18-months. According to the website it “will explore key areas that impact the overall health and well-being of the City of Oakland and some surrounding communities.” One of the key verticles on the site is guns and violence. In addition to Johnson’s reporting the project will include “public forums to discuss these issues, as well as Oakland Voices, a community journalism initiative where Oakland residents are trained to become storytellers.”
Thanks for the post, Josh. Do you think these “deeper” forms of community engagement are different from the many so-called public journalism or civic journalism efforts of decades past? Is there something different today with the kinds of conversations enabled by new media (as Laura points out in her comment) or with the role of the journalist?
I think this all builds on the history you point to, but also is something different, necessitated both by the state of our communities and the state of journalism, and powered by new tools and connections via the web and social media.
Vince Stehle of Media Impact Funders has a great piece in the the Chronicle of Philanthropy asking “Why Haven’t Foundations Responded to the Newtown Shootings?” (http://philanthropy.com/article/Why-Haven-t-Foundations/136383/) which he followed up with on the Media Impact Funders blog, including a guest post from J. Mikel Ellcessor, General Manager, WDET, Detroit. (http://mediaimpactfunders.org/2012/12/26/why-havent-foundations-responded-to-the-newtown-shootings/)
In the follow up piece Ellcessor describes how WDET has engaged in the debate over gun violence in their city. It is a good read, and as Ellcessor admits, not a perfect learning curve. Here is an excerpt that sets up the piece:
“Perhaps the difficulty, for both foundations and media, in addressing the roots and causes of gun violence is the fact that it’s a tangled mix of issues. Any meaningful response will require long-term commitment to achieve results. If my reading of recent trends is correct, both foundations and the media are favoring approaches and projects that have a distinct beginning, middle and end with clear, measurable impact and outcomes.
This is a mistake.
The reality of gun violence doesn’t fall into a clear, linear storytelling narrative and making a difference in the space won’t show up in a 12 or even 24 month impact report.
At the same time, public service institutions are struggling to confront and address their relevance and truly serve their communities. Focusing on crises like gun violence is at the core of public media’s mandate – to inform, engage and discuss critical social concerns as citizens, communities and as a nation.”