Every year around this time, I am struck by the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our social journalism graduates at Newmark J-School as they reimagine and reinvent journalism. I am particularly impressed this year as they were hit by the pandemic, forcing them to take their job of performing and listening indoors and online. In this, the last week of the term, we saw the 2020 graduates and next year’s students present their work with the communities.
These students constantly push the old sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: some are experimenting with fiction as journalism. One planned a play to educate tenants about their rights in evictions. Some came to their communities with posters in telephone surveys. One allowed the refugees to take their own photographs so that they could tell their stories rather than have other people tell them. One tried to get newspaper publishers to print absentee ballot requests (newspapers refused). One made a fanzine with political cartoons to educate journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them tell their stories in newsrooms. More than one realized that in order to gain the trust they asked for, they needed to be open about themselves; one offered his community the opportunity to ask him anything, another told him the story of his addiction. A mayor dragged out of a meeting because of her reports; the mayor was soon defeated. One created playlists to help people with depression like their journalism.
They serve a wide diversity of communities: black and transgender women; voters disenfranchised; tenants at risk of losing their homes in the pandemic; black women victimized by their natural hair; hungry people in an American city; Inhabitants of Kashmir under occupation; Syrian Refugees; victims of armed violence and defenders of gun safety; young teacher journalists; people who buy marijuana; Louisiana Cancer Alley Residents; people with depression; recovering addicts and the people who care for them; health workers; caregivers; school social workers; people with intellectual developmental disabilities in group homes who experience abuse; feminists protesting the murders of women in Mexico; the incarcerated and their loved ones; trans sex workers; hair braiders; the Venezuelan diaspora; cyclists.
What was particularly gratifying this year was that since we were in Zoom and not too small a room, well, over a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their final project and among them were dozens of alumni of our still. Young Social Journalism Program. They came to give their support and admiration, which thanks to Zoom they were able to share as a chat.
Our students are phenomenal. They are our Trojan horses that are changing newsrooms, where they are employed quickly, with their learned skills (social, data, reporting, research, product, entrepreneurship), but more than that, their worldviews, their vision. of what journalism can and should be. . As the director of our program, my brilliant colleague, Dr. Carrie Brown, says that these students preach the gospel of social journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do.
And what is that gospel? That we do not start from the content but from the communities. That we first listen to the communities so that they are heard on their own terms. We identify with your needs and reflect our understanding to ensure that we have listened well. Then we imagine what journalism we could contribute to serve them. We believe in journalism as a service, not as a product. As you can see above, we found and worked with an incredible wealth of tools to perform that service, beyond just posting stories. We try to build bridges and understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism, unafraid to challenge the shiboleth of objectivity, acknowledging its roots in systemic racism and the damage of our field to the communities, and questioning the high heresy of journalism as a defense of those we serve.
This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates are reinventing and rebuilding journalism.
We accepted our first students in January 2015, just nine months after our dean, Sarah Bartlett, challenged me to imagine a new title based on my thinking about a relationship-based strategy for news and we were fortunate enough to hire Dr. Brown to build and lead it. Here is social journalism class of 2020.
I’m not prouder of anything in my career than helping start social journalism. Let my headstone bear the hashtag #SocialJ.