By Elisa Shoenberger, Journalist and Writer

We need to explore how journalism’s best practices may be supporting these structures of power and figure out how to make the practice of journalism more equitable and inclusive.

So much of how the world understands philanthropy is through the help of journalists (as well as development communications folks) who write about the issues to get people interested and involved. For people outside of the philanthropic sphere, it’s how they learn about what’s going on in our sector; and often, it’s also how people inside that world learn about what’s going on. 

But as we examine the ways that philanthropy has historically and currently supported white supremacy and structures of power, it’s time to look at how its partner, journalism, has also helped uphold these values. We need to explore how journalism’s best practices may be supporting these structures of power and figure out how to make the practice of journalism more equitable and inclusive.

Working with sources

I became a freelance journalist because I love talking to people about what they do and what they are passionate about. It’s the best part of writing articles — I get to talk to incredible humans about themselves. This led me to become an oral historian and, eventually, a freelance journalist.

But what do you do if you are working with people and communities who have been harmed by the media?

One of the biggest differences between the two practices is how they approach sources and their quotations. Oral historians typically share the transcripts of the interviews with people whereas journalists typically don’t share quotations or paraphrases or even the direction of the article. Many publications’ editorial policies do not permit journalists sharing anything with sources prior to publication. A few will share quotations for purposes of fact-checking and there are some outlets, like the CCF Hub, that are open to the practice.

The argument for why journalists should not share material with sources is freedom of the press. We don’t want sources to dictate the article. And I totally understand that. Last year, I wrote an article that was critical of a government agency and got an earful from the public official I had interviewed about it. He didn’t like the tone of the article. If I had shared parts of the article with him, I imagine he would have wanted the entire piece to read differently.

But what do you do if you are working with people and communities who have been harmed by the media? I talked with Corinne Rice Grey Cloud, Indigenous diversity equity and inclusion educator, a Lakota and Mohawk woman, and an Indigenous journalist, about how the media has harmed Indigenous people in the past and the present day.

There’s a lot of mistrust of the media in Indigenous communities due to the way the media has treated people.

“The media will come to Indigenous people for a conversation about topics that are emotionally straining or draining to talk about and [are uncaring that we are] reliving that,” Grey Cloud said.

For instance, with all the recent mass burials of children being uncovered at residential schools in Canada, journalists have been reaching out to residential school survivors, she explained, without considering the impact on their mental health from their own trauma.

“Essentially what you’re asking [these people is]: ‘Step into your trauma, and explain your abuse to me, as someone who’s never seen it so that I can write an article that will appease an audience that has never heard of your pain or trauma,’” she said.  She added that there’s also a fixation on poverty in Indigenous communities, which she says is poverty porn.

Historically and currently, journalists have been known to misuse people’s words or not put their words into context. Members of the media will use quotes to serve their own purposes of the story.

“It can absolutely cause real harm to that person’s life, within the community, your reputation, and who you are and what you do for your people,” Grey Cloud said.

Grey Cloud explained that as a journalist, she also has to earn the trust of the Indigenous communities herself, even when she’s working to uplift the community. To gain people’s trust, she shares the framing of the story, the quotations and sometimes the entire story with her sources before publication. “If they felt that it represented what they wanted in their story, to be communicated to the world in a good way, then I would send it to my editor,” she explained.

Often, non-Indigenous journalists may not have cultural understanding of Indigenous viewpoints and histories and may make significant mistakes in articles. This problem is exacerbated by journalists who just want the quick story and leave. They aren’t thinking about developing a long term relationship with their sources and the communities they are in.

“It just really sours the relationship in that particular community, with anyone trying to come in and write about what’s happening. And then the [true] story never gets heard. And then [there’s] missed opportuni[ties] for education, or for joy and success,” Grey Cloud explained.

Working with sources together to help tell their stories is definitely one step that journalists may want to consider, especially when working with marginalized communities.

“I think that approach in journalism, in that way, is pretty decolonizing,” she said. “Because [as a source,] what you’re doing is you’re reminding the journalists that you need to have some humanity in what you’re doing. It isn’t a commodity. Our story is not a commodity. Our stories are our human experience.”

Not everything is fit to print

There’s a tendency to think that we can and should write about anything that we hear, as long as it is not obtained through false pretenses. Anything is for the taking. But the longer I work in this field, this attitude is a little worrisome. There can be consequences for people who talk to journalists and that has to be considered.

JoAnna Haugen, Writer, Speaker, Solutions Advocate, and Founder of Rooted who recently presented on “Responsible Travel Writing” at a writer’s conference, said, “It’s important to get ongoing consent. It’s important to establish clear boundaries and expectations. Just because somebody shares their story in history and culture with you doesn’t mean that you necessarily have the right to share that with other people.”

She also notes that not everyone understands what it means to share a photo on Instagram.

Now it’s critical that this consideration doesn’t turn into some new-paternalism. But we need to consider the impact of what we are writing will have on people. For instance, I was working on a story with creators on TikTok several months ago and two of my sources mentioned some concern that they might be punished by the platform for talking to me. While they had already decided to talk to me anyway, I felt it was my duty to keep making sure they were okay with the interview and mentioning their names in the article. If they changed their mind, I needed to know. The article would have been poorer for it but it was their decision at the end of the day, not mine.

Whose objectivity?

But who decides what is objective? Who does it serve?

There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of objectivity in the press. We are supposed to be dispassionate observers of the truth.

But who decides what is objective? Who does it serve? In this incredible essay by Mary Retta in Bitch, she writes, “Because journalism is a field traditionally dominated by wealthy, white male voices, the latter perspective is the one that is typically heralded as objective and fair.”

Retta explains that many media outlets believe in the necessity of giving space to both sides of an issue, but that can cause great harm. For instance, she cites the case of Senator Tom Cotton’s fascist op-ed last summer in The New York Times, where he advocated for military involvement in protests.

We need to stop acting as both sides of an issue are equally relevant, especially when it comes to people’s lives.

This also means thinking about how we approach sources differently.

“The same way you have to handle conversations with all types of people, you have to handle your journalism differently with different types of people,” Grey Cloud explained. The conversation you have with a government official should not be the same as the way you conduct an interview with a woman who has been a victim of sexual assault, she said.
It goes back to Grey Cloud’s comment about bringing humanity back into journalism. Treating everyone the same doesn’t make sense because the power structures are different. Journalism needs to hold officials accountable but other sources shouldn’t be treated the same way.

As a corollary to that, we have to be more mindful about the identities of our sources. Haugen noted: “It’s really important that we clarify pronouns and identity as part of our interviewing process, so that one of the things you don’t do is misrepresent the way somebody identifies. That is not up to a writer to determine, that is up to the person to self-identify.”

Being proactive with editing process

But ultimately, we have to do better as an industry at thinking through these issues. We shouldn’t cause harm to the communities and the people we report on.

For many journalists, filing the story is the be all and end all. But Haugen noted, “I think it is important for writers to become more involved in the editing process.” That means being proactive with the story to flag things that might be of concern, she said.

Additionally, writers should take a more interest in headlines, photos, and the captions of photos because they can also be places of harm. In an effort to make headlines more exciting, the titles can mischaracterize the entire piece and cause problems therein. I’ve had this happen to me a few times when the headline was inflammatory when the article was not.
Haugen said that she has talked with several editors and the consensus is that they don’t want their publications to misrepresent people or situations either. Many editors are open to more involvement with writers in the process, she said.

But what do you do if you are working at a publication that does not permit reviewing of quotations, and other equity-based practices? That’s a tough one especially for freelance writers who don’t typically impact policy at the publications we contract for.

We can always try to explain the reasons why we think that they should reconsider the policy but they may not agree. In that case, we should at least be very clear with our sources and give them the opportunity to pull out of the article (again, consent). Or, we can try to find a more open publication for the article. There may be other suggestions out there on this —  this is something I’m still working on myself.

These are just a few thoughts on how to rethink the way journalism is conducted to make it more equitable and inclusive. It’s meant to be a beginning of a discussion, not a prescription for change. I know there is a lot that isn’t mentioned here including #OwnVoices, which is worthy of its own article. I have no doubt there are many angles that I don’t even know to include at this point.

But ultimately, we have to do better as an industry at thinking through these issues. We shouldn’t cause harm to the communities and the people we report on. We need to look at the ways we relate to people and their stories and move past the quick soundbite. Journalists, hopefully, got into the business because we like telling stories about the world. But we have to remember that often these are not our stories and there are consequences, good and bad, to the people who live them.

Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger (she/her) has worked in the fundraising field as a prospect researcher and data analyst for over eight years. She is a Research Consultant for Aspire Research Group. She is a journalist and writer and has written on numerous topics about philanthropy for Inside Philanthropy, (Society for Neuroscience), Council for the Advancement of Education, MoneyGeek, The Daily Dot and many others. She has also written for the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Business Insider, and many others. You can find her at @vogontroubadour or at Bowler Hat Fox, LLC.