“Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.” These are words to live by.
They are also taken from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. This code guides many working journalists in determining when, what and how to report.
It is my favorite clause. It is why I chose to do what I do.
I recently met Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR and the Park Center for Independent Media. Jeff has dedicated his career to ensuring media, of all sizes, upholds the ethics of journalism. He’s also called out those who do not. To be more accurate, the latter has been the bulk of Jeff’s work.
This is because the commercial juggernaut of corporate media has grown to dangerous proportions. In doing so, it has all but abandoned this honorable code. And as the media giants grow, they will continue to exploit and pervert the human experience for sake of financial growth. The result is: the people, the voiceless, fall further away from each other and the democracy which we are owed.
The answer to this, as Jeff explained, is independent media. Though, while independent media strives to meet the same ethical ends, it is often met with condescension and derision.
If an outlet should utter a word of solidarity with it’s community members or bring to light the voices of organizers, it is doing “activist journalism.”
Because of this, stories are mistrusted or dismissed when they don’t follow the back and forth pattern of sources and quotes. The narratives of mainstream news media are stunted by the practice of creating balance to the point of distortion. And maintaining this balance where it is not due, damages the vulnerable and perpetuates the false superiority of the powerful.
When I asked Jeff about this style he said, “That’s not journalism, that’s stenography.”
Well, I have not spent the last three years in college because I want to be a stenographer. I have spent that time, and money, because I want to be the best storyteller I can. I have spent that time because I want to do right by the people who are my community and I want to give voice to the voiceless. That does not mean taking their voice and replacing it with mine.
I might follow the rules in the book, earn a degree and find a job reporting; all the while never having given a damn about a single story. Is that how we judge good journalism?
In the last six weeks, I have cried with the people in our stories. I have been angry with them. I have listened to their voices and felt their loss, their pain and their hope. They shared everything with us, I owe them a chance to be heard.
Bringing their stories to the hearts and ears of the community is the most fulfilling
thing I have ever done. But, I know at some point I will have to write from the book, not from the heart. My hope is that it won’t be in vain and I can find the lesson. I hope I will find my own voice too. Because if I am to work under these structures in the future, I am already voiceless.