Report of Journalism That Matters Breakout session
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SESSION: Mindful Media? Can we create media that support our highest human values?
Reported by Holly Stocking
The session began not suprisingly with a discussion of what those highest values might be. Human rights as hammered out by international agreements? generosity? prohitions against killing and engagiing in other kinds of harmful action? Discussion led us to agree that there are cultural and individual variations in these matters. But in the interest of moving the discussion forward, we settled on something we all agreed we value -- generosity -- and then tried to imagine a journalism that would support generosity to others, even as news values lead journalists to ignore ordinary acts of generosity and focus instead on self-centered behavior (corporate malfeasance, for example) and even as commercials and ads support media work to persuade people to consume for themselves.
Amidst all the negative/celebrity-soaked news that appears in the media, we apeared to agree it is possible to find stories of altruism (one member of our group mentioned the magazine Yes!), but a newspaper journalist in the group pointed out the news value needs to be there, at least for the larger news media. One doctor doing pro bono work, for example, is not likely to make a story, but maybe 10 doctors doing such work could. Or someone needs to do something extraordinary. Expressing a healthy professional skepticism with respect to the whole idea of journalism supporting deeper values, this particular journalist expressed his view that journalism is designed to investigate what people don't know (and perhaps by implication, to not support values in the country like generosity). "We all know about people who do good," this journalist commented, but ordinary acts of generosity are too small to spend time on....perhaps such things should be left to local media or to others outside of journalism, he suggested. Maybe people in the arts.
(The conversation that followed was animated and took many twists and turns, so what follows will not be a scribe's report, but rather the convener/recorder/participant's very subjective recollections, pieced together after too many hours and conversations, from fragments of notes about things that felt personally important ...apologies to members of my group, who are heartily invited to add corrections and additions).
One moment stands out to this writer -- a moment when one member of the group, a young engineer, expressed his view that he personally doesn't pay much attention to the news because he finds it "boring and it brings me down." What he responds to and would like to see more of is journalism that moves and inspires. (At this point, the convener pointed out that we seemed to have in our little group a journalist who reflected the views of many journalists out there and a consumer who reflected the views of many in the public who have turned off to media in droves).
But the engineer was not the only one to express wishes for a different kind of journalism. One group member affiliated with a television station expressed wishes for news that responds better to global humanitarian needs and crises around the world, which are so often ignored by corporate media. An editor of a youth media magazine expressed her desire to see news that offers deeper insights into the complexities of much of the negative news that is reported, like the recent execution-style murders of three young people in Newark. Others harkened back to a prior session that called for journalism that offers solutions to problems.
And, of course, the convener, couldn't see why journalism can't use its power to respond to and reinforce deeper values like generosity. There have been extraordinary moments, like 9/11 when the scales fell off peoples' eyes and the media and everyone else in the country seemed to "get" what matters most to most of us, and while it's not the usual news media fare, she persisted in wondering if there could not be ways to tap into that on a more routine basis? to get beyond the usual habits of mind that permeate newsrooms? to reflect back to consumers what really does matter to them beneath life's ordinary distractions and anxieties? She mentioned research that has looked at journalists who self-identify as religious. These journalists told researchers they had found ways to inject deeper values into their news work, but they also said they had to take great care with respect to how they talked about what they were doing. They had to become almost bi-lingual. (The researchers said multi-vocal). They had to translate their deeper personal values into the language of professional values. (Added later: The fact that these journalists, many names we are all familiar with, were religious posed particular problems, and as a result, most not surprisingly kept their religious affiliations secret).
The convener mentioned her own perceptions that journalists often feel uncomfortable talking about things like deep values (and she was thinking, if she did not say it, that such discomfort prevented deeper conversations that might lead to more innovative, responsive journalism). At this point, the editor of the youth magazine wondered aloud if there might not be a gendered component to journalists' unwillingness to talk openly about such matters. The newspaper journalist pointed out there are many more women in journalism today, and whether it was said or not I can't remember now, but this writer thought that of course women often identify with dominant values.
Our group was lively and had much to offer -- including the creative suggestion by the sernior producer of a multi-media group (responding to the call for ideas to support generosity) that online media create a community needs base in which members of a community would register needs for services, which other members of the community could fulfill. You would plug in your zip code and find a need that needs filling in your immediate area. A global needs base -- responding to important humanitarian needs -- was also suggested. But in the end, we had to get down to business and answer the question we started with: Mindful Media? Can we create media that support our highest human values?
The answer (written on the big sheet we posted). Yes (Yes! which stood for the magazine by that name) but....it's risky, given professional norms (or skepticism) and discourse.
The needs, we decided, are for: 1. Newsroom leadership that would value the idea of responding to and supporting deeper human values. 2. Demonstrations that consumers -- those who find that news is boring and brings them down -- want and need this. (Someone recommended collaborating with academics to come up with these demonstrations. Another expressed her hope that young people would be involved in such initiaives). 3. Newsroom collaborations with citizens to surface the values and ideas for related projects and stories, and 4. In the meantime, the above-mentioned community/global needs base.