I was finishing up an article I wrote about a corruption scandal here in Spain last January. It was one of many demoralizing stories that had come out in the news around that time. But I couldn't quite end it. It felt too awful to leave my readers with nothing more than "your country's corrupt and that's that." It felt wrong.
Isn't it frustrating to hear about a problem that you can't do anything about?
How often do you feel overwhelmed after reading a newspaper? Who here has yelled at the TV? Come on, be honest!
I'm an activist, which is better than therapy because when I read or hear about all the awful things happening in the world I take heart in the fact that at least I'm doing something to be part of the solution.
I'm also a journalist and today I want to talk to you about something the press should do but generally doesn't, mostly because of deeply ingrained ideas about what journalism is and isn't.
I'm going to put forth an argument in favor of what I call journalism for action, which is when the press not only reports the news story but tells their readers what they can do about it.
This idea requires a re-think of some of our basic assumptions about journalism so I'm going to start at the very beginning.
First, democracy is good.
I think I can safely say that we all agree on this--in fact, all except four of the world's countries claim to be democratic. That's not to say that they truly all are, but this shows that democracy is a pretty widely shared value.
Secondly, citizen participation is at the heart of democracy. Literally, democracy means "ruled by the people."
This isn't just a nice idea, it's every citizen's civic responsibility to participate in their country's democracy. Otherwise, our countries won't exactly be "ruled by the people. Voting is the most basic form of political participation and it gives citizens some sort of leverage over politicians. Politicians, of course want one thing: to get re-elected.
Civic engagement doesn't end with voting though and citizens have an endless array of choices about how to get involved from writing letters to the editor to volunteering for a campaign or non-profit group to running for office.
It's critical that citizens engage in democracy because when we don't, it makes it easier for the big money interests of a few--corporations and wealthy individuals--to exert their influence over government in a way that's not in the interest of society as a whole.
According to the Sunlight Foundation, 28% of all disclosed political contributions in the U.S. in 2012 came from 31,385 people. Or 1% of the 1% of the 313.85 million Americans. Not one member of the House of Representatives or Senate got there without financial backing from this group.
Just to give you an idea of how far the 1% of the 1% is from average Americans, just look at the median donation, which was $26,584. Who can afford this? Certainly not your average family--this is just over half their income.
Don't be fooled into thinking that this doesn't happen in here in Spain and Europe--it's just less transparent.
This isn't to say that collective action by citizens isn't a force in democracy, in fact, it's the only force that has ever brought about real change. The French Revolution. The civil rights movement. The women's movement. Here in Spain, teachers are out fighting for the schools and doctors are fighting for healthcare--they are making a difference.
However, it's more challenging. The only way that that citizen movements can compete with big money interests is through numbers. The more people get involved, the bigger their voice will be. The whole idea behind the term "grassroots" is that a tiny blades of grass is small and insignificant but when you join is with thousands of others they form a big beautiful lawn that's impossible to ignore.
Democracy should be in the hands of ALL of the people, not just the privileged few and the press can play an important role by informing citizens about how they can engage civically.
Which is my third point: in order to actively participate in our democracies we must be informed.
Just as citizens have a civic responsibility, so does the press, not only to tell us what's going on but to tell us what we can do. Sure, we can and should seek out opportunities for civic participation on our own and community organizations and government also have the responsibility to reach out to us.
But that doesn't get the press off the hook: as society's primary source of information, they are also our facilitators of dialogue and debate, especially in the this age of internet interconnectedness.
We call the press the 4th estate of our government because the press is the institution that connects us to government and provides a check on its power.
We citizens depend on the press to tell us what the government is doing--this way we can hold them accountable and throw the bums out if we need to. I believe, however that the press should inform us in a more complete sense. That they should not only give us the facts, but they should also tell us what we can do. How we, as concerned citizens on any side of a given issue can take action.
As I mentioned before, journalism for action requires a re-think of some of our basic assumptions about journalism. I want to be clear about what journalism for action isn't.
Journalism for action isn't biased journalism. I've been accused of bias by my own brother, who once called me a bad journalist. We love each other dearly and we're not the only family that fights about politics.
He didn't like an opinion piece I wrote and so he lobbed the dreaded bias accusation at me. Most journalists cringe at this accusation.
The trouble is that while we get very distracted by the idea of a left-right bias, what the press is most guilty of is institutional bias, that is, the bias is towards governments, corporations, politicians and business people. Dwindling budgets are partly to blame for this--it's easier and cheaper to rely on press conferences and press releases from official sources for news rather than digging deeper. But corporate ownership of the mainstream media is another factor.
Want unbiased news? Then read and view news from a wide variety of news organizations from different countries and also a mix of corporate and independent media.
Journalism for action also isn't activist journalism, when news organizations promote a specific political agenda. You follow these guys to have your own political view confirmed not challenged. Again, this can be fixed by following a variety of news organizations.
In contrast, journalism for action, can include information about citizen participation on various sides of the issue. And this is true across all genres of journalism: news reporting, investigative journalism, interviews, opinion and analysis. Journalism for action may not be appropriate or even necessary for every single news item, but when it is practiced well, it represents the press at its best: informing citizens in such a way to create greater accountability from the government.
A local newspaper asked me to take this photo with a donkey, which is the symbol of the Democratic Party. During the 5 years I ran Democrats Abroad in Spain, I found it frustrating that local press wanted me to talk to them about the party's positions, but didn't want to include my message about how American citizens could vote from abroad. Somehow this call to action wasn't of interest to them. If I was on live TV or radio, I could just ram in the message, but not a chance in print. But this begs the question: why would the press be against informing citizens?
Journalism for action isn't a new idea, all I'm really doing is pointing it out as a concept and putting a name on it. Some journalists and news organizations are already practicing journalism for action--some integrate it into their reporting, such as DemocracyNow! by including links on the web version of their stories as well as on-air mentions of groups involved. Others do so with a measure of discomfort because it's outside the traditional box of journalism.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has told us some of the most heartbreaking stories from the developing world. In an interview with FastCompany, he said "One of the biggest complaints readers have about my work is that I don't tell them often enough what they can do. I do think this is an area where journalism sometimes falls short."
Kristof sometimes offers the name of an organization working to solve the problem he has written about. This tends to make huge impact and in that same interview he talked about his reservations "It makes me a little bit nervous because it's not what we, as journalists, have traditionally done, but again it responds to real desire on the part of the reader to do more than just read the article, but to get involved."
Journalism for action requires that both the press and citizens rethink traditional ideas about journalism. It's time that news organizations let their journalists give readers, what they want: show them how they can get involved.
We're living in a time of serious challenges to our societies: a time of deep economic inequalities, looming threats to the environment and our health, loss of privacy and wars--all fueled by not by the common interests of the people but by the few interests that have the deepest pockets.
Some people think the answer is more government and some people think the answer is less government. I think that the only way we can confront these problems as a whole society is through more citizen participation and the press can play a pivotal role by not only informing citizens about the news but by informing them about how they can participate. We need to re-think our basic assumptions about journalism by focusing on its role in democracy: informing the people so that they can be active, self-governing citizens.
You might be wondering what I did with that corruption article I mentioned at the beginning...I wrote that the answer isn't to curl up in the fetal position in response to widespread political corruption but to see it as a call to action to become more active citizens. That the only way to combat corruption is with informed citizens who know how to advocate in their own interests. So I invited my readers to a series of free workshops on grassroots organizing that I gave here in Madrid. The response was overwhelming. Here are the 50 people who came to the first workshop--it was a gorgeous sunny Saturday and they spent it learning how to organize.
So, what can you do?
Next time you find yourself yelling at the TV or shaking your head as you read the paper, I want you to write that journalist and ask what you can do about the issue.
If you come across a news story that does offer suggestions on how to take action, thank them! And then respond! Journalism for action both serves and depends on you. There's lots to do, let's get going.