Solidarity reporting can help the cause of public safety for marginalized communities
“We are not asking for more men with guns."
|Anita Varma||May 3|
In the weeks since the March 16 shooting in Atlanta, many Asian American people have expressed fear about stepping outside their homes, even to go to vaccine appointments and grocery stores. Across the country, a rash of assaults, both physical and verbal, have escalated concerns for everyone from elders to youth in our communities.
Yet many major news outlets – often those with the most resources – persistently focus on the perpetrators of violence, enablers of white supremacy, and symbolic responses from political elites, with little or no representation of the perspectives of people subjected to the injustice at hand.
Solidarity reporting can help.
The disproportionate coverage of perpetrators of violence and elite people reacting to violence against marginalized communities is neither unique to the rise in racism directed toward Asian and Asian American people, nor is it solely a matter of consciously bad intent.
Instead, this coverage is better understood as a product of criteria that news organizations use to decide what is – and isn’t – newsworthy. These news values include novelty, surprise, involvement of political elites and celebrities, individualism, and scale relative to the current day’s events and issues, all of which constrain news coverage.
With solidarity news values, ongoing social issues – not just novel or surprising individual events — become newsworthy. In fact, the lack of surprise around ongoing social injustices makes them all the more newsworthy. Community organizers and people affected by an issue have their voices prioritized with these alternative values, rather than those of elites and celebrities.
Instead of emphasizing individualism, solidarity stories emphasize community cohesion. This cohesion manifests not only in terms of grief, but also in terms of how community members take care of each other beyond reacting to loss.
Finally, solidarity news values mean that long-term significance is a chief concern, which remedies the problem of dominant news values cycling through and replacing violent tragedies with new ones.
In practice, solidarity reporting means centering the perspectives of people whose dignity is at stake.
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Three key solidarity reporting practices include: (1) starting with the perspectives of people in communities subjected to conditions not of their own making or choosing, (2) representing the community-wide impact of social injustice (instead of a spotlight on one individual or incident), and (3) accounting for the political significance of the issue.
These practices stand in contrast to traditional reporting practices that often begin and end with law enforcement, politicians, and perpetrators of violence, and selectively represent community members if they are exceptional or uniquely harmed.
In solidarity reporting that already happens, journalists tend to offer four overarching narratives:
“We take care of us.” This narrative is found in stories focused on mutual aid and intra-community support like escorts for Asian elders.
“A threat to our neighbors is a threat to all of us.” Grounded in geographic-based solidarity, this frame emphasizes the ways in which entire cities, regions, and the nation need to be concerned about racism toward Asian and Asian American people.
“We need to transform structural injustice – here’s how.” Centered around the systemic dimensions of the issue, these stories focus on racism and racist attacks as the product of white supremacy, and connect racism toward Asian and Asian American people to anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and misogyny.
“Let us live – here’s what we need from you.” These stories amplify the specific calls and concrete demands from within affected communities for changes that require large-scale support from outside the community to achieve.
The last narrative – “Let us live – here’s what we need from you” – is important, but the least common, even within existing solidarity reporting. Instead of deferring to the conventional (and questionable) wisdom that “authorities know best,” these narratives focus on what members of subjected communities are asking for, and what forms of support and resources they still need for transformative change.
“Let us live” narratives accurately represent the reality that marginalized communities cannot, in most cases, end violent injustice without expanded support and resources for community-based structural remedies. Changing the status quo of journalism perpetuating systemic racism needs to begin with amplifying what affected communities view as actionable, currently under-resourced paths forward.
If given the choice, Asian American communities would not allow one more elder to be shoved to the ground, one more person to be accosted on their way home from a grocery store, or one more child to be terrified by shouts to “go back to China” on a playground. Given that we cannot halt this alone, solidarity reporting can help amplify what marginalized communities know they need to live with dignity.
Community-based remedies are often quite straightforward, which aligns with journalism’s preference for simplicity. Members of Asian American communities have been publicly forthright about what would help: We need safety to live with dignity. “We are not asking for more men with guns.” We need more resources to expand our community-based safety and support efforts.
As we quickly approach one year since an outpouring of declarations and promises of solidarity with anti-racism and racial equity, solidarity reporting offers a way for news organizations of all sizes to move beyond the statement and toward better serving the public.
Anita Varma is a publicly engaged journalism ethics educator and researcher. She leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative with support from Democracy Fund. Her research focuses on how journalists represent and serve marginalized communities. Varma also serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists (Northern California Chapter). She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and her ancestral home is in Chakia, Bihar, India.
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