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An Expanded Purpose for Journalism

What does a re-vitalized, economically viable journalism that meets the needs of communities and democracies look like?

Imagine a news organization that invites the public to become sources to “add context, depth, humanity, and relevance” to news stories.”  That’s what American Public media is doing through its Public Insight Network.  In Cleveland, Rita Andolsen left her news director job at WKYC-TV to become the station's director of advocacy and community initiatives.  Now she hosts community conversations and looks for issues where this commercial station can ethically advocate on behalf of the community to improve the city and its neighborhoods. Or what about publishing a series making visible the widening economic and social gap between minorities and whites in the state and then convening statewide conversations to do something about it?  Laura Frank, executive director of the I-News Network in Colorado, led the way through "Losing Ground.”  (Crockett, 2013).



These examples of involving the public before, during, and after stories are published demonstrate an expanded purpose for journalism.  Not just informing, they also engage, inspire, and activate the public to create solutions. They help to recast attitudes of frustration, anger, and despair by calling forth resilience, curiosity and determination.  Journalism becomes a system that involves journalists and the public in shifting cultural narratives about what’s possible.

Drawn below as a framework for thinking holistically about journalism, telling the story is part of a system of interactions that help us to navigate through uncertainty.  This model emerged from a conversation that I had with Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute when he attended JTM’s 2008 New Pamphleteers conference in Minneapolis.

I spoke with Mike Fancher, retired executive editor of the Seattle Times, asking how such a model might have influenced the way the Times did its work.  He began by saying that the newspaper did all of these functions to some extent.  What excited him about this framework was that it treated journalism as a system. 

He mentioned a story of a state crime lab that documented cases of innocent people going to jail and guilty ones going free because of system problems at the lab.  It was an important story that did its job of informing the public.  Yet nothing happened.  Mike reflected that traditionally, journalists don’t feel any obligation to help make something happen.

“With a more holistic approach, we probably would have built in elements that were move effective at motivating, mobilizing, inspiring and activating.”

This type of journalism could provide the public with the agency to work together to ask more complex questions about our prevailing cultural narratives such as: Who decides whether our systems – education, health care, governance -- meet our needs? What do such systems look like? How do we create them?  

Our society faces a dynamic tension.  An old media system that we understood, whether satisfied with it or not, is declining.  A new ecosystem filled with experiments and unanswered questions about how it operates and who and what to pay attention to, is emerging. Journalism organizations that work holistically with their communities are building authenticity and trust, moving beyond serving consumers to creating people and communities in action.

Such a journalism ecosystem requires changes in mindsets, skills, and activities.  Based on my work in organizational systems, I offer three keys in cultivating such a system: possibility-oriented storytelling, engaged constituencies, and diversity, in voices, forms, and funding. I’ll explore one of these each week over the next three weeks.

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Related posts:
What Do We Need from Journalism?

 
 
 

This blog was originally posted on the Journalism That Matters site. It is reposted here in its original form and with permission.

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Peggy Holman's picture
Peggy
Holman

Since 1991, Peggy Holman has supported organizations and communities to uncover creative responses to complex challenges by using innovative engagement processes. The Change Handbook (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), which she co-edited with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, documents a variety of these processes. The book is the considered the definitive resource for leaders and consultants who work to increase resilience, agility, collaboration, and aliveness in their organizations and communities.

Peggy co-founded Journalism that Matters (JTM) in 2001 with three career journalists – Chris Peck, Cole Campbell, and Stephen Silha. JTM generates innovations by convening, connecting, and inspiring the diverse pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology.

Peggy’s latest book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, came out in September 2010. The book supports people in facing disruptions and inviting others to join with them to realize new possibilities. It uses numerous journalism stories as examples.

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Both journalists and the public have a role to play in reinventing journalism that supports communities to thrive. I see journalists grappling with two bedrock elements of their work: their relationship with truth and the ethics of engagement.

During times of upheaval, we need stories that are inclusive, generative, and inspire us to engage. Some journalists are starting to provide them.

Envisioning what the news and information ecosystem looks like contributes to creating it.

How can you contribute to a healthy journalism ecosystem?

Innovation demands diversity, using our differences creatively.

Engagement increases respect, appreciation, and partnership between journalists and communities. In 1775, the American Revolution launched an experiment in engagement called “democracy”. That sparked a critical need for an informed public and ignited a mass literacy movement.

Journalism can help us envision and move towards a world that works for all.  Journalists have a unique role as storytellers, influencing the cultural narrative that weaves society together. Through my work in organizations, I know that when the stories people tell about the organization change, so does the culture.  The same holds true on the scale of a society.