Why I believe in journalism*: Bernstein and Quart edition
*Thoughts from the people who make it.
Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
As I navigate my way through my third decade in journalism, I — like all journalists — am faced with a lack of trust in general of the media. Oftentimes, it feels like mistrust is the default. Which, actually, can be valuable. Journalism relies on readers, listeners and viewers to choose what they consume, who they see as giving accurate and fair information. These choices can tell us what we’re doing well, or not.
From within the industry, we can often miss signs that we are failing the public. But that kind of failure is equally — and hopefully even more so — balanced out by the amount of good the press does in the world. That’s really the point: media is meant to hold power to account.
I’ve asked a bunch of journalists I admire to share why they believe in journalism, even with all its 21st-century pitfalls and complications. I hope their words will be of use to you.
Read ideas from Margaret Sullivan and Virginia Heffernan here.
What other choice do we have?
By Andrea Bernstein
Andrea Bernstein is the co-host of the “Will Be Wild” podcast, and a contributor to NPR on Trump legal issues. She is also the author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.
As an investigative journalist, I’m part of a community that feels an acute responsibility to shed sunlight on wrongs in society, with the hope that the sunlight will lead to corrective action. That’s something I hope for in every story I work on. Even though, lately, the link between exposure of wrongs and a sense of shame or urgency that could lead to action has become increasingly attenuated.
But still, even when our stories don’t directly lead to change, they are still important. Telling the story in and of itself has its own power. We can get the truth out. Each time we do so, we express hope in a future where this knowledge matters.
It may not feel like a lot. But we do it. Because what other choice do we have?
Interrupting the unnatural order of things
By Alissa Quart
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, economichardship.org. She is also the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.
I decided to become a journalist when I was 22 because I was obsessed with other people, and it was a better career path than being a voyeur.
Joking aside, I then spent nearly two decades as a freelance reporter, author and editor. I experienced all the obstacles and precarity that contingent work has to offer. Twenty years of that kind of contract work taught me loads about power imbalances and dry spells (one of my friends back in the day called it “neurolancing” as in “neurotic”). Those two decades also had their fair share of reporting thrills and what is now called social impact. Freelancing also shaped my perspective about independent reporters: we need to keep them in the media, and we need to help them survive.
I have dedicated much of the last decade to trying to make journalism, both reporting and the industry itself, more social-class inclusive and more supportive of independent reporters. I do this through the organization I run, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, founded by the great Barbara Ehrenreich. More than ever, in this period, freelancing can be a kind of self-harming. Reporters — particularly working-class ones and financially struggling ones— are an endangered species. The contraction of local news media; the falling word rate for freelancers and the destruction of news sites by billionaire owners like Joe Ricketts have contributed to this extinction event. That's why we at EHRP exist.
Today in America, as my colleague Ray Suarez says on the podcast I helped create for EHRP , “Going for Broke,” the wealthy are most often the ones reporting on the poor, for middle class audiences. EHRP interrupts this unnatural order of things.
We do this by supporting a wider range of reporters than tends to be found in the mainstream media. We also seek to change what I call “poor” reporting, which is not what it sounds like. “Poor people get poor information, because income inequality generates information inequality,” as James Hamilton, a media and economics scholar, co-writes with Fiona Morgan.
As journalists, we need to be sure that our representations of social class aren't stereotyped. If our reporting seems broad or even bigoted, we may well alienate the very readers and viewers we most want to reach.
Today, we are blamed for everything from disinformation to so-called cancel culture. Readers doubt us, we are told. But one need look no further than the coverage of the pandemic, or the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Dobbs — which takes away the enshrined right to have a legal abortion — or the immediate coverage of the perpetrators of January 6 to see that the press is still necessary to our democracy. The news cameras the rioters smashed that day at the Capitol didn't stop us from documenting the truth. This was true on all other days as well. Our work is as necessary as rain.
We need to make sure media practices — and the public opinion they do inevitably influence — don’t in themselves afflict the afflicted.