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What Solidarity Journalism Reveals to Us

Solidarity reporting calls on journalists to push beyond reporting the easy soundbite from an official press release in order to do the work of representing people experiencing injustice.

Imagine that a reporter is writing a story about your house, which has become practically unlivable. The reporter wants to understand the issues in the house, how it affects people who are still managing to survive in it, and what might be done to make the house livable again. But instead of talking to you, they talk to the mayor’s office, a real estate developer, and a housing researcher at an elite university across the country. Lacking any insight from people inside the house, the story ends up only partially accurate, at best. Including you would have led to a more truthful story, since you know the issues best from being inside the house.

I often use this analogy when introducing journalists and journalism educators to the benefits and logic of solidarity reporting over dominant reporting practices that exclude people from coverage of their own lives. If journalists are striving for accuracy, then solidarity reporting is better aligned with that goal than reporting that focuses exclusively on officials, elites and academics.

Let’s start with a few definitions: solidarity is a commitment to social justice that translates into action. Social justice means that everyone’s dignity is respected in a society — regardless of their credentials, qualifications or achievements. Solidarity reporting is a commitment to social justice that translates into the action of reporting on marginalized communities. This is not just any reporting that vaguely gestures at a social justice issue — instead, solidarity reporting focuses on issues that disrespect or deny communities that are disrespected or denied their humanity and represents the perspectives of people directly affected. It intentionally moves beyond parroting officials’ or outside experts’ claims about a marginalized community to centralize the truth of people whose knowledge is based on lived experience.

Solidarity reporting isn’t new or niche — though it often isn’t given its due in conversations about why journalism matters. In many countries, the origins of an independent press are rooted in viewing journalism as an act of resistance against state power that may otherwise deny that inhumane conditions endure within its domain.

In the United States, we can trace the logic of solidarity reporting all the way back to mobilizing for independence, abolition newspapers that reported the truth and consequences of slavery for people living it (instead of focusing on those benefiting from it) and coverage of issues like child labor, factory conditions, suffrage, voting rights and immigration. This list goes on and continues today with a growing set of examples, like climate crisis reporting that focuses on communities affected and displaced rather than amplifying the preferred frames and excuses from companies responsible for it.

We need more solidarity reporting because elite and official-focused reporting hasn’t brought about accurate portrayals of marginalization. Vaccine inequity, labor struggles, housing precarity and policing are making frequent headlines — yet all too often, the stories that accompany these headlines do not represent the people directly affected by these issues.

“Objective,” “neutral” and “impartial” reporting encourages amplifying people who have official titles and relegates people experiencing marginalization to only having a chance to speak if they provide emotional “color.” This means that self-interested officials often receive tremendous media attention, even if they are uninterested in acknowledging truth that does not serve their aims. Some officials and experts are surely pragmatic public servants, but many are advancing agendas that are far afield from the needs of people who are suffering the most. That’s not a conspiracy theory — it’s an assessment based on the routine distance between official narratives and community-grounded narratives.

Reassurances that economic plans will work in economies that have already failed as a result of similar plans, insistence that housing is stable amid rising homelessness and claims that there are medical resources for anyone who needs them in countries where people die due to insufficient care in a global pandemic are just a few examples of how officials have advanced misinformation and leveraged dominant reporting practices to do so — and why solidarity reporting is so crucial right now.

Given that corporate media owners and elite officials often share the same interests, the prospects for widespread solidarity reporting may seem bleak. It stands to (unfortunate) reason that corporate media, with their abundant reporting resources and reach, tend to amplify sources that affirm their preferred profit-aligned frames. The good news is that even in corporate-owned media, we see examples of solidarity reporting occasionally break through. This is usually a result of journalists being determined to report a previously misconstrued story accurately, often out of respect for sources who have thoroughly convinced them that dominant frames are incorrect. These moments of breakthrough are infrequent, but indicate that solidarity has a fighting chance even outside of mission-driven news outlets — especially when journalists take a stand.

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Solidarity reporting calls on journalists to push beyond reporting the easy soundbite from an official press release in order to do the work of representing people experiencing injustice who know all too well what the issue is and how it could be immediately addressed.

Solidarity reporting starts by seeking out people directly affected by an issue. With solidarity reporting, journalists ask questions like, What do you think about this issue? What causes this situation? How long has this been going on? Why hasn’t it changed? What would help? These questions elicit perspectives, and are different from just asking, And how does this make you feel?, which is a question for eliciting emotions. People who struggle may not have elite or academic credentials, but they have unmatched insight into what changes would address the biggest issues constraining and harming their lives — which makes their perspectives newsworthy.

I began my work in 2008, during the rise of digital media and the decimation of print journalism. At the time, the greatest promise and hope was that internet freedom would achieve what the press never had: Instead of relying on gatekeepers, operating within the constraints of narrow professional norms and preserving steep barriers to access the means of widespread communication, the internet would ensure that everyone received an equal platform. The truth of marginalized people’s lived experiences, long denied by media conglomerates’ preferred narratives, would rise to the top like cream rising from milk and would finally be heard without advertiser-friendly editing.

This promise has never been fully achieved. Influencers and marketing interests have risen to the top on many platforms, and calls for social justice are often re-marginalized and de-amplified, particularly when they come from groups that are small relative to the largest trending interests online.

Solidarity reporting, which is not often amplified through digital platforms, offers a way for journalists to develop more accurate representations of enduring social injustice and possibilities for change that are grounded in reality. Since 2008, we have seen time and again that the largest internet platforms will not structure their systems of amplification to align with social justice. Journalism, then, still has a crucial role to play in fostering solidarity so that social justice is one day fully realized for us all.

Anita Varma leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative, and she is an assistant professor of journalism and media at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of “Evoking Empathy or Enacting Solidarity with Marginalized Communities?” which was published in Journalism Studies in 2020. Her book on the role of solidarity in U.S. journalism is currently in preparation.

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