What's the future for journalism – and do churches have a role to play?
Does journalism have to be reborn from the street-level upwards? American community radio journalist and media activist Lisa Loving believes the future lies with the 'Street Journalist.'
For Christians, and others concerned about the rise of 'fake news' and disinformation, could support for locally-based initiatives be a way of fighting back against a culture where truth and trust are under attack?
In Loving's new book, 'Street Journalist – understand and report the news in your community,' the Portland-based journalist aims to help readers understand that "the power of journalism is in your hands."
She writes "While many people believe there is some sort of special degree or licence that makes a journalist 'legitimate', the truth is that anyone with the interest, brains and organisation can make a crucial difference with their voice."
Loving, whose biography states she has trained "hundreds of ordinary people in the tools of independent journalism," says that anyone with a smartphone has the basic equipment to report what is going on in their neighbourhood.
How do I respond to this? As someone who trained in journalism many years ago, and has worked with journalists over decades, I believe firmly that professionally-trained journalists have a vital role to play in holding power to account and accurately reporting the day's news. So I approached this book with scepticism.
Yet I was impressed by Loving's commitment to accuracy, to obtaining all sides of a story, to obtaining verified information and to developing respectful relationships across local communities.
Her fundamental ground rules include: "If you're not fact-checking, it's not journalism" (repeated twice); "never make sh*t up" (again, repeated twice); be aware of the difference between news reporting and opinion writing. Don't confuse the two"; and "be an advocate for everyday people."
Here is journalism with a purpose, rooted in the everyday life experiences of ordinary people armed with a smartphone. But more than this, it's ordinary people equipped with both technology and a moral compass.
In a section on 'What is truth?', Loving argues for naming the source for any piece of information given, advising "many times your audience cannot judge for themselves what is 'true' if they do not know what your source of information is."
This 'Street Journalist' view of the world has elements in common with a style of journalism advocated by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper from 1995 to 2015. In 'Breaking News,' his 2018 book on 'the remaking of journalism and why it matters now,' Rusbridger called on journalists to, in my words, 'show their working out' in the news stories that they produced.
The award-winning editor believes that journalists should include url links to the sources that they use in their stories. They should also be willing to adapt and change their articles as more information comes in, for example from readers. News stories should be the first draft, not the final verdict.
In other words, as readers contribute their own information – often based on better or greater knowledge of the story than the journalist – then the story would be updated and corrected.
Lisa Loving and Alan Rusbridger are setting out different, but related, perspectives on the future of journalism. Both are committed to seeing journalism thrive in a post-truth, post-trust world. Both see that, in a world of smartphone and internet, readers are no longer passive but want to contribute to the framing and discovery of the truth as it unfolds.
Yet in both cases, the financial model remains the challenge. How will quality journalism be funded when most advertising revenue has gone to the big technology companies. Can 'street journalists' be only volunteers, or work for not-for-profits?
For Christians, both Loving and Rusbridger set out a view of journalism where truth and holding the powerful to account are prioritised. Lisa Loving's vision is focussed on the local.
In a lecture at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, London, in July, Courtney Radsch, of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on church leaders and Christians to support the press. She called on believers to be willing to pay for their news, to acknowledge the vital role played by the media in unearthing facts – and to speak out for journalists facing persecution around the world.
Churches are firmly rooted in their local communities, often working on the streets to make their areas better places to live and work, and to proclaim the Christian gospel of truth and justice.
Maybe we should all be supporting our local media outlets, and helping local 'street journalists' to thrive in our communities, as part of our Christian witness?
- Christians in Media are encouraging churches to mark Sunday November 3rd as a Day of Prayer for the Media. More information and resources on their website at: www.christiansinmedia.co.uk/pray4media
Peter Crumpler, a former communications director for the Church of England, trained as a journalist and worked in corporate communications for local government and the energy industry in the UK and overseas. He is a CofE priest in St Albans, Herts.
Street Journalist: Understand and report the news in your community. Lisa Loving. Microcosm, 2019. https://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/6379
Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now. Alan Rusbridger. Canongate, 2018.