Last week Women, Action & The Media (WAM!) Vancouver brought together a packed room of activists, aspiring and practicing journalists, and communications professionals for “Women Pitching Left.” Through an interactive panel and workshop, participants learned from prominent women in journalism and discussed how to foster a more positive environment for social justice reporting across mainstream and alternative media, as well as how to actually practice social justice journalism.
WAM! organizer Natalie Hill introduced the panel: Robyn Smith, managing editor of The Tyee; Jackie Wong, editor of Megaphone Magazine; and Sarah Berman, who writes for VICE and other mainstream and alternative media.
First up, the group tackled the why: why bother engaging with mainstream media when it can be so often disenfranchising and alienating for women and other marginalized groups?
The panelists agreed that the mainstream media has immense power to set the agenda, which is why it can’t be ignored. Luckily the changing media landscape presents opportunities. Wong says she thinks the public is becoming more engaged and critical as readers, and Smith said alternative media is becoming harder for mainstream media to ignore because they are doing a better job fulfilling the public’s “hunger for a diversity of perspectives.”
The audience then engaged the panel in a discussion about if and when someone who is concerned with social justice should write for free if it means reaching a larger audience.
“There is a difference between volunteering your time and working for free,” said one audience member as a way of breaking down the issue.
Sarah Berman agreed that it can be okay to give time to a project you believe in or in exchange for acquiring skill, community or mentorship. But Smith pointed out that even young and inexperienced writers have the right to negotiate.
“Be up front and ask, ‘Is this a paid opportunity?’” she suggested.
Next the group talked about “news values,” which are the principles by which editors evaluate a story. Wong explained that editors tend to like stories informed by conflict and/or that are connected to a large public interest. The challenge for grassroots groups is how we show our story about an individual or small group matters to the larger public.
Berman said that even though news values don’t always seem to mesh with social justice values, there are ways we can leverage them. For example, when mainstream media focuses on a vulnerable population their initial stories often lack nuance. Writers can take advantage of that by working on a more thoughtful response that better values the perspectives of the vulnerable group.
“Don’t just pitch the Day 1 story, but the Day 8 or 2 month story,” Berman said, “Say, ‘I have access, I have spent the time, I have a nuanced story.’”
The idea and possibility journalistic objectivity has been long-debated, but what does it mean particularly in relation to social justice journalism?
Berman said she doesn’t believe true objectivity is ever possible, but “you must still research” and work to establish trust with readers. Berman said this means journalists must be able to criticize their own team when it’s wrong, and give credit where it’s due, even to parties or individuals they don’t typically agree with.
Smith said she prefers to strive for “fairness” rather than the impossible “objectivity.” For Smith, fairness means being nuanced, transparent, honest and willing to admit mistakes. Working under the value of fairness allows writers to bring the voices of less powerful people into their stories.
Next, in discussion with the audience, the panel talked about acknowledging privilege and how to write ethically about more marginalized groups?
Wong said she’d like to see more acknowledgment of privilege in journalism, and added that as literary journalism creeps more into mainstream journalism we have more opportunity for this. Berman added that journalists should also look for opportunities to step back and allow the story to be written by someone who has less privilege and more connection to the community being written about.
Smith said that when reporting on vulnerable populations or individuals, writers should always be honest about their intent and angle, clear about the access they are requesting, and open to possible concerns.
Wong talked about some particular issues around reporting on people and communities of colour.
“You don’t want to implicate that your piece or one voice speaks for everyone…Just because you’ve captured one voice from a community doesn’t mean you’ve represented that community,” Wong said. She particularly cautioned writers to avoid relying on physical descriptions of people of colour, women and people living in poverty.
For the second half of the night, the panelists and WAM! organizers led break-out groups.
Jackie Wong led a large group to discuss how to get started dabbling in social justice writing. Encouraging new writers, Wong said that “while it seems like a desert out there, editors are always looking for new voices.”
The group discussed the editor’s role: to work closely with writers to create an angle or hook that can work. New writers need to show an editor they have a clear and specific subject and format in mind for their piece and are able to do the necessary research, including interviewing specific subjects. Wong advised writers to note their estimated timeline to submit a piece and to feel free to indicate interest in being paid at standard freelance rates.
In another group, Sarah Berman and Robyn Smith worked with a number of participants on pitching corporate media and pitching personal stories or opinion pieces.
One piece of advice was for writers to listen to their friends to hear what they’re talking about, what is and isn’t noteworthy about the story to them, and what details they’re particularly interested in.
Berman and Smith noted that novel, personal perspectives often land at the top of an editor’s pile, especially if they connect to personal events. However, in your pitch, your editor is likely most interested in your ability to deliver a story on time and as discussed – not a thorough personal biography.
WAM! organizers Natalie Hill and Jarrah Hodge worked with a breakout group of communications professionals to discuss how to get non-profits in the news. Non-profits often find it difficult to determine their most newsworthy activities and show how they’re relevant to a broader public. They may also experience ethical issues about allowing interviews with vulnerable clients.
“Remember, you and your clients don’t have to answer every question a reporter asks you,” reminded Hodge.
For getting an overall lay of the land and identifying PR opportunities, “Consuming local media is the best homework,” Hill advised. She encouraged people working for non-profits to be aware of friendly local journalists and recurring events like holidays and awareness days that you might be able to tie to your cause.
To close out the night, everyone shared their key lessons, and one participant from the beginners group summed up the reason for the event: “We’re not all writers, but we all have a story that has got to be told.”
by Jarrah Hodge with notes from Emily Yakashiro