Do We Have Any Effect?
Years ago I went to an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Washington, D.C. It was an odd trip – I was on the photo staff of my student newspaper, the football team was playing someone around the Washington area, there was a big protest heading for the mall and then there was this conference. Somehow, we covered it all and got it into the paper on Monday.
At that conference, some journalism luminary got up for a keynote speech and railed against current journalists, how they’d been riding on the coattails of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein since the mid-1970s, that no one had done anything of real, national value since then. (To be honest, I think it was either Woodward or Bernstein, but I can’t remember at this point.)
This popped back into my mind a few moments ago as I was running through my RSS feeds. Merlin Mann put up a video link to a Bob Dylan documentary where he’s being told the papers are calling him an anarchist. When he asks why, he’s told, “Just because you don’t offer any solution.”
A few moments later, I loaded up former-student Andre Gallant’s latest post. He’s been working on a project up in Gainsville, Ga., about a neighborhood that’s been plagued with problems. In his post he says:
I’m just some white kid journalist sticking a camera in your face. Your story is compelling and our conversation will look great in my short film. But I won’t be able to change a thing. I’m one in a long line of storytellers, eager to take down your story and pass it down my network. Next year, after this new round of news stories and short films flushes through the current institutional and personal memories, another generation of newsy types will roll up, pen, paper, cameras in hand, asking the same questions.
If only my camera could cast a zoning board vote.
And all of this came just two days after I wrote about Michael King’s post where he reminds us that even if the story doesn’t matter to us, it matters to the subjects.
So, to Andre’s dilemma, and to everyone else who struggles through a story wondering why they’re putting so much effort into a story that they can’t alter or help the outcome with, you do. Our goal as journalists is to inform, to educate and to entertain. That’s been my mantra for almost two decades.
We need to tell people what is happening in their community. We need to tell them why it’s important that they know this. And, lastly, it needs to be told in a compelling manner that will bring them back for more. Once people understand what is happening in their community and how it affects them, then the members of that community can do something about it. It’s why I say journalism is a constitutional mandate – as the alleged “fourth estate” it is our democratic responsibility to inform and to educate.
The individual story may not change situation, but the information will help inform future decisions. Your subject’s story matters to them, at the very least. Everyone has a story to tell, some are big, some are small. They are all important to their community.
That, Andre, is what makes it worth it when, “My body hurts. My shoulders are sore from tense hand-held crouches, when I’m desperately holding my breath to keep the camera from shaking.”
Gallent’s concerns are common among journalists. Are we making a difference?
Perhaps some of us are caught up in our culture’s desire for instant results, and instant results are rarely the case in our country’s form of democracy. Awareness and the desire for change must reach a critical mass before action is taken. Critical mass typically takes time and persistence to develop.
We journalists must have patience. All too often, we ignore one of the most basic of tools at our disposal — the follow-up. Ongoing issues should be reported on an ongoing basis.
W. Eugene Smith once said “… to became neighbours and friends instead of journalists. This is the way to make your finest photographs.”
Journalists who see themselves as part of the community they cover — instead of transient , objective observers — will be heard.
Photographs are a way to make connections between us. Photographs have the power to give voice to those that need one. And sometimes voices need to speak up more than once to be heard. If this is our motivation, rather than contests and career development, then we can make a difference.