How to make a difference as a journalist

I work with many students who get frustrated with journalism because it limits their activism. I’ve been thinking about them a lot in the last few days as I read coverage of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. (This is an especially good and harrowing account.)

“It’s so obviously wrong to hate anyone who isn’t white,” they say. “Why can’t I speak out about that as a journalist?”

I have a hard time answering them, because I’m not someone who feels compelled to work as an activist. (Middle class white privilege plays a big part of that. But so do introversion and a desire to see what’s going on but not necessarily participate. I also don’t love playing organized sports.)

It’s also been beaten into me, in my 10 years as a student and professional journalist, that I am neutral no matter what.

But in reading the Charlottesville coverage, an answer finally dawned on me. Journalism is a form of activism. Journalism, at its best, uncovers things that people are doing that are not right — and puts them on display. Journalism holds powerful people accountable.

And, at its best, it does so without taking a side.

What’s more effective? Me going to an anti-white supremacy rally as a participant, where people agree with me? Me going to a pro-white supremacy rally as a protester, where I could very likely be killed? Or me, as a journalist, doing an interview with a white supremacist to find out why he thinks the way he thinks? Or me, as a journalist, talking to an anti-fascist protester to understand her side?

Me, as a journalist, using my stories to show each side what the other thinks?

My students say “it’s so obvious racism is wrong.” But you know what a white supremacist says? “It’s so obvious affirmative action is wrong.” “It’s so obvious having a black president hurt the country.” “It’s so obvious Donald Trump is taking us in a better direction.”

“It’s so obvious” depends on your perspective. As a journalist, you get to see a story from every perspective.

When this inevitably comes up this semester, I’ll talk about Claude Sitton. He covered the Civil Rights movement for the New York Times, setting the standard for how to do journalism with an impact. He won a Pulitzer Prize while he was at the News & Observer — and managed to get several high-level K-12 and college school officials to step down by overseeing reporting on their wrongdoing.

If you were doing something wrong, Claude Sitton was going to write about it. And that’s what I want my students to think about when they think about good journalism.