This is one of a series of blog posts from the third ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications to apply for this year’s fellowship closed June 6. Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle.
Recently, a group of J-school students at the University of Washington was intently, graciously listening as I bloviated about good blogging practices. Somewhere in the middle of a riff about how the best bloggers don’t wait for the perfect news peg to tell important stories — that they, in fact, set editorial calendars and post about important stuff simply because it’s important — a hand in the back of the room shot up.
“You’re talking about setting an agenda. Isn’t what you’re describing editorializing?” an incisive student interjected. “How do you know when you’re crossing that line?”
It was uncanny. Nearly three years ago, I had asked almost the exact same question.
“… the journalism that makes a difference today goes beyond stenography. It contextualizes. It questions. It reveals the underlying power structures of the institutions we cover.”
In August 2011, barely a month into my tenure at StateImpact Indiana, reporters from across the country had dialed in for a webinar about blogging ethics and voice with editorial advisers at NPR. They encouraged us to push the limits of straight news on our blogs. We want news analysis, we want reporting that highlights implication, we want posts that clarify the impact of policy on ordinary people, we want journalism that makes an impact.
The webinar’s online now. The Q&A at the end was unfortunately edited out, or I would’ve had proof that I’d posed almost the exact same query — “How do you know when you’re crossing the line?” My recent answer to the student was the same as the NPR editor’s reply to me three years ago.
It’s an unsatisfying answer. With time and experience on my beat, I came to learn the editor was right. But I also couldn’t have been the only young journalist wondering how to toe that line between the analytic blog and the opinionated commentary. Journalism schools, after all, are well-suited to train students to report “just the facts.” We’re taught that we’re to be “judicious and not judicial,” bound by no agenda except the pursuit of the best obtainable version of the truth.
Yet the journalism that makes a difference today goes beyond stenography. It contextualizes. It questions. It reveals the underlying power structures of the institutions we cover. It helps readers situate single news events in a broader narrative. Aspiring journalists know this, but it leaves us with questions about finding the “line” we’re not supposed to cross. How can we “afflict the comfortable” without having an agenda? How will we know the difference between highlighting important facts and drawing conclusions for our readers?
Young journalists are hungry for the discussion. After all, the type of work they’re being asked to do once they leave school is very different than it was perhaps as little as a decade ago.
“Shining a light works when information is scarce, and it still is, at times. But today news also can be abundant. When everything is already all lit up, a searchlight is just another thing you can’t see,” writes the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton.
We need “honest filters,” Newton says, to help us sort through the information overload, and we need journalism education equal to preparing them for that task. Given the economics of our industry, that “filter” will probably come in the form of a young recent J-school grad — like I was when I started at StateImpact.
How do we make sure that “filter” is “honest”? Let’s make sure the first time young journalists find the line between editorializing and contextualizing doesn’t happen while they’re on the job.
Fellow Kyle Stokes is the youth & education reporter at NPR member station KPLU in Seattle. He spent two-and-a-half years reporting on education for StateImpact Indiana, a collaboration of WFIU and Indiana Public Broadcasting.