CAMP 2014: Social justice journalism comes in many forms

Story by 2014 Fellow Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | Photos by Ellie Van Houtte

Nancy Day moderates a panel with Susan Smith Richardson, Kari Lydersen and Sandy Close at CAMP.

Many journalists get into the profession to make a difference – but where the rubber hits the road is in execution and having freedom to pursue data analysis and spending time with sources, according to panelists at JAWS Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) in La Quinta, California.

Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter, said that social justice journalism is “a lot bigger” than just wanting to make a difference – “we all want to make a difference with our stories,” she said – but also examines structural inequalities in society, whether through data or human stores with the aim of trying to change policies or practices.

Highlighting some of her own work at The Chicago Reporter, a nonprofit investigative news outlet that covers race, poverty and income inequality, Smith Richardson told the audience about cost drivers for the Cook County Jail in Chicago. Another, about a Texas woman reliant on an oxygen tank about to have her electricity shut off, was a slice-of-life piece examining “all the things someone has to deal with simply to exist.”

“Because if we’re talking about structural inequality, how do you do that without giving a snapshot or narrative of someone’s life?” Richardson asked.

Susan Smith Richardson speaks with CAMP attendees.

In the question and answer session, Richardson added that social justice journalism must also include the solutions being offered by communities themselves – something rarely covered in the mainstream media. “It’s representing the fact that there are people doing work in those communities and not waiting for an outside savior to transform them.”

Citing her work on mental health issues among youth, Sandy Close, founder of New California Media, said that social justice journalism has the ability to break stigmas through greater coverage, and to bring communities together.

“Social justice isn’t about political change, but what people are doing in the absence of political change,” Close said, adding that even a story that doesn’t seem to change anything can do much for an individual or group of people. “To be invisible is to know despair.”

Close critiqued Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times who had delivered the keynote speech over breakfast earlier that day. When asked which stories aren’t getting enough coverage, Abramson responded money in politics. “We’re so obsessed with the political story that we miss the intimate moments that bring silence in communities themselves, where the metric isn’t the size of the audience you reach or the policies you move, but is generating conversation in a community where the topic – be it depression, be it divorce – is taboo.”

Editor’s note 11/14/14: The name of Susan Smith Richardson’s publication was revised to The Chicago Reporter.