News Purity

Was I being neutral in the face of injustice by trying to be a neutral reporter?

News Purity

Tomorrow afternoon, my living room will again turn into a TV studio as I give another live interactive talk for The Garden, this time on conjoined twinning. If you’d like to join us at 2:30 p.m. eastern, hop onto this link. I would love to have you there. I am excited that my cameraman will be Gary Caldwell, a talented young man who graduated East Lansing Public High School not that long ago and who then launched his own successful videography and photography production studio.

The photo you see above was taken by Gary two years ago for East Lansing Info (ELi), the citizen-reporting news organization I founded in 2014. That photo captures the idea I want to share with you today.

It shows in the foreground Lansing-based activist James Henson leading a racial justice protest at East Lansing’s City Hall and Police Department on June 2, 2020. The protest was in part about what we had uncovered at ELi with regard to troubling policing activities here.

In the background is a handmade sign that bears the quotation, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Although I had heard this aphorism from Archbishop Desmond Tutu before the protest, the sign captured the discomfort I was feeling there.

You see, I was at the protest that day as a reporter for East Lansing Info (ELi), and because we had established ELi as a strictly nonpartisan news and information source, I felt as if I was perhaps at the protest acting “neutral in situations of injustice.”

The idea made me squirm. But I also understood the gravity of the job I was there to do. And I was committed to doing it without taking sides.

The degree to which we took nonpartisanship seriously at ELi might have made some people laugh. We decided that even our placemaking column could not be seen as taking the side of one business over another, so instead of our columnist praising the hamburgers at the most popular local pub, she would be forced to say only that the hamburgers are wildly popular. (That counted as an objective fact.)

Not only did we not publish editorials at ELi, we often agonized over how to handle issues that required subjective editorial decisions. Some ledes (lead paragraphs), heds (headlines), and deks (summary blurbs) would go through a dozen drafts with three or four people involved in the decision. Stories would be delayed as we hashed out the question of how to stay neutral on the page even when we felt passionate about an issue.

But it was worth it. I would thrill when I’d run into a reader at the grocery store and they’d tell me they could not figure out what side I was on of some issue we were reporting.

The more we followed a path of old-fashioned (idealized) news purity, the more we became convinced it was the right path for our community news service. In fact, I remember ELi citizen-reporters asking me, after they worked with us for a while, why any serious newspaper endorses candidates and writes editorials telling the government what to do. Our reporters had so adopted the idea that we should just report and not opine that they could not fathom the idea of a news organization intentionally taking sides.

In reality, of course, we had to make all sorts of editorial decisions – what to cover, how to cover it, what images to use with a story, and so forth. There was no escaping that.

And we certainly agitated for particular values sometimes, most especially transparency and accountability from our City government, protection of the public's interest – and confirmed with our readers through polls that they wanted us “taking sides” on those issues because they felt those were what a watchdog press had to champion to do its work.

But consistently dragging ourselves back to the principle of nonpartisanship – reporting “straight” with “just the facts” – was like doing daily calisthenics. It kept us in shape. And because we were intentionally operating a nonprofit community project akin to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, our work engaged a large number of people in the community who became invested in the news purity ethos. If we screwed up on this, they let us know.

The experience led me to think about writing a book about ELi that would be called If You Give a Town a Newspaper, a reference to the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The mouse in that story keeps demanding more and more after you give him the cookie. That’s how it was in East Lansing. Our readers kept asking for more and more solid reporting from us – more information about local elections, private-public redevelopment deals, policing, and so on.

What thrilled me is that they also kept demanding more and more from their local government because of ELi. They wanted greater accountability, greater transparency, more responsible and responsive government.

With ELi functioning at full strength, we watched as far more people engaged City Council in writing and in person on important issues. We watched as participation in City Council elections went up, and incumbents were sometimes removed, something that had been extremely rare before.

Voters were educated like never before. For the last Council election, the League of Women Voters turned to us to solicit questions from our readers for their candidate forums and then used them. Our nonpartisan voter guides were shared all over town.

Regular readers of my newsletter (subscribe here) know that ELi collapsed a few months ago. Well, there’s a glimmer of light: Two days ago, we convened a rescue task force which the Board of Directors has asked me to lead. The task force is aiming to have our recommendations to the board by the end of July in the hopes that restart of publication can happen by Sept. 1.

This won’t be easy. Running an organization of the level of quality ELi readers expect is an extremely labor-intensive endeavor, and it takes people with skills, dedication, selflessness, and a depth of knowledge few have around here. But the task force is determined to try to suggest a way forward.

I began the meeting on Saturday by asking each task force member to take five minutes to talk about what they think are the most important things for us to keep in mind a team. One thing around which we had immediate consensus was the idea of news purity – that we should make sure ELi delivers factual news and nothing else. The members wanted to ensure that ELi does not become a blog. We had agreement that we should pull back on the relatively new ELI podcast that had drifted into news commentary….

You  may think that we are in a hopeless situation with news in America, with so much of it so partisan (Fox, MSNBC) and so much of it clickbait (kittens, alligators) or fake propaganda (please don't get me started on the New York Times opinion page).

But I continue to have a dream that there could be ELi’s all over America, news organizations that are intentionally (and by necessity) citizen-led and citizen-run, news operations that engage their communities in a way that doesn’t just bring the news but teaches people why they should value serious, honest news.

You don’t teach people the value of good journalism by wagging fingers at them and lecturing them. You can’t even teach it by delivering great journalism at the regional or national level. You have to make them want it by making sure they are part of the process – as reporters, editors, tipsters, financial supporters. And that can only be done at a large scale by doing it at the local level.

Incidentally, you’ve probably guessed what conclusion I came to about that sign at the protest. I realized that providing excellent neutral journalism is not being neutral in the face of injustice. If a protest happens and the rest of the public doesn’t know about it, City Hall can pretty easily pretend it never really happened.

Imagine that tomorrow you wake up and there are no real reporters.