When journalists talk about 'serving the public interest,' who are they really talking about?

Part 2: Setting aside the language of politics means identifying a global set of shared values.

Hey y’all! Anita here. My newsletter about the importance of reconnecting to our values by setting aside the language of politics seemed to resonate with many of you, so I figured this week’s edition would be a good opportunity to write a follow-up. ✍️  

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Back in journalism school a decade ago, I recall debating with my professor about one Canadian media outlet’s framing of an incident overseas. Specifically, I questioned the assumed target audience for which Canadian journalists should be writing. But my prof was clear: We write for Canadians, obviously.

He was so dismissively unequivocal that I’d doubted my instinct to raise the issue. In retrospect, however, I was onto something. (When you identify as being part of an underrepresented community that isn’t well-served by existing media, you tend to be more attuned to the different needs of different audiences.) 

Historically, the journalistic principle of “serving the public interest” meant serving one’s own public, social class or nation, according to Stephen J. A. Ward, a globally respected media ethicist and seasoned Canadian journalist who was the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Committee (where I’m currently a member).

Since the birth of modern journalism in the 17th century, journalism has gradually broaden[ed] the scope of the people that it claims to serve — from factions to specific social classes to the public of nations….The other principles of objectivity, impartiality and editorial independence were limited by this parochial understanding of who journalism serves. For example, ‘impartiality’ meant being impartial in one’s coverage of rival groups within one’s society, but not necessarily being impartial to groups outside one’s national boundaries.

Today, in a globalized but polarized world where miscommunication, misinformation and misunderstanding run rampant, it’s more important now than ever to think deeply about the way stories are framed. Because the way journalists present stories heavily influences the way the public understands and discusses them, we have an opportunity to build bridges or widen the divide among people. So if we want to achieve the former, it’s time to seriously think about refining this old-school approach to “serving the public interest” by broadening the scope of the public we serve.

Global media ethics aims to develop a comprehensive set of principles and standards for the practice of journalism in an era of globalized media. As Ward writes, its goal is to report on issues and events in a way that reflects a “global plurality of views,” and to produce journalism that helps different groups understand each other better: 

A responsible global ethic is needed in a world where news media bring together a plurality of different religions, traditions and ethnic groups….Unless reported properly, North American readers may fail to understand the causes of violence in [the] Middle East, or a famine in Africa….A narrow-minded, patriotic news media can stampede populations into war. Moreover, journalism with a global perspective is needed to help citizens understand the daunting global problems of poverty, environmental degradation, technological inequalities and political instability.

First introduced by Swiss theologian Hans Küng in the late ‘80s, the concept of a “global ethic” is an attempt to identify common moral values and ethical standards that are shared by different religions and cultures around the world.

As I mentioned in this edition of The Other Wave, a person’s values reveals more about their character than their politics does, so rewriting stories to broaden their moral appeal could help build bridges between people with conflicting politics but shared values. If we apply a global lens to this approach, it’s possible that we could build bridges between people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. These kinds of stories would dissuade political tribalism and instead highlight common ground.

I can see this approach being especially useful in multicultural North America, as well as in the context of The Green Line, my local news outlet based in Toronto — one of the world’s most diverse cities.


Shout-outs

Thanks to my former Complex colleague and hip-hop journalist Eric Diep for recommending The Other Wave!


Paid opportunity: Apply to be a Green Line fellow

The Green Line is currently hiring Business Development Innovation Fellows, as well as News Innovation Fellows who are interested in reporting on digital communities, e/sports and sneakers, especially through a Toronto lens. I’m prioritizing applicants who identify as being from underrepresented communities in Toronto, which in this context means people who don’t see themselves reflected in legacy local media.

If you want to learn more, feel free to contact me for more information. Or if you’re interested, please send me your resume, cover letter and links to three clips (multimedia is preferred). 


In my community

  • The Online News Association, for which I serve as a board member, is now accepting applications for its 2022 Women’s Leadership Accelerator. The #ONAWLA is an intensive year-long program to advance women leaders who are pushing innovation in digital journalism. Apply by Nov. 30. 

  • In partnership with Tech for Good Canada, The Green Line is joining Ontario Tech University’s We Stop Scrolling campaign, which calls on teens to post about a social issue that’s important to them on Instagram or TikTok. 

  • I’m excited to join the American Press Institute and Racial Equity in Journalism Fund’s Listening and Sustainability Lab as an adviser. I’ll be coaching The Haitian Times, a 22-year-old newspaper serving the Haitian community in New York and beyond, about audience engagement and revenue. 


Cool stuff I like

  • The Beyond Money Summit is a two-day virtual event that aims to help make financial education more accessible for women and people of colour. Register here for the summit, which takes place from Nov. 18 to 19.  

  • It’s a good time to support local comics now that comedy clubs are hosting shows again. This week, I want to shout out Jon Dore because I couldn’t stop laughing during his set at JFL42: Toronto’s Comedy Festival in 2019 —  even though he called cats “gross” (cats aren’t gross!).

  • If you’re not completely exhausted with horror movies post-Halloween, I recommend watching Peeping Tom, a 1960 pioneering work of voyeuristic cinema that some consider to be the first-ever slasher film.


How you can support The Other Wave

My professional mission has always been to support the global movement towards more thoughtful, impactful news coverage, and all the ways that manifests. If The Other Wave gets you to think even a little differently about journalism, especially in Canada, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do. And if TOW gets you to take action and support Canadian media outlets — especially ones that strive to be innovative and inclusive — I will have exceeded my expectations.

If my values and goals resonate with you, please consider supporting fiercely independent media analysis that fills in gaps in coverage of the Canadian journalism landscape. How? Feel free to provide feedback, pass along resources, donate money or simply share this newsletter with your friends.