Journalism with heart: Examining the role of care in news

By Catherine Komp,

NC Local Newsletter Editor

Last year, community-engaged journalism expert jesikah maria ross and Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel brought together more than 30 people over six months to dig deep into the concept of care in journalism. Participants included newsroom leaders, reporters and editors, as well as scholars, artists and health care practitioners. Part of their discussions led to a list of questions, including: 

  • Why is care important to you? Why does it matter in your storytelling work?
  • What are some examples of the harms and ripple effects of carelessness from the world of journalism?
  • How does your institutional context enable (or hinder) your ability to listen with care?
  • What is another framework that news can use that is not about efficiency, which disincentivizes care work?
  • What if journalism’s responsibility is to distribute responsibility for care?

Big questions, right? And ones that require us to make time and space to think through them. That’s exactly what ross and Brandel recommend in the introduction to the co-created zine “Take Care / Make Care: Dispatches from the Future of Local News Care Collaboratory.” 

Less of a traditional guide and more of a meditation, the creators begin by encouraging you to read the zine when you’re not between meetings. They invite you to slow down and absorb the material at your own pace. 

The zine format helps you do just that, with brightly colored paper cut artwork that reminds you to stay on the page for a while and reflect. In the intro, ross helps us segment the core components of care in journalism into a three-legged stool:

1) Institutional: how organizations create a culture of care with staff and volunteers. 

2) Self care: how we attend to our own physical, emotional, spiritual and creative needs.

3) Care in the storytelling process: how do we enact care when examining who gets to select and tell stories, how and where they are told, and how stories are heard and responded to? 

The zine mostly focuses on that last leg, although there is certainly wisdom you can apply to all three, with chapters on deep listening, defining care, living the values of care, emotional safety in community-centered journalism and more. 

“I think local news organizations are uniquely positioned to generate community care,” said ross. “That can start with understanding one another’s stories, one another’s contexts, and one another’s needs and hopes. I think that’s the role of public service journalism, helping build that understanding and create those connections that generate both care interpersonally and care on a community level.”  

I had the chance to chat with jesikah about “Take Care / Make Care” and what this deeper form of care in journalism looks like in practice. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NC Local: What do you think needs to change about traditional journalism to infuse more care into organizational culture and the storytelling process? 

jesikah maria ross

jesikah maria ross: For many years, the way journalists were trained was to see themselves as information brokers and to do that well, they needed to be neutral and objective and critical. There’s been a good, healthy conversation and critique of that which helps us understand that journalists are part of the communities they serve. And in fact, when they act as if they’re not, they actually create more distance between them and the people that they are trying to serve and they position themselves as not belonging to the same community. 

Journalists also need to be provided with the opportunity, time and space, and facilitation (like trainings or workshops or retreats) to connect the dots for themselves between their own motivations and hopes. Why they got into journalism, what the possibilities are for journalism and how care values and care practices can help advance their goals personally and in their newsroom. 

Journalism scholar Sue Robinson has a book called How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care. She talks about journalists as caregivers, and she pulls from the feminist political philosopher Joan Tronto to talk about care values. She’s got a care framework, she’s a former reporter and hopefully she and I will start developing some trainings. 

[Editor’s note: also see this write-up published in Nieman Lab of Robinson’s and Patrick Johnson’s new research: “Rectifying harm through care-based practices: How journalists might tend to disengaged communities.”]

So that’s the first thing I would say — give journalists the time and space to connect their gifts and talents and motivations with this new theory and practice and see what makes sense, what they want to use, and build their skills up in their newsrooms.

NC Local: I love how the guide starts with a “how to use this zine” and suggests “don’t rush, read this when you’re not between meetings.” But transformational change takes deep thinking and time and even in the most well-intentioned news rooms, it still feels like you’re constantly going on all cylinders without much room for “balcony time.” What else needs to happen institutionally, so that there is time for deep thinking and care.

jesikah maria ross: I think that what we have to do in newsrooms is look at the kind of workflows and structures we have and figure out which ones we can shift. It might be a phased process: what are the low hanging shifts, what are the medium ones and what are the aspirational ones? Because unless we change our workflows, “the structure dictates behavior.” So if we say we want care, but we don’t change the structure that we operate in we’re not going to get to it. 

The structure in newsrooms is all about workflow: who’s doing what, on what timeline, with what resources. And I don’t think that’s bad. A couple of things that come to mind are that we need to change some allocation and reallocate. How do we create some kind of rotation? For example, through the course of a year each managing editor or director has three months where every Friday they have balcony time. Or in the newsroom, can beat reporters rotate stories with one long form community-based reporting project? Create a way for everyone to get whatever form of balcony time they need and hopefully paired with some training, support and coaching if they want to be doing more around care. 

NC Local: The word “care” and so much about this zine is about making things better. But I think about caregivers and how they’re some of the most underpaid, overworked people. And even in your intro, you write that you were exhausted by your engaged journalism work and didn’t realize it. So how do we do this work without burning out? What needs to happen so that care actually makes you feel good and not tired? 

jesikah maria ross: When I look back, why I was exhausted is that my core value of care was not shared in the newsroom so I was always paddling upstream and I didn’t realize that. On top of that, I felt so motivated by the opportunity to be in a newsroom and leverage and share the resources of creating the stories of our culture with communities that had either been harmed by media in the past, or were best positioned to actually tell those stories. So I think my own personal recipe for burnout was that I was doing a lot of work unconsciously. I had really great intentions, I had amazing opportunities, I got some resources. But my goals and my hopes for the world weren’t aligned with what I was actually able to do, just physically and energetically, and I wasn’t paying attention to that. 

And I have a feeling that I’m not alone. I have a feeling that a lot of people in newsrooms are ambitious, smart, caring and really go-getters. As journalists, embracing our role as caregivers and doing that sustainably over the long haul will require us to do some self reflection and personal or leadership development so that we understand our own particular kind of ecosystem of motivations and needs. 

When I look at really successful change makers, whether they’re leaders in business or nonprofits or social movements, there’s a moment where they’ve all hit that wall, where they realize that they’ve been operating in a certain way that can’t continue. What we can do as supervisors, directors, mentors and coaches is actually start to build into our one on ones and our team meetings ways to actually be more observant, more aware of the people who are working with us and do some more interventions and mentoring.

NC Local: I was struck by Sue Robinson’s piece outlining how misinformation stokes fear and division that is about “care for the individual.” The counter to that is the role of engagement journalism as “caregiving for the whole.” How do you see that unfolding in practice? 

jesikah maria ross: A lot of news that is very popular and very divisive is actually isolating. So it disconnects. It is individuating: I am consuming this information, I’m making sense of it, and I’m acting on it as an individual. And there isn’t the opportunity to have my own ideas and experiences encounter others. The idea of two truths colliding to create a new truth. 

What Sue Robinson is suggesting that is so important and motivating to me is bringing people together to have information experiences. And that’s where I think news organizations or civic information organizations are uniquely positioned at this moment in our cultural trajectory to be the community development agencies, to be the intervention points, because we do need to bring people together to share experiences and make sense of them.

That’s actually the cornerstone of how democracy is supposed to work, right? You can’t get an informed public by just putting stories out there. You get an informed public by having the public get together and deliberate on the content of those stories, make sense of them through that experience and then act on them. That could be through voting, but it could be through joining an organization or helping others. That’s why I think face to face gatherings that are designed with care have the highest potential to transform people, their lives, their neighborhoods and our world.  

NC Local: The zine includes a list of “radical questions to burst open what’s possible” and one of them states: “Across the landscape, a central feature in care is allowing people to feel seen and feel heard. So in journalism – is the product necessary? Or is the value in the process itself?” What have you found in all your listening?

jesikah maria ross: So that is a really beautiful truth. I don’t use that term lightly. My husband is a trauma therapist and over the past five years, I’ve done a lot more in trauma informed work. My last big project was all about that and I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of people whose professional work is supporting healing. And it was fascinating to me to hear over and over the idea that being present and witnessing through generous, attentive listening goes a long way towards healing. 

When I talk about a continuum of care, the first is just being present, listening, acknowledging, empathizing. From there, hopefully it builds, but I know from my own work with sexual assault survivors and through the research I did to prepare myself to do that work, that over and over again, when people feel listened to, they feel cared about, they feel respected, and that helps them connect.

And it’s the connection that we need with each other that’s going to generate the other part of the continuum, the community care.  

The other thing too, is how do we talk about care so it doesn’t feel frivolous or threatening for journalists? It’s a lot of emotional energy to be present. And there are times in which it is useful to not be, to protect yourself, right? So, there’s a whole realm I’m excited to learn about with journalists, because I do think that we need to embrace care and understand a range of care practices, and everyone needs to individually figure out for themselves how they employ or deploy them. 

An idea that I’m percolating on in conversation with Sue Robinson is an ethic of care. All these newsrooms have a code of ethics and we all have to sign off on them and know them. What might it be like if we work together to develop our ethic of care as a piece of the code of ethics? So that we feel allowed and permissioned and supported in caring, and we understand how individually we want to draw those lines. 

NC Local: What’s next for Taking Care and the Care Collaboratory? 

jesikah maria ross: There are three things that are next for me. One is I’m publishing a guide through the Center for Center for Cooperative Media that should be out in March called “Taking Care: a guide to participatory and trauma informed journalism.” So if people want a deeper dive that will be coming out soon. 

I’m also trying to get residencies to allow me to develop the training idea that I mentioned earlier with Sue Robinson and Jennifer Brandel. And then the last is, and the most juicy I think, is we have funding to do season two of the Care Collaboratory. Season one focused on how we enact care in and with communities in the storytelling process. Season two we’re going to focus a bit more on how we enact care in face to face community gatherings. For journalists that could be your community listening sessions, your community conversations, your focus groups or any ways you’re bringing people together to share experiences and make sense of them. So we will launch in April and run through July and hopefully we will find funding to create another zine.  

Spend time with the Take Care / Make Care zine and the series jesikah produced for American Press Institute. Explore jesikah’s Participatory Journalism Playbook and her webinar “Cooking up community engagement that is meaningful for everyone” for America Amplified, where she is an engagement trainer. jesikah’s next guide on trauma-informed journalism will be published in March.


NC Local News Workshop