Doing Social Justice Journalism

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Why social justice journalism?

By Jeff Jeske
Guilford College

Social justice reporting has distinguished American journalism nearly from its beginnings. Noted practitioners have included William Lloyd Garrison (civil rights), Dorothy Day (poverty), Nelly Bly (asylum conditions), Ida Tarbell (worker’s rights), Upton Sinclair (factories), and later, Rachel Carson (environment), Jessica Mitford (prisons) and William Greider (globalization’s effects on workers).

As the “fourth estate,” journalism has long played a watchdog role with respect to government’s legislative, executive and judicial branches. Should it not also explore the human cost of government policies? Certainly journalism has rich potential for such work.

When receiving a 2011 Top American Leader award from the Washington Post and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cited journalism’s ability to “shine a spotlight on subjects that are not on the agenda.” Known for his international human rights reporting, Kristof has won two Pulitzer prizes for his op-ed work on such subjects as Darfur, Tiananmen Square and human trafficking.

Why especially now?

The “Great Recession” of 2008-12 has brought attention to an ever-widening income gap and to the statistic that 46 million Americans—one-seventh of the population—now live in poverty. Those realities have exacerbated virtually every important social issue, including immigration, health care, minority rights and stewardship of the environment.

Social justice issues are not, however, a chief priority of the media establishment. Corporate media are conservative by nature and tend to support the status quo rather than proactively focusing on the need for social change. Beholden to the bottom line in a tight economy, newsrooms also continue to be reduced, thus shrinking in turn the resources available for investigative and social justice reporting.

We also witness a serious blurring of the lines between fact, opinion and entertainment. Hence the rise of infotainment and a reality about which Sam Pizzigati says, in the introduction to Eesha Williams’ Grassroots Journalism, “We spend … the better part of our everyday lives in a world that media create for us, a world, paradoxically, where everyday people are largely invisible.” This is not a world that promotes compassion for casualties of the political and economic order.

Social justice reporting continues, but often funded by private foundations and donors rather than mainstream media. Good work is being done by National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System and ProPublica. Internationally, where coverage has declined with the progressive closing of foreign bureaus, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funds 50 reporting projects annually on such underreported topics as Third-World water issues, food insecurity and women and children in crisis. Meanwhile locally, blogging and social media enable individuals to engage in original issues-based reporting, and the phenomenon of “street journalism” has emerged, with teams of individuals taking beats in a neighborhood, a cultural community, even a city block.

Within this scene, college newspapers are well poised to become leaders in social justice reporting. Without the restraints imposed by corporate control and with the knowledge of relevant social justice issues on campus and in the surrounding region, student reporters can fill a niche and even set an example for the mainstream media. With the multimedia age in college journalism still in its infancy, here is the opportunity to weld social justice reporting, multimedia and social media into a powerful tool making social justice journalism kinetic and potentially involving readers directly in social change

What forms can social justice reporting take?

Here are four:

  1. Investigative reporting on under-reported social justice topics
  2. Reporting on the social justice efforts of other, thus providing models for like-minded activists to duplicate
  3. Promoting community discussion by hosting, and then reporting on, forums about social justice topics
  4. Stimulating activism via informed editorials and activities such as coordinating online petitions (for a successful online petition model, see

Sample social justice topics:

  • Food hunger
  • Water and sanitation
  • Environment and global warming
  • Legal issues
  • Civil rights
  • Disease
  • Immigration
  • Disability
  • Prisons
  • Racism
  • Workplace
  • Gender discrimination
  • Voting rights
  • Exploitation of children
  • Waste disposal
  • Human trafficking
  • Sustainability
  • Animal rights
  • Unions
  • Gay rights
  • Mental illness

Getting mobilized

Most important up front is to decide where to house social justice reporting.

One option is to anchor it in the news department. Another is to diffuse it throughout the organization. A third is to make it a separate entity. The Guilfordian at Guilford College makes social justice reporting a separate operation with a core staff that can be supplemented by the larger organization’s writers, photographers and videographers as needed. Such a special creative unit functions much like what Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. in In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies term a “skunk works”— a separate unit of the blue-sky thinkers and inventors who operate outside normal institutional procedures.

The Guilfordian has placed a social justice tab on its masthead’s section button-bar along with the regular sections’: news, features, forum, world & nation, and sports. Clicking on it takes the reader to a social justice blog that is the center point for social justice activity, containing articles and op-ed pieces, and links back to relevant multimedia packages at the newspaper’s main site, packages that the social justice team has commissioned, facilitated, then handed off for inclusion in the online news or features sections.

A social justice team, whether operating within or outside the newspaper’s regular sections, can coordinate the organization’s main social justice foci. A three-pronged approach can include reporting on campus, community and region and the globe.

Key people and campus & external constituencies:

  • A committed leader: establishing an editor-level position can signal the importance of the social justice enterprise.
  • An assistant editor to supervise concrete operations: e.g., establishing a campus social justice beat, providing a liaison with social justice groups out in the larger community, coordinating the assembling of teams for multimedia story packages.
  • Student liaisons to on-campus student groups that are involved in service work.
    Faculty who deal with social justice issues in the classroom or in community work.
  • Staff offices that oversee community-service and social-justice-related projects.
    Local/regional groups: Guilford College’s social justice staff work with a directory of over 80 organizations belonging to the Guilford County (N.C.)’s Peace and Justice Network, soliciting both story ideas and items for the newspaper’s social justice calendar.
  • Global connections: The Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., offers partnerships with colleges and universities for crisis and social justice reporting. The relationship brings to campus professional reporters who are doing such reporting out in the world and offers fellowships enabling students to do crisis reporting abroad. Guilford is one of 15 colleges and universities currently participating in the Center’s Campus Consortium.

Mobilizing also requires developing relevant coursework to train student reporters how to do social justice reporting, including the use of relevant multimedia tools. If the school is too small to field separate multimedia courses, such training can take place via modules integrated into existing courses.

See the Mindy McAdams syllabus in the resource list below for a multimedia course offering module-based training. The modules can also be integrated separately into regular journalism courses.

Tools for social justice reporting

Multimedia tools bring a social justice story to life in ways that a print-only story cannot, heightening reader involvement that may lead to action. Video enables showing a wheelchair-bound student failing to access an inadequate ramp, or a truck dumping sludge at a controversial landfill. Audio projects the voice from the wheelchair or from the residents of the neighborhood that the landfill is polluting. Using multiple tools can also effectively separate a single story’s multiple issues, such as the landfill story’s dual focus on environmental degradation and environmental racism.

Besides the movie and still camera, the shotgun mike and digital voice recorder, other useful tools to add depth and breadth to a multimedia social-justice package include:

  • Dipity ( creates interactive timelines that can be embedded in a multimedia package to provide historical background or group chronologically a series of investigative reports.
    Maps can contextualize an issue spatially. Maps drawn from Google at
  • establish and illustrate locations, while interactive maps from websites like can add related economic and demographic information.
  • SoundSlides ( combines a photo slideshow with an audio track, supplementing visual images with photographer or subject commentary, music or environmental sound.
  • Social media like Twitter and Facebook enable the reporter to gather information via crowdsourcing but also enable the audience reading to register a reaction, talk with each other or join a group to take further action. The 2008 American presidential election and the Arab Spring beginning in December 2010 exemplify the power that social media grant their users.

The Web is also a vital tool per se. Social justice writers can mine it for resources to pass on to the reader via either sidebar or inline links. Every social justice story can potentially have links to both background information and sites with concrete action steps. A story on global hunger, for example, could include links to the World Bank, U.N. World Food Program, USDA, Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute, Renewable Fuels Association and International Food Policy Research Institute


Social justice journalism links:

Research links:

  • American Fact Finder — [Database of statistical information on housing, personal demographics, employment, incomes, property gathered in both the 2000 and 2010 censuses]
  • Federal government data site —
  • FedStats — [Provides information both national and local from over 100 agencies]
  • Resource Center: Facts on Demand — [Portal to free public records sites]
  • Environmental Protection Agency —
  • Government spending — [Searchable information on federal contracts, spending trends, housing assistance, student assistance, housing grants]
  • ProPublica: journalism in the public interest —
  • Muck Rack — [Allows subscriber to follow the real-time tweets of investigative journalists working for major news organizations]
  • HARO (Help a reporter out) — [This Twitter site merges reporters and sources. Journalists can either submit queries or serve as source]

Multimedia teaching:

Jeske-JeffJeff Jeske serves as the Dana Professor of English at Guilford College and, in addition to journalism courses, teaches American literature and film. He also taught at the University of Akron, Clemson University and UCLA. He has advised The Guilfordian for past 27 years.