Today on Twitter I asked “What would a journalism dedicated to helping communities solve complex social and political issues look like? Who is already doing it?”
What would a journalism dedicated to helping communities solve complex social and political issues look like? Who is already doing it?
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) December 16, 2012
This, to me, is the question we face as the nation tries to not only come to terms with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, but also look ahead at how we can respond. Already we are seeing demands for a national conversation about gun violence, for new gun control legislation, even for a repeal of the second amendment. Each of these ideas is composed of a complex and interwoven web of policy, beliefs, and culture. How can we better report on those complex webs and forces?
In a post from a year ago Jonathan Stray asked a similar question about journalism and problem solving. He observed that “The modern world is built on a series of vast systems, intricate combinations of people and machines, but our journalism isn’t really built to help us understand them. It’s not a journalism for the people who will put together the next generation of civic institutions.”
At the time he was writing about the global financial crisis, but the quote above could just as easily apply to violence in America. His post sparked a conversation about solutions journalism, a theme he returned to earlier this year. “I see the solution journalist as responsible for the process of public discussion by which problems are defined and turned into plans for the future. This is the moderator’s role.”
At times like this, we need good moderators of public debate, we need caring facilitators of challenging conversations, and we need newsrooms that can create space for communities to talk to each other. I’m not talking about online comments on newspaper websites, I’m talking about a much deeper form of community engagement.
In response to my inquiry on Twitter, Joel Hoffmann pointed me to GunCrisis.org and the associated Twitter account @GunCrisisNews. GunCrisis was founded by a team of journalists and academics and describes itself as an “open source journalism project” intended to fill the gaps in reporting on gun violence in Philadelphia. Like the better-known HomicideWatch in Washington, DC, GunCrisis is dedicated to bearing witnesses long beyond when most news organizations stop reporting on the cases and victims of violent crime. But more than just reporting on gun violence, they are explicitly working to find and advocate for solutions.
Jim MacMillan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who started the project, advocates approaching gun violence through the framework of public health. When it comes to this work, MacMillan isn’t afraid of advocacy. “The goal is to reduce gun deaths and find replicable solutions,” he told Philadelphia Weekly.
To meet that goal, MacMillan is embracing the role of moderator. “First thing I’m trying to do is build a community of like-minded people and start to gather information on all the other individuals and organizations in the city working on it,” says MacMillan in the Philadelphia Weekly article. The article goes on to say that MacMillan sees gun violence as “the story of Philadelphia — and that it needs to be explored intensely, from every angle, with every journalistic resource in the city.” Taking everything they have learned so far, GunCrisis recently held a symposium with city council members to talk about possible solutions for the city.
Less than a year old, GunCrisis is just getting started, but as the nation looks ahead the news startup may be a model for journalists around the country who want to help their communities debate these critical issues and develop solutions.