“The people must know before they can act,” said Ida Wells, a pioneer of investigative journalism during the late 1800s in the United States. This month, as we scramble to grasp the reach and repercussions of the COVID19 pandemic, the Pulitzer Foundation honoured Ms. Wells’ life-long contributions to news media. Ms. Wells who believed that “there is no educator to compare with the press,” risked her life numerous times to deliver hard hitting evidence about the lynching of African American men. What would the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the US, who fought for her personal freedoms and that of millions of others think of the industry today?
Ms. Wells’ posthumous honour comes at an important time in our history. In this pandemic period, the media is an essential instrument of social justice that puts a magnifying glass to inequalities. In order to trigger mass movements, akin to Ms. Wells’ time, the news media needs eclectic reporting that keeps pace with the unfolding events and holds authorities to account.
As countries started to lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, my attention naturally gravitated towards home. India, the world’s second most populous country has both vast terrain and varying capacities among its member states. The last weeks bore historic witness to the stark divides between rich and poor citizens. Adding to it, public negligence and private recklessness has rendered millions of daily workers destitute.
Public negligence and private recklessness has rendered millions of daily workers destitute.
Ms. Wells' words have hung heavy amid the partisan media propaganda and biased coverage of the pandemic. In India, we did not sufficiently challenge the government on the basic premise of the lockdown – a majority of Indians cannot afford even a day’s exemption from work, let alone isolation. So, in the spirit of Ms. Wells' commitment to exposing injustices through journalism, I joined Stories Asia, the region’s largest collective of independent reporters. My infinitesimal action of solidarity in this pandemic period has taught me the value of media collectives.
Fortunately, unlike the 1800s when Ms.Wells would have to canvass on foot and rely on the schedules of the printing presses, today we are blessed with advanced technology that allows us to publish and promote new ideas by the hour, even during lockdowns.
At the onset of the pandemic, the core group of journalists, technologists and designers at Stories Asia started a special series called “On the Road.” The mixture of daily dispatches they collected – accounts from stranded migrant workers, activists working with vulnerable populations, food security experts documenting shortages, journalists investigating government corruption, lawyers challenging the legislation, public officials suing the central government, and experts documenting the manipulation of facts – are irreplaceable primary sources. The 42 reports since the lockdown are the first drafts of a historic episode. Pieced together, they form a comprehensive picture of how India has dealt with the crisis.
At the same time, these testimonials replace faceless numbers with humanising narratives, a sorely needed approach, especially in large countries where the statistics are staggering. They also prove that local journalists reporting on intimately familiar communities are able to produce rich narratives at a faster pace, while also probing the different approaches to the crisis – what worked, what did not, who stepped up and who turned a blind eye.
As I wrote this piece, one of the reporting teams at Stories Asia published a dispatch where 300 migrant workers stranded in Ahmedabad did not receive any support, while the Indian government has been boasting about its 23 billion USD aid package. Another video showed women in Uttar Pradesh demanding the shuttering of liquor stores due to a rise in alcohol abuse and domestic violence. These evidentiary stories will contribute to larger public investigations.
These evidentiary stories will contribute to larger public investigations.
For the media to become instrumental in the transformation of our societies, beyond this pandemic, we must transform our own approaches. We will need to increase our connectivity and cooperation in presenting the larger picture.
The Red Cross is a living example of such a set up that is democratic, yet maintains the independent value of its local members. Owing to its hyper-local presence and an integrated network that plugs into the larger operation, the organisation has become a lifesaver in many countries amid this pandemic. Although the media is not a monolith, let alone a single organisation, we would gain much from thinking like a unit that benefits from sharing resources and knowledge, but remains greater than the sum of its parts. It will also allow us to transition away from the dominant business model that relies on advertising revenues.
Media … would gain much from thinking like a unit that benefits from sharing resources and knowledge, but remains greater than the sum of its parts.
Indeed amid shrinking budgets, new formulas of collaborative journalism are emerging across the globe. In the U.S., where individual states have reacted with diverse policies in the face of the pandemic and with rather different results, local outlets are teaming up for better coverage. Similar initiatives are on the rise in Europe, where startups are teaming up with legacy media, journalists are collaborating with specialists and regional media are sharing newsrooms.
In countries with restricted access to information, international collaborations are helping journalists investigate cross-border stories. Independent reporters are teaming up with specialists and organisations that can provide deeper insights, and larger newsrooms that can create impactful forms of storytelling.
When working together, media of different sizes with their respective audiences can more effectively set solutions-based agendas at local, regional and international levels. As we enter a new world where the necessity of social protection is overtaking decades of obsession with GDP, the growth of collaborative media is inevitable. We, in the media sector, must also innovate models and methods of storytelling that mirror the new reality.