Care involves the ability to hear, understand and recognize others’ needs and feelings. Centering care, though, goes one step further by taking on the work of looking after and providing for the needs of others.

In a journalism context, sometimes that’s just witnessing and being present. Other times, it’s helping to connect people with resources and services. It can also happen by reporting a story and trying to leverage that reporting for individual and community change.

Put simply, it’s about taking responsibility for the physical and psychological health of those we involve in our reporting and staying attuned to how our journalistic process impacts them.

Why is this kind of care important? Because it leads to the kind of trust and investment that produces what so many people in our industry see as the holy trinity: better reporting, more sustainable news outlets and greater community impact.

When people feel cared about, they are more likely to engage with reporters and be honest — even vulnerable — about their experiences. That’s crucial to help reporters “get the story right.”  And 85% of adults, according to a 2016 Media Insight Project study, say that accuracy “is the most important factor in gaining trust, regardless of the topic.”

Sources (and other stakeholders) who experience care from news organizations are also more willing to deepen their involvement with us over time. That might look like participating in our listening sessions or surveys, accessing and sharing our programs, becoming members or subscribers, serving on boards or contributing their expertise and resources in other ways.

All of this translates to improved public service journalism and greater organizational sustainability in the form of audience growth, revenue generation, in-kind resources, community ambassadors and partners. People invest in what they value and value what meets their needs.

But how do we enact this care? What is the theory of change or a framework for implementation? What does an “ethic of care” look like in practice, and what will result from using/deploying it? That’s just what Sue Robinson’s essay takes on, and why it’s important in the larger conversation about care in journalism. I invite you to consider her ideas and pick one to discuss with a colleague, and maybe even test it out.

– jesikah maria ross

How journalists care: A framework for building trust and relevance

By Sue Robinson

Find the full essay here.

Traditionally, reporters are taught to care only in the abstract — about democracy, audiences, government institutions, etc. They are taught not to care about individuals or groups in their neutrality. Any evidence of this latter kind of “caring” results in discord within the profession, such as when Black reporters were told they cared too much about Black people to cover Black Lives Matter movements. The profession, operating under this paradigm, is failing.

As fewer and fewer people feel less cared for in many parts of their lives, they lose trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide safety nets for them. But now we have a burgeoning community engagement movement within journalism to engage more. And it seems to me that the intention behind this effort has been fundamentally transformative: Journalists are being taught to not only care about communities but to act as caregivers.

In the early 1980s, American ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan published the “ethic of care” theory to show how women empathize and lead in their moral work. Building on Gilligan’s work, public deliberation scholar Joan Tronto theorized that an ethic of care in democracy would include “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible,” as she wrote in Caring Democracy. I was particularly drawn to the blueprint that Tronto laid out for how to manifest an ethic of care in public communication spaces:

  • Attentiveness (e.g. we must know the needs of others by attending to others),
  • Responsibility (e.g. we must feel responsible for others’ care),
  • Competence (e.g. adopting an ethic of care requires action with appropriate resources and effort),
  • Responsiveness (e.g. we must adjust our caregiving according to the needs at hand, for the person or entity specifically and not by simply imagining what needs we ourselves might have), and
  • Solidarity (e.g. we must understand and accept collectively that care is essential to a working democracy and a thriving humanity).

However, applying this framework to journalists requires more involvement in audiences’ lives — in direct opposition to the mandate to stand a critical distance apart from communities. Because I still identify as a journalist 19 years after leaving the newsroom, I remained skeptical. I wondered, in the absence of objectivity, doesn’t that just leave subjectivity?

But as I observed journalists doing their engagement work and talked to them about it, my understanding shifted. And so in my latest book, I propose that engaged journalists generate trust in their fact-based journalism by building relationships guided by an ethic of care. In the process, they become immersed in humanity, approaching people, communities, and knowledge with direct and explicit care. This is the first major paradigm shift for the mainstream journalism industry in a century.

What a journalistic ethic of care might look like in practice includes:

  • Thinking about attentiveness as listening and learning
  • Having responsibility as taking on the mission of community builder rather than storyteller
  • Checking quotes, sending questions ahead of time, following up with communities after stories have run, allowing sources to interview the reporter, being present beyond the story, asking different kinds of questions, and understanding that different people need different kinds of care
  • Committing to engagement as a fundamental part of the job and being responsive to different constituents, appreciating that each story affects different populations according to the power dynamics of that context
  • Reporting and producing in solidarity with communities to fully understand the problems, connect stakeholders and research solutions

But care theory has some limitations. For one thing, it assumes that all mainstream journalists care in the same ways, and my data show that journalists engage according to their identities as racial, aged, able-bodied, gendered, moneyed, educated beings with varying histories of caring.

This is where the main conceptualization for my book comes in: an identity-aware care. I call for a more radical embrace of personal and professional identities toward the ultimate goal of trust-building between journalists and communities. If reporters are encouraged to activate their identities in their reporting, their relationships with communities will be more profound and their reporting more accurate and relevant.

Within this approach, journalists promote and reproduce qualities such as empathy, cross-difference dialogue or attentiveness, responsive reliability, identity introspection, a responsibility to marginalized peoples, and explicit compassion using a justice lens as individuals with contexts, politics, histories and identities in solidarity with their communities. A focus on these kinds of engagement strategies moves the journalist from witness to proactive collaborator. They move from stenographer to listener, connector and mediator.

But we have a long way to go as we are coming off a decade of political policies that turn people’s focus into an understanding of the individual as a vessel of self-care. With How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities and Care, I provide a blueprint toward reclaiming that relevancy in a way that not only buoys democracy but also our souls as journalists and community members through a caring storytelling practice.

Dr. Sue Robinson holds the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism endowed research chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. A former reporter, she teaches, studies and works with journalists and journalism students and is especially interested in power and privilege in information flows. She has written three books about journalism.

Dig deeper

More resources about a journalistic duty of care:

  • COMING UP: How to create an emotionally safe space for sources.

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