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Impact Journalism

I’ve separated most prose into two distinct types – writing to inform and writing to convince. There is obviously a lot of grey space between them.  Quality writing always has a strong clarity of purpose no matter what the intent is.  Active writing should have something for the heart and arm and brain, which is to say appeals to intellect, intuition, and action.  The place where these clearly intersect is, more and more, being called “Impact Journalism” – a topic that deserves discussion by itself.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Paul Schmelzer of the Minnesota Independent describe the art of Impact Journalism at Netroots Minnesota. The meat of the practice is a piece that shines light on a topic that calls for a distinct course of action which can then be forwarded on to those who are in a position to do something about it.  One example given was an investigation into a band called “You Can Run But You Cannot Hide” that goes around to schools in the guise of delivering a secular anti-drug anti-gang message to schools but delivers a strongly Christian calling that is clearly out of bounds.  Another example from the Iowa Independent (a sister publication) detailed the curious exemption from pollution control that universities have when it comes to dumping the ash from their coal-fired power plants.

Once a story is broken, two things happen that distinguish Impact Journalism.  The first is a constant “drumbeat” of stories that are related to the topic, detailing new information or reaction to the initial report.  The second is the engagement by the journalist with people who can act on this information, which in the examples include school principals and pollution regulators.  The story is followed all the way through to some kind of conclusion in the real world.

This may not seem all that different from what we’ve seen many times before.  Isn’t this really the same thing as investigative reporting?  In many ways, it is, but with two distinct differences.  The first is that the journalist makes a point of staying on the people who have reason to be involved, a direct action that is not exactly “objective”.  The second difference is that, freed from “objectivity”, there is no need to give equal time to the subject of the story.

This may not sit well, but consider the “gotcha moment” that often defines good teevee in the “objective” world.  The need for a response from “the other side” is what produced such a thing in the first place, even if it’s hunting someone down in their own driveway to ask, “Do you care to comment on the allegations?”  By using more of a Blank Slate approach, the reporter is simply stating what is in front of them and nothing more.  It’s actually less sensationalist to forget about “objectivity” and stick with the story you have.

The other problem comes when this approach is compared with the famous “muckrackers” of a century ago, famed journalists like Upton Sinclair who had a clear axe to grind with the establishment.  The difference is that the focus in Impact Journalism starts, from the reader’s perspective, as a simple matter of being informed about something relevant that previously escaped them.  Stressing the need for information makes the need for action more credible because it’s fundamentally honest.

Stories that work well for Impact Journalism are, almost invariably, times when people are not living up to their own standards or their reputation.  They work as a kind of organizing since they are, as Saul Alinsky put it, about “Making the establishment live up to their own rules.”  There is little need for commentary or florid prose when a little bit of sunlight does nicely.  Completing the cycle of activism with the “drumbeat” of follow-up makes this good journalism at the same time it’s good organizing.

Impact Journalism also has the advantage of being well suited for ordinary citizens.  Regular writers out in the community that have a unique perspective or unusual information on a topic are not likely to have time for an in-depth investigative piece, but they certainly can say, “This is what I see happening.”  This approach, like all organizing, is neither particularly “conservative” or “liberal” in any sense, but based solidly on connecting people and systems to relevant information that they do not know about.

Connecting people to the world in ways that they can gain control over their lives is what all good writing is about in the end.  Impact Journalism is one technique that makes the connections largely by shining light in otherwise dark corners in a way that is clear and honest, but ultimately about action.  It’s a valuable tool, especially when empowerment means that the need to inform overlaps the need to convince.