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A term by any other name

These are not new questions. Journalists, scholars, and media organizations have been grappling with them for a long time. And in response, what has sprung up is a myriad of reporting approaches that attempt to do things a little differently.

We’d like to start with empowerment journalism, since that is the foundation for this guide. The term, coined in 2016 by the Global Reporting Centre’s founder and former executive director Peter Klein, is presented as a counter to “parachute” journalism — the practice of dipping in and out of countries, communities, and contexts that are not your own and taking stories away for audiences “back home.” This practice is heavily criticized, but still very much practiced in global journalism. But the story doesn’t necessarily have to be global. Reporters can become parachute journalists in any community or context that is unfamiliar — whether half a world or half a block away.

In contrast, empowerment journalism is about co-creation and partnership — whether that’s through training and mentorship, including non-journalist storytellers in our reporting, media literacy and ongoing consent, editorial input and crediting, or community engagement and reciprocity.

It is also about challenging the fixer-foreign correspondent model 1 by working with local journalists in the field, while ensuring fair and equitable crediting, editorial input, and payment.

We’d like to be clear that empowerment journalism is the term we use. And it’s not perfect.

Emily Kasriel, former BBC editor and author of the upcoming book Deep Listening for Harper Collins, told us, “the term empowerment which I used to use, and then I don't know if it was pointed out, but it was kind of controversial… somebody told me actually it’s a term they avoid because of the subject/object inherent in it, even though I know that’s not what you mean and what you want to do is completely the opposite and that you want to involve the subjects of the story as full contributing agents to the creation of that story.”

There are many other journalists, filmmakers, producers, etc., doing similar work under different names: engagement reporting, community-engaged reporting, community collaboration, participatory journalism, solutions journalism, and more.

And many are doing the work without a specific label, but with similar foundational principles and ethics.

Steve Rosenbaum, talking about his work with MTV’s Unfiltered (a series where viewers could record their own stories) said, “people want to tell their stories, and people have a story to tell. And our job was to facilitate them telling their story their way — not to presume what we thought their story was, and then try and get soundbites to fit into it… We’re not the journalists in this. We’re the facilitators.”

We all have a lot to learn from those working to try different approaches to create models of journalism that are grounded in equity, accuracy, and reciprocity. For this guide we interviewed 21 industry professionals. You’ll learn about their work throughout this guide, along with their tips, advice, and lessons learned.

  1. A fixer is a local person, often a journalist, hired to assist a non-local journalist or team with reporting, logistics, translation, safety, security, etc. during field work. To learn more about the challenges with the fixer-foreign correspondent model, you can read Peter Klein and Shayna Plaut’s article, “Fixing” the Journalist-Fixer Relationship.