Journalists work from a place of harm reduction

When I think about what people need to sustain themselves — like a living wage, access to food and clean water, empathetic healthcare and shelter — and how current power structures make having those needs an exception, not a rule, I wonder: How impactful is simply chronicling people’s stories?

This question has been rattling around my head this past year. But I’ve found, if not an answer, some clarity about moving forward in organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s focus on transforming harm.

“I want to figure out how to transform harm in every possible context because I have been harmed, and I have harmed other people,” she said in a 2019 interview with writer, scholar, and cultural organizer Eve L. Ewing.

Next year, I want more people to ask: What would journalism premised on harm reduction look like?

It would be one aware of reporter-source power dynamics — how journalists, under the apparatus of news-gathering and especially in times of crisis, have made people feel like their pain is trivialized.

It would take steps to acknowledge historical breaches of trust while being transparent about how interviews are being used and what the interview process looks like.

It would be clear-eyed about the harm the legal system can bring to survivors of violence and assault and critically evaluate police press releases, instead of assuming good faith when speed is needed.

It would commit to acknowledging and apologizing when commitment to so-called neutrality has misrepresented the stakes of violence against trans people, and to developing — then pursuing — a plan to do better.

It would outline what resources exist for people in their communities and invest in ways to share information with people where they’re at.

It would affirm that there is no “post-pandemic” — that millions of people have died and are dying from COVID-19 or from complications after they’ve been infected — and share information about the most useful ways to keep each other safe.

There are people already asking about what a journalism grounded in harm reduction would look like, but I hope next year brings more.

The work I do at The Objective, while separate from my day job, is also intimately connected to it: It can be hard to imagine doing journalism differently without examples of experiments in progress, whether that be chronicling the movement journalism pursued at places like Scalawag and Press On or looking at the importance of giving student journalists credit for their work.

Through the partnerships The Objective makes and the pieces we choose to publish, I hope it can be one of a growing number of blueprints for how to build a journalism rooted in harm reduction not just for the stories that get told, but for the journalists, present and future, who are making them.

There is no one answer or one specific strategy that will get us closer to a less harmful journalism — there is only the effort we make together.

Janelle Salanga covers Sacramento communities for CapRadio and co-founded The Objective.

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