John Lewis had a familiar directive when it came to standing up against racial injustice – get yourself into some “good trouble” while doing it.
As tributes to the civil rights icon and congressman pour in following his death on July 17 at age 80, journalists need to remember those words apply to them, too.
“You must not give up,” Lewis said in 2016 to a crowd gathered to honor the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes, one of the top awards in journalism. “You must hold on. Tell the truth. Report the truth. Disturb the order of things. Find a way to get in the way and make a little noise with your pens, your pencils, your cameras.
“I come here tonight to thank members of this great institution for finding a way to get in the way,” he said. “Finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble…
“We need the press to be a headlight and not a taillight.”
Unfortunately, the noisiness of journalists’ pens and cameras has been muffled in recent years as financial challenges have left local newsrooms with a fraction of the reporters they once had.
For the public, that means news media can’t keep close watch on people in power, which opens the door to corruption and “the order of things” continuing unchallenged and unquestioned.
And in many cases, when the status quo goes unchecked, underrepresented populations with different perspectives get left behind.
So, what can you do to help?
First, as always, support your local news outlet. Buy a subscription. Tell your friends to buy one, too. Patronize their advertisers. Share their good work on your social media.
Next, help your local journalists identify the status quo aspects of your community so they can take a closer look at whether doing things the way they’ve always been done is still the best way for everyone in your city.
We’re talking about what parts of your town get new development and infrastructure updates, who gets hired for important positions in your community, which elected officials keep getting voted in without any opposition and many other decisions that could use a critical look.
When journalists shine a light on these issues, communities become more informed, more equal and more democratic – precisely what Lewis dedicated his life to for so many years.
Jason Piscia is director of the UIS Public Affairs Reporting program, which trains journalists to intelligently report on government and politics.
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