Why We Need 'Movement Journalism' More Than Ever
What a year-long community engagement project in Texas can tell us about how the media needs to change.
I’m excited to share with you my conversation with DaLyah Jones, a freelance journalist and community engagement consultant, and Zacharia Washington, a grad student at The University of Texas at Austin. They spoke with me about their year-long community engagement project in rural East and South Texas that resulted in a 48-page report titled “COLLAB: Reparative Journalism, Y’all” that they published last month for the progressive magazine Texas Observer.
With a goal of repairing Texas journalism’s legacy of underreporting on marginalized Black and brown communities, and empowering these communities to tell their own stories, Jones and Washington spent the year earning the trust of grassroots leaders in Nacogdoches, Bastrop, Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley, and in Texas’ Native American communities.
The resulting COLLAB report is full of insight as to how rural Black and brown Texans feel about the coverage they get from the media. I highly encourage anyone looking to grow as a journalist to read this report, even (especially) if you’re not from Texas.
The report is also transparent about its shortcomings, and the barriers that prevented it from being the two-year community engagement project that Washington and Jones originally envisioned. The project was also carried out amid a months-long string of editorial departures (and firings) at Texas Observer that have called into question the magazine’s objectives and so-called progressive morals.
Earlier this month, a few writers previously employed by the magazine shared their experiences on Twitter about being marginalized and pushed out by its editorial board. After publishing their report, Jones and Washington ended their time at the magazine, too. In this interview, they talk about some of what they experienced while trying to accomplish this project. They also talk about the future of COLLAB, and its application beyond the newsroom they originally completed the project for.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
What is movement journalism, and how is it different from the mainstream media’s practices of “neutrality” and “objectivity”?
Jones: Movement journalism was a concept that came out of a report by Anna Simonton and Project South. It’s a type of journalism that’s in service of liberation. So when we think about liberation tactics used in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, when we think about collectivism, these are things that go into movement journalism.
In movement journalism, we understand that objectivity is a myth. To think that you are unaffected or that you can remove yourself from a particular type of issue or oppression is a place of privilege, for one, but the reality is, it’s impossible. Unbiasedness, that’s a lie in itself.
So movement journalism is a lot about giving the tools of journalism to people who are disempowered to empower them, and then how can they leverage that as a community.
What inspired both of you to either pitch or be a part of this engagement project?
Jones: I started doing journalism in college, and so I had already started to pick up on a lot of issues that were happening internally in newsrooms. I was like, it has to be better in another place. Before I even graduated, I started working at Austin’s NPR station. What I realized is, oh no, it’s like this everywhere. You’re going to experience microaggressions, you’re going to experience demeaning language, you’re going to experience a back and forth with your editor who isn’t representative of the stories that you’re trying to tell.
I had a horrible experience at NPR in Austin. Stayed there for about three years, pivoted over to the Texas Observer, where I was hired on as an environmental investigative reporter. Before I quit NPR, though, I was about to quit journalism. I happened to come across the Press On Freedomways fellowship and got introduced to folks who were in movement-building, and then in journalism.
I didn’t realize that those things could intersect. As somebody who had covered movements within college, I had been told by editors, “You’re not supposed to do this.” And so to find an equilibrium at a time where I was really doubting if journalism was even for me was just beautiful.
Coming off of that knowledge, and then coming into Texas Observer, which was supposed to be a progressive institution, I was really upset at journalism. I ended up writing this 30-page manifesto, essentially thinking of ways that we can systemically and structurally change journalism. If we’re talking about reframing stories, if we’re talking about marginalized communities, that has to start from inside and then move outward. I was like, they’re talking about rebranding themselves, maybe this will be helpful to them.
As a staff writer at Texas Observer, I was experiencing a lot of mental health issues, especially trying to combat what was happening during this crisis upon a crisis [in 2020], while also simultaneously trying to write and advocate for myself inside of a newsroom where I was the first Black staff writer that they have ever had, and probably the first Black employee in the organization’s history.
And so I pivoted over to the business side after securing a grant from the Google News Initiative that funded maybe a quarter of the manifesto I wrote, thinking that maybe we'll work cohesively with editorial now to kind of talk about the issues that I experienced while I was under them.
Washington: I met DaLyah a couple of years back and I really looked up to her. The job I had immediately before my fellowship at the Observer, I experienced a lot of the same things DaLyah experienced, and I just felt like, I don’t know if I’m even going to make it in this industry. I always thought I had to act a certain way and just keep everything in, and not really show where I’m from, or who I genuinely am. And so just meeting DaLyah opened my eyes to a whole new realm of journalism.
My fellowship was at the end, and DaLyah wanted to bring me on. It sounded monumental at the time. It’s new, it’s fresh, and it’s really something that the newsroom needs right now and for years and years to come, so that journalists after us don’t have to experience this type of hurt and pain from their peers, and from the people around them that don’t share the same background as them.
What were some of the most interesting findings that you had from both the survey results, and from your community meetings?
Jones: I think that the survey results weren’t surprising. They aligned with what we had already been saying, but I feel like especially investigative journalism, and in accountability journalism, numbers talk.
I think one takeaway is how people were ready for us to be in their communities – even though we had to chase down some people, don’t get me wrong, because you got to do the groundwork. People were ready. They were open to hearing that we were doing a different type of journalism, especially because we were people who look like them or look similar to them or looked similar to the communities that they came from.
The need for this project was far beyond the capacity that we had. We had people reaching out to us from Huntsville, Houston, talking about redlining happening through Chinatown, people talking coming to us from like freedmen colonies saying folks are trying to take our mineral rights. You even have people from Carthage in East Texas being like, we’re not a part of this project but can you come and do our media trainings, because we really need to teach people.
That was the most surprising part and one of the reasons why me and Zacharia kept doing the project, because beyond what’s happening here internally, we realized that this work is needed, people are looking for community, they’re looking to network, they’re looking to learn. And then also me and Zacharia have been prayed over. To have a Black woman from one of the oldest towns in Texas pray over you and start to speak tongues over you, these are things that you’re not seeing while reporting.
Washington: I’m so glad DaLyah brought that up because that is one of my favorite moments within this whole entire project, was that moment. I know God ordained that because I got on that call. 15 minutes went by, DaLyah got on the call, I haven’t asked not one question, but me and Mrs. Aloma had already started talking about her new business she’s starting, and it was faith-based. We literally spent that whole call talking about religion and God.
That’s when Mrs. Aloma started praying over us. And I was so touched, I was happy that day. I felt so good. I felt like God was watching us, and I am very religious. Like that was something that I would never, ever, ever ever forget. She was one of the hardest people to get on board. I’m so thankful that she did that, because it just makes me feel like she does trust us.
Jones: Just like the community is looking for something like this, journalists of color in Texas, Black journalists, Indigenous journalists, they’re looking for a space to help out with this. Them actually wanting to do this type of work, because they feel like they’ve been so limited and boxed in with traditional journalism, I think that that was beautiful.
If there are a few through lines that I could have drawn in the report, one of them was the hurdles and pushback you got from Texas Observer itself. What was it like to be working on the project while experiencing this friction?
Jones: The year of the report was probably the most challenging year I’ve ever had in journalism. On several occasions, I literally was about to walk away. Two of the only reasons I did not. Because I brought Zacharia onto this project, and I was trying to prove a bigger point to her as a journalist. But also our commitment to the communities that we said that we were going to help. We were exhausted mentally, we were exhausted physically, emotionally.
Being a Black woman in journalism, we know for a fact that we’re going to work 10 times harder than anybody in the room and also have the imagination and the perspective that people don’t have. What irritated me about Texas Observer is that it was in this pivotal time of transformation, but from the very beginning, I could already see the issues and I could feel those things directly, even if I couldn’t articulate them in the moment.
People say that they are ready for equity, people say that they are ready for changes within journalism. But people don’t realize that they have to do the internal work in order to prepare for that change. People were so caught up in their own bubble, especially in this pandemic, that they weren’t ready to actually interrogate themselves around that. All while, you have two Black women within your newsroom who are feeling the brunt of everything that is happening.
What we ended up experiencing was, this is the first time this organization has ever had Black women, Black people, within the organization say “Hmm, no, no, no.” And then you have the leaders who have never been challenged in a way before — especially by people who ain’t been there before — be very defensive, push back, try to delegitimize our work because they don’t understand it.
I still feel so bad that Zacharia had to go through this experience as her first full time job. And I’m still processing a lot of the trauma of doing this project. And not to say that it was not rewarding. But when we were actually writing this report, we were writing this from a place of passion and a place of expertise. We’re not writing this just to showcase, “Ah, diversity in community engagement!” No, we’re writing this because we understand that people’s lives are on the line, whether that be in the newsroom, or whether that be folks on the ground.
Washington: I think that if DaLyah wasn’t at the Observer with me at the time, a lot of things would have happened to me that I didn’t know was bad. I think that she’s far beyond her years, because there are still journalists at her age that are still experiencing this type of mistreatment from their newsrooms that don’t know how to push back.
I know that I’m really thankful to have DaLyah in my corner, because if not, I don’t know if I would have been okay, period. Probably would have left journalism, probably would have went into marketing. What’s crazy is I’m not quiet, I don’t hold my tongue, either. But when it comes to stuff like that, I do. I don’t want to say nothing. I’ll be scared. I’ll be like, what if I say the wrong thing.
Jones: Honestly, Zacharia is literally an amazing journalist and human being. Like, whenever I would come into meetings, I would be irritated because of something else, Zacharia’s like, “Hey!” And I’m like, you remind me of hope (laughing). I’m like, I’m callous. I’m cynical. I’m sarcastic. And I’m mean. Because this industry has just like, crippled me. But then Zacharia’s there and I’m like (deep breath) okay, actually, okay, we’re cool.
Washington: At one point I was like, oh my gosh, why do we have to say this again? There’s no way we’re still sitting here discussing this. Like why are we still having the same problems when people like Ida B. Wells literally paved the way. I’m somebody that I feel like if we all just love one another, we’ll be fine. But it’s hard to — people are just really for themselves, especially people that are not typically mistreated. You know the people I’m talking about. They don’t really understand that it’s much deeper than just this. We were talking so much about how we’re overworked, overworked, overworked, and underpaid.
How have you been able to use this report, or how have you been able to help other people with this report, to expand the practice of movement journalism?
Jones: There are critiques even in the report, we say that this is not perfect work. We still have things that we have to unlearn. But I think that it has shown newsrooms in Texas that there needs to be a different type of approach to journalism. Even when we think about our politics, even when we think about healthcare, anytime you think about Texas, you have to think that there has to be a systemic change. And so why are we not applying that to journalism as well? When we are holding the powerful to account, why are we not doing that in journalism as well?
With COLLAB, I’m trying to get an LLC for it. But I’m also consulting, so I’m actually in the talks right now with other organizations on applying this on a more micro level and certain areas of Texas. Which was the point of it, because we wanted this to be a replicable model. I feel like sometimes when newsrooms do projects like this, they want to hoard this knowledge. When you think about collectivism, you think about liberation, it is actually sharing knowledge. It’s not our job to gate keep this type of work when it’s very important.
Is there anything else that you haven’t talked about yet that you wanted to share?
Washington: This work really helps your reporting moving forward. I think that it definitely makes you a more sensitive journalist, and I think it’s really hard for any editorial team to tell you “no” when you have a community engagement background. Especially if you call yourself a progressive paper, you will want something like this in your newsroom. I think every reporter should have this type of background, especially investigative reporters and people that do more personable work in journalism.
Jones: I think that what I’ve learned is that revolutionary work isn’t is not accepted on your timeline. Regardless of how progressive the institution is, or says that they’re ready to change, they have to be ready for revolutionary work, and it has to be led by young, Black, queer, brown, indigenous – it has to be be led by not them.
Also, not to let this job kill you. And that it is very hard to make your vision come alive. But when it does, you see why you were doing it in the first place. I think this proved, from the very beginning when I first started this and was like “I got this crazy idea” to now, that I’m leaning on generational ancestral knowledge, and that we need to be using that, and that we need to put people like us in those spaces, so that we can use that to better help our communities. This project proved exactly what I knew all along.