Humanist EDge: A Call to Social Justice Journalism

The Humanist EDge is a new column written by graduates of The Humanist Institute’s educational leadership program.

My need to contribute to the cause of social justice made me a humanist and a journalist. As a journalist, I am able to cover activists who work on racial, reproductive, environmental, economic, LGBTQ, labor and many other issues, giving exposure to causes and ideas that are too often covered poorly, if at all, by traditional media.

Everything I write is informed by my humanist values, which I sharpened and honed during my time in Class 18 of the Humanist Institute. My instructors and classmates have left an indelible impression on me (and I miss my time with Ann, Beth, Chris, Han, James, Jim, John, Paul, and Vanessa).

I am extremely fortunate to write for the Rhode Island-based political blog RI Future. Its editor, Bob Plain, was the one who helped me find my journalistic voice without insisting that I maintain a strict, if ultimately impossible, neutrality. In the short bio that accompanies each of my posts are two quotes that sum up my thoughts on journalistic neutrality:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –Elie Wiesel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” –Desmond Tutu

I follow in the tradition of Ida B. Wells, and I believe there is no neutral journalism. Fox News called itself “fair and balanced” until long after the irony faded away. Most journalists are too embedded in the culture to realize that they do little more than champion the status quo. They can’t see the forest of systemic racism and sexism for the trees. Journalists who report on the economy are often more worried about the status of their stock investments than the catastrophe of rising economic inequality. One in five children in Rhode Island live in poverty.

There is systemic injustice in journalism. The poor and the disenfranchised can’t hold a press conference in the middle of the day or issue properly formatted press releases when they have grievances. In a myriad of ways economic inequality translates into a lack of media access and the suppression of speech.

I feel it’s my job as a journalist to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Politicians and powerful interests are routinely covered by the media: they don’t need my help. But the homeless, the working poor, the Spanish-speaking hotel workers struggling to unionize, the victims of a racist criminal justice system—they don’t always have the access to the media that they need. Their stories are not being told.

Here’s an example: last year there was an effort in Rhode Island to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Under Rhode Island state law the minimum wage is currently $9.60 an hour, but if you work as a server in a restaurant your hourly wage could be as low as $3.39 an hour.

There are two ways to tell this story. The first and easiest is to frame the battle as labor versus management. But I see the framing differently. The real story here is that there are underpaid workers, mostly women, struggling in poverty and fighting for a living wage against powerful business interests who want to maintain their profit margins.

Is the way I tell the story “neutral”? No. But covering the two sides of this debate as if it were a battle of moral, political, and economic equals is not neutrality. It’s a lie—a lie modern journalists tell so easily they don’t even realize they have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Another example: last year a group of Providence-based inner city environmental activists went to a public forum held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) to speak out against the planned expansion of a fracked gas storage unit in one of the poorest sections of the city. Asthma rates in this area are among the highest in the country. The activists, from the Environmental Justice League of RI, are mostly youth of color.

The media that covered the event explained the gas company’s need for the expansion of the facility and the fact that activists spoke out against it. My coverage was different.

I told the story of the activists’ immediate profiling by the Providence Police Department and the fact that police officers in motorcycle helmets filled the room while the youth of color spoke out for their right to breathe clean air and live in a healthy environment.

The people on the two sides of this issue are not equal players in some kind of negotiation. One side is National Grid, a multibillion dollar multinational corporation that has the power to call on the local police and the federal government to satisfy their interests. The other side is a group of young, inner city activists of color who have to run a gamut of helmeted and potentially hostile police to make their opinions known.

At that meeting, not one person spoke out in favor of expanding the fracked gas facility, yet as of this writing FERC is still in the process of approving it.

In the first half of February, I’ve written about end-of-life legislation for terminally ill patients, the expansion of fracked gas in Rhode Island, a student-of-color occupation of the Providence College president’s office, the arrival of the first Syrian refugees to the state, legislation to tax and regulate recreational marijuana, the dire effects that a proposed tax on medical marijuana will have on patients, a local anti-gentrification group’s efforts to promote affordable housing in Providence, state level progressive taxation, open and accountable government, reproductive rights, fair scheduling for low wage workers, and the dangerous precedent of the first RI House of Representatives’ Prayer Breakfast.

This year I will write or contribute to over 300 articles for RI Future, in addition to whatever other writing I do on the side. I will create hundreds of videos and take thousands of pictures for the site. I will do this as a journalist, a humanist, an open atheist, and a democratic socialist.

I do this work because people matter, and because people are suffering. I will not stop until we have a society that actively promotes justice, equality, and human rights for all people, not just the chosen few.

This is the way I fight for social justice.