Journalists are fighting for trust. Here’s how we win in New Jersey
Editor’s note: Jelani’s essay is the first in a series of 10 that the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University is publishing in 2022, in celebration of its 10th anniversary. The Center approached 10 New Jersey journalists and asked them to talk about what they want to see happen in our news ecosystem here in the next decade.
Do you have any questions for me?
Out of all of the questions that I’ve asked as a journalist, this one usually catches people off guard the most.
It’s a habit that I took with me from my public relations days in the military. Most reporters do their time in journalism before going into PR, but I did the opposite.
Whether it was in the countryside of Texas, college campuses where I’ve taught, or even as a gun violence reporter in Kansas City, it’s a habit that I’ve kept and one that has served me well.
The reason why that particular question catches people off guard, however, can be disturbing.
People just aren’t used to journalists being the ones who take questions.
As we sit upon our self-relegated holy grails of J-schools and AP Style books, we’re used to asking the questions but very few in the public actually know how we do our jobs, what the ethics are that underpin our jobs or why we decide to do the things we do.
So, let’s stop the inside baseball and get outside the stadium.
When I’ve asked whether people have any questions for me, sometimes their questions are simple, and other times they are extremely complicated and tap into how historically marginalized populations have not been covered.
Why is the media so liberal? Why do you guys only focus on the bad stuff? How do you know that? Why are you doing this? How was it being in the military? Is it a good workplace for veterans? Do they treat minorities well there? How about conservatives? Why don’t you ever do stories on …. (Infinite amount of things.)
Do we receive idiotic questions sometimes that we shouldn’t respond to? Sure. But a lot of the questions we receive really are couched in people’s curiosity about our culture. Let’s bring them out from the cold.
I remember sitting in a college police chief’s office, and upon taking me up on my offer, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair before working up the courage to ask me about the Black Lives Matter movement.
The police chief said he was trying his best to understand it as a white person, but also admitted he just didn’t get it.
It required a certain amount of trust to admit that.
When I was covering gun violence in Kansas City, I was one of the few reporters from a mainstream media outlet that was habitually invited to internal meetings for activist groups, provided that I agreed not to record anything that was said.
It would even get to the point where during my reporting on the police union, some of my sources offered to put me up in a safehouse during the final weeks before publication. One even went as far as trying to find a grant.
A Black sheriff, who had gone on the record for my story, also offered protection.
I may have questioned them for an hour, and spent another 2 hours answering their questions. Investigative reporters tend to have more time, but even for people running on deadline you get my drift. Leave a small amount of time to make yourself available.
In a recent story I did on the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission not handing over racial data, one of my sources texted me that I had done a good job but also let me know that they thought I had failed to put quotation marks in something they thought they should have been quoted on.
I texted back that it was a summary, also known as a transition and that if they looked closely, many journalism articles followed a basic skeletal outline of transitions mixed in with quotes. I then told the source that a transition could be a summary, a fact, a statistic or an observation.
“Gotchu I understand now,” they replied back.
And just like that, another potential trust disaster averted.
They didn’t need to go to a fancy seminar or pay thousands of dollars. They just needed a simple explanation on why I did what I did.
Now, as a cannabis reporter for NJ.com, I have the latitude to attend many events and represent my organization in a public capacity.
Community events, state bar associations, CPAs, business associations, etc., all have me on as a journalist either for my expertise or just to ask me basic questions about how the job works and why we do what we do.
Being given the space to have frank conversations with the public about the challenges of being a reporter of color and speaking that truth without fear of retaliation is a latitude I have been given now that I report to an editor of color.
This latitude, these authentic forms of communication, must start to exist on a wholesale level and not just under the purview of a chosen few reporters with fancy sounding titles (for example I’m a content lead and assistant editor, but I just say reporter) or editors of color who get it.
All reporters, whether they like it or not, are also public figures and newsrooms should responsibly and accessibly lean into that instead of running away.
New Jersey is soon to be a majority minority state, and news outlets finding more liberal white suburban audiences isn’t going to cut it.
Sooner or later we’re going to have to pull up in South Jersey and the inner city and make that very simple statement available: Do you have any questions for me?
Jelani Gibson is the Content Lead for NJ Cannabis Insider at NJ Advance Media. Follow him on Twitter @JelaniGibson1.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.