How journalists can shape society through ethical storytelling

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In a time when Americans are more polarized by politics than ever, when people can access information more easily than ever, and when trust in media is at an all-time low, journalism has the power to be a healing and connecting force for our democracy.

To do this, journalists first need to be aware of the power they have as narrators of our society. From story angles to how beats are chosen, journalists shape what audiences pay attention to, Minal Bopaiah says in our recent conversation.


Bopaiah is the founder of Brevity & Wit, a consulting firm that works with media companies, and author of Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives. I am a longtime journalist and a consultant for Brevity & Wit. I have seen how the organization guides clients in creating equitable and inclusive practices that promote a healthy work culture, and how Bopaiah has a deep understanding of what inclusion and equity are about — and what they are not.

An important aspect of inclusion is doing less harm and promoting prosocial behaviors. We talk about how journalism can take that approach — starting with race and equity beats — and share some examples of inclusive actions in practice.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kathy Lu: Here is the general definition of race and culture or race and equity beats: “The race and culture team focuses on diverse and inclusive stories of communities that have been historically underrepresented in our coverage.” But in conversation with you, I’m realizing that the framing of it could be better. Please explain. 

Minal Bopaiah: The Kerner Commission [in 1968] found that the media in general had poor representation of races that were not white, particularly Black people, but other races as well. So people often, when faced with a problem, want to take the most direct tactic. So if you’re saying race is a problem, let’s cover race. That seems like a logical solution to the problem. 

However, by creating a race and culture beat, we are reinforcing an implicit bias that the white experience is mainstream and the experiences of people of color are “special” or outliers, requiring separate coverage. We fail to convey the fact that news about people of color should be part of mainstream conversation.

Furthermore, what we didn’t know then that we now know, because of behavioral science like psychology and sociology, is how the media influences how we think about problems.

What the research has shown is that if you start a conversation by talking about racial disparities, it actually leads to blaming people for societal problems. This is because our human brains — particularly in the United States — have been so conditioned to believe in rugged individualism and that everybody is the master of their own fate. We ignore interdependence or explanations that might be based on the environment or systems. 

So, if you report that Black men are X times more likely to be in prison than white men, most readers attribute that disparity to individual effort. They will conclude that Black men must be imprisoned more because they commit more crimes, which is actually not the case at all. Research has shown that white people are just as likely, if not more likely, to commit crimes. (A 2020 Penn State survey showed a disparity between public perception and reality regarding race and criminality.)

So how do we correct for this misconception? Communications research has shown that what is effective in helping people understand the truth about the social problem is to start by covering and talking about the system. A journalist should start with showing audiences our criminal justice system, our incarceration system and how they operate. And then you should cover the people who are most impacted by the system not working. You show the school-to-prison pipeline. And then you show how Black people are interacting with a system that has been designed against them. (A 2007 American Sociological Association study, for example, examined the damaging impact of discrimination, policing policies and socioeconomics on Black people, especially young Black men.)  

But that requires knowing the system really well. And it is fundamentally impossible for every human being to understand every system. This is why race and culture beats fall flat — you end up reporting on an identity but not the various systems that affect that identity. 

It would be much wiser for beats to be determined by the system they intersect with. So if you’re a reporter covering the pandemic, you should be able to talk about our health system and then talk about how it’s breaking down and who are the people affected by that. And that’s how you cover race in the pandemic, because the system affects everybody, but it doesn’t affect everybody equally. 

The purpose of journalism should be to uncover the system, to show how it’s working, and to show how it affects certain people disproportionately. 

Sometimes that’s around race when it comes to health outcomes. Sometimes that’s around gender identity and sexuality when it comes to reproductive health. Sometimes that’s around mental health when it comes to kids in schools, like for LGBT youth. 

Journalism would be more effective in terms of helping the population understand societal problems if newsrooms had people covering systems, and trained journalists to have an intersectional lens on how their “system beat” affects people of different identities. 

Lu: So if you could design the beat, what would you call it? 

Bopaiah: The system should be the beat. That means that journalists need to figure out early which systems they want to study and understand deeply during the course of their careers. If you want to be a political reporter, you need to understand the system of politics and government. If you want to be a sports reporter, you need to understand the system of sports. 

Journalists also have to ask themselves three questions. 

One: How can I use my power responsibly? Narrative storytelling may get a lot of clicks, and you can tug on heartstrings. You can even win awards for it. It’s very powerful, but that power has been used in both ethical and unethical ways. Dictators from Hitler to Stalin were great storytellers, and when the press repeated their propaganda, they were unethically magnifying abusive narratives. 

Journalists need to ask if a narrative story is exploiting people’s tragedy or publicly shaming people to make a point. In short, how are you using your power?

If you decide you don’t want to exploit people’s stories or experiences, but you still want to cover the system to hold people and institutions with power accountable, then you need to ask yourself the next question: How can I translate this complexity into something people can wrap their heads around without reducing it to one person’s story? 

You can still use narrative storytelling, but it often starts with stories of people who are centered by the system (some may say privileged, but I sometimes feel this is a poor word choice for explaining what’s happening). For example, if you wanted to cover maternal mortality with a systems lens, you might start with a story of a white, cisgender woman’s visit to a maternal health clinic: Here’s how she found a doctor, here’s how she was treated, here’s how she got the right nutrition before, during and after birth. Explain to readers how the system has been set up to serve her. Then show how people in another ZIP code have to travel farther to get to a clinic, or how they don’t have access to that many fresh fruits or vegetables in their local grocery store because of food deserts. And then explain how the history of redlining means that, naturally, there are more Black people living in these ZIP codes, and therefore, there are more Black mothers with higher maternal mortality rates. 

Now the third question a journalist may want to ask themselves — and the answer may be beyond their scope of influence — is: What is the impact of this story on readers’ behaviors or mindsets? It’s not enough to say that you should measure how many clicks we got on the story, how many eyes, or how many ears. You should be able to measure if audiences are more informed about their community. After reading a story on maternal mortality, are audiences more informed about how the health system works in their ZIP code?

This suggestion is sometimes met with disbelief, but marketing professionals can tell you a lot about audience psychographics — I worked with a media company where they knew their audience valued creativity and nature. Measuring the impact of media on mindsets will take ingenuity, but it’s not impossible. 

It also has to be incentivized — marketers want to know audience psychographics to sell ad space. Journalists and journalism institutions could begin to recognize coverage that actually informed the public effectively and led to prosocial mindsets. You should be able to survey your audience and know whether they were able to understand the issue better because of how you covered it.

Lu: Your mention of narrative storytelling made me think of a story I worked on in Virginia. We profiled a single dad who didn’t have a car. When he and his son lived in a more rural area, he spent two to three hours of his day just walking to and from work because of the lack of transportation. After the story was published, readers wanted to donate money, and somebody even donated a car. So it was great for this person in the story. 

When you talk about behavioral impact, though, what you’re really asking is, did the coverage change the behaviors or make somebody act? 

I never followed up with the single dad to see if that region’s public transportation system changed.

Bopaiah: So there’s a very famous and somewhat dark public health analogy of standing by a river, and you see all these babies who are in the river, and you’re trying to catch them and fish them out. That’s what doctors and nurses do all day long. The public health official is the person who wants to walk upstream and asks, “Who the f— is throwing babies in the river? Let’s stop them.”

I often joke with my husband, who’s a firefighter and paramedic in a highly diverse area, that his job was like catching babies in the river, and mine was trying to stop the person throwing the babies in the river. And to be fair, you probably need both. 

There is a time and a place for a narrative device that’s one person’s story, and everybody will feel good that they help one person. It’s okay to hook into our empathetic connection with our neighbors and community. It’s also easier to connect with one person than with, like, a million. Our brains are not wired to take in a problem that big.

But journalists have to be honest about when they’re going for an emotional response and when they’re trying to hold power accountable. When you try to hold a system accountable for its injustices with a narrative device, either that emotion is boiled down to caring for one person or it’s magnified into outrage, which can lead to public shaming and blaming. Shame and blame are never good tactics for societal change.

Sometimes, journalists covering a system claim they are just going to share objective facts and information. But that’s disingenuous because the media always shapes what we think about. And journalists have to own the power they have to shape public debate. It’s not advocacy; it’s responsible reporting.

Lu: Let’s talk about that. In newsrooms, people react to advocacy with disdain. We don’t want it to look like we’re advocating for anything. And as I think about it, I realize that our story choices and what we choose to cover involve a level of advocacy. Is there another way to look at advocacy? 

Bopaiah: Well, one, I mean, journalists advocate for a free press.

Lu: Yeah, 100%.

Bopaiah: So you do advocate for things that are important to you.

Like I said, journalists have to be willing to be honest about the amount of power that they have.

There’s a wonderful talk by Christopher Bell called “Bring on the Female Superheroes.” He talks about media pedagogy and how the media doesn’t actually tell you what to think. It tells you what to think about. 

So if you’re thinking about Gaza, you’re not thinking about Sudan. If you’re thinking about Sudan, you’re not thinking about the Rohingya in Myanmar. If you’re thinking about the Rohingya in Myanmar, you’re not thinking about the Muslims in India. So just by where you put the spotlight, you are telling people what to think about, even if you’re not telling them what to think.

The question a journalist must ask themselves is: How am I going to use this power? And how have I used that power inappropriately in the past? Have I only turned the spotlight on Black people when something’s gone wrong? Do I ever cover how systems center white people? Or men? Or non-disabled people? 

By all means, don’t advocate for one group. Cover the system and show how it affects people of different identities differently. As someone with outsized power, journalists have to understand the impact of where they shine the spotlight and the angle they put on a story. 

I often give talks about power, and there are two ways to use your power. There’s the unethical way, which is about dividing, conquering, oppressing, excluding and extracting things from people. And then there’s the ethical way, which is using power to connect and heal and repair our society and our communities. 

So journalists have to ask themselves if they want to be ethical with their use of power. Ask yourself, how am I going to use my power to connect, heal and repair our society? 

Which is not about being Pollyanna or publishing only feel-good stories. It’s about reporting on what’s wrong, but in a way that doesn’t take away anybody’s dignity and eventually leads to accountability, not public shaming. That type of journalism would fulfill its mission of contributing to a healthier society.

If there’s anything that you’re advocating for, it’s a healthier society, with informed citizens who exhibit prosocial behaviors. You’re not advocating for a particular group. But we have to acknowledge that, right now, large swaths of our society have antisocial mindsets and behaviors that target certain identities and groups of people. Journalism has the power to reduce antisocial behavior and nurture prosocial behavior and civic engagement if it chooses to.

Lu: I want you to talk about power more because I think there’s work to be done on learning about the powers that journalists have and destigmatizing the idea of having power. 

Bopaiah: So, there are different types of power. There’s your personal power. There’s political power. There’s positional power: the editor versus a reporter versus a photographer. There’s informal power, like how charming you are. There’s historical social power, like whether you’re a white guy in the newsroom or a trans person of color. 

But whatever type of power you have, you can use it in one of two ways: in an ethical way or an unethical way.

Now, the problem with power is because it’s gotten such a bad rap, people think that they are more ethical and virtuous if they pretend they don’t have power. But they are gaslighting themselves and others when they pretend they don’t have power. We all have certain types of power, but, in a group setting, we often don’t have equal power. 

For example, you, Kathy, are part of the Brevity & Wit community. My power as founder is greater than your power as a consultant. Fundamentally, it’s also different, because you can actually do certain things that I can’t do, and I can do things that you can’t do. We can strategically move something forward when we can own up to what power we have and what power we don’t have. 

But if I were to pretend that I don’t have any power, or if I were to say we all have equal power, it’s so disingenuous that it would lead to either nothing getting done or everybody pretending that’s true, and then going through back channels to get things done. And it is not virtuous or good of me for me to pretend that I don’t have power. It’s actually highly irresponsible and an abdication of my responsibility as a leader. 

Journalists, starting from the very top with editors-in-chief and working their way down — if you have a mic or camera or access to get something printed in a paper — you have more power than the average citizen in your community. You have to own that, and you have to question how you’re going to use it responsibly.

I recently posted on LinkedIn about South Carolina coach Dawn Staley being asked by a reporter whether trans women should get to play in college sports. She responded affirmatively, but toward the end of her comments, she said something very insightful. She mentioned how her timelines are going to be flooded now and it’s a distraction from the championship game. In my post, I mentioned that this is a good lesson for today’s journalists. 

Today, when you ask someone a provocative question about a social issue — someone who was not engaging in activism that day but just trying to do their job at a press conference — you create a reality where they will be targeted and possibly stalked by opponents to the social issue. 

So you need to ask yourself — is this using the power of the mic to heal our societal divides or to further them? And is it right for me to allow this one person to be the target of trans hatred on their social media accounts? Should they be the sacrificial lamb for a larger discussion when they never volunteered to be?

Lu: Knowing how hard things are to change, is there something that you think newsrooms can do right now to make this shift toward more ethical coverage? 

Bopaiah: It really gets down to journalists asking themselves with every story: Is this story connecting, healing and repairing our community, or is it dividing, distracting and exploiting our community? 

If they just ask themselves that before they file the story, they will start to use the power of journalism more responsibly and ethically. Are you doing things that make journalism a healthy benefit to society or not? 

Notice that doesn’t mean avoiding the truth. But there are ways of telling the truth that lead to repair and healing, and there are ways of telling the truth that lead to more harm. And we have to be adult enough to say that and own that. 

There are also practical skills they can learn, like how to select inclusive images or create accessible content. Choose one skill to build. Don’t try to eat the elephant. Which one you choose will differ based on your beat, based on your news outlets’ resources to support you, based on your own strengths and weaknesses. And that’s okay.

The bigger question to solve is, how do we incentivize the power of journalism to connect, repair and heal our society? Because the reason why extraction and exploitation and division works is because we figured out how to monetize that, right? 

Like I said, tying the big prizes in journalism to impact could work. We also need to explore different models for monetizing community connection. This is not a deadline-driven problem to solve. Allow this to be the question that sits on the back burner while you’re going through those other things, but keep coming back to it. 

Lu: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you wanted to add? 

Bopaiah: I guess I’ll just say, because tone is lost in written form sometimes — I love journalists. I love working with them. I respect the field of journalism. I think journalism is as needed as diversity, equity and inclusion. And that is probably why I am the most critical of both professions. So if I come off as criticizing journalism, it is with the intent of interrogating the field so that we can live up to the promise, just as I would do with DEI. 

And so I hope everything I’ve said is taken in that spirit and not in any way as anti-journalism or anti–free press, because I don’t think we can have democracy without a free press. Journalists are the real superheroes for democracy, and it’s my extreme privilege to work with them.

Examples of media outlets using their power to cover or change systems


Kathy Lu has more than two decades of experience in journalism, including daily newspapers and public media. She founded her consulting business Audiencibility to continue pursuing her passion for creating more inclusive work cultures. Through her work with Poynter Institute and Brevity & Wit, Lu has delivered leadership and DEI training to hundreds of journalists.

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