Patrick Norén, Research Fellow at MCERC;
Solidarity is a societal phenomenon. Ergo, in order for a solidarity movement to be most effective, as many societal demographics as possible must play an equal part. Journalists, as the frequent arbiters of cross-demographic societal communication also have a vital role to play, and I would like to look at how solidarity journalism can help foster a work environment and a wider society that is more receptive to the cause of fellow journalists and journalism at large. In this piece I will offer some of my own thoughts on the case for solidarity journalism and why it is so important not only for Georgia, but for the rest of the world too. Although it may be idealistic, it is only unrealistic as far as people are unwilling to adhere to its principles.
What exactly is Solidarity Journalism?
I will not overindulge in academia for this piece. I do, however, still have to give a definition of solidarity journalism which can come from its chief advocate, Dr. Anita Varma, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin who focusses on media ethics and the role of solidarity in journalism (University of Texas, 2022). She writes:
‘Solidarity in journalism means that journalists stand for basic human dignity and against suffering, and is practiced through newsworthiness judgments, sourcing, and framing that center the lived experiences of people subjected to unjust conditions. The decision to report - or not report - on these conditions inherently leaves neutrality behind’ (Varma, 2021a).
Varma also adds elsewhere that ‘solidarity in journalism is ultimately aligned with accuracy in reporting, in contrast to “both sides-ism” or dubious invocations of neutrality in the face of human suffering’ (Varma, 2021b). Solidarity journalism, therefore, stands in opposition to neutral, “balanced” reporting, and arguably favours objectivity insofar that it does not corrupt narratives of human suffering through the invocations of those people’s opinions who have not or do not experience the aforementioned suffering. It is objective from the side of those whose voices, experiences, and suffering have been marginalised or ignored, and are, arguably, therefore, the most worth listening to.
Honesty over Objectivity
In this framework, journalists do not strive for a “both sides” objectivity which can in fact ultimately corrupt the objectivity which they are trying to attain, but use their profession and professionalism to advocate for the rights and recognition of disadvantaged minorities as an act of solidarity by representing the perspectives of people directly affected. Solidarity is, however, not a one-way street. Neither is it a two-way street. It is very much a multi-dimensional street that is most effective when all agents of solidarity work together for the benefit of each other, with solidarity journalism acting as a medium between all.
While Varma’s conception of solidarity journalism concerns itself mostly with journalist-subject solidarity - that is to say, the journalist adopts the cause of the marginalised and downtrodden in a fight for social justice - there are other ways of conceptualising what solidarity journalism actually is beyond the traditional work that a journalist would undertake. There is also journalist-journalist solidarity, and society-journalist solidarity, and all three must operate in unison in order for the whole matrix to function most effectively. I will first deal with Varma’s journalist-subject idea, before then putting together some ideas about journalist-journalist solidarity, and society-journalist solidarity.
A commitment to social justice is what underpins journalist-subject solidarity. While ordinary journalism ultimately fruitlessly strives for objectivity, solidarity reporting focusses on ‘issues that disrespect or deny communities [...] their humanity and represents the perspectives of people directly affected. It intentionally moves beyond parroting officials’ or outside experts’ claims about a marginalized community to centralize the truth of people whose knowledge is based on lived experience’ (Varma, 2021c).
Its purpose is to push journalism beyond the mass consumption of information to deliberately encourage those consumers to act on this information, often in opposition to the same state power which had historically or continues to marginalise the subject communities. Indeed, Varma notes that ‘in many countries, the origins of an independent press are rooted in viewing journalism as an act of resistance against state power that may otherwise deny that inhumane conditions endure within its domain’ (ibid.).
For example, while “objective” journalism might ask a range of experts or politicians how they would like to see homelessness being eradicated, solidarity journalism will go and ask the homeless person what their story is, and, most importantly, what they would like to see being done to help them. Thinking back to an article I recently wrote for MCERC about orthodoxy, democracy, and LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia, solidarity journalism would not ask experts, politicians, or religious leaders about LGBTQ+ rights, but actually instead engage most of all with members of that very community to better understand and represent their concerns.
And if the majority becomes the minority, and the minority becomes the majority, the same is true. If, let us say, Georgia is one day a hotbed of an autocratic, militantly atheist, nationalist LGBTQ+ ideology that denies religious people their right to practise their religion peacefully and without prejudice, then solidarity journalism would fight for the marginalised minority’s right to human dignity as the principles of democracy stipulate. As I wrote in that article:
‘Democracy is not an invitation for the majority to undermine the rights of the minority just because the majority believe they have a democratic mandate to do so. Democracy is not analogous to tyranny of the majority, but an entrustment of the protection of the rights of the minority with the majority in the expectation that should the latter demographic become the former, their rights as the new minority will also be protected by the new majority.’ (Norén, 2022).
Ultimately, therefore, journalist-subject solidarity journalism can be a vital protector, advocate, and example of a fundamental principle of democracy, that being majority rule but minority rights. Centralising the lived experiences of a marginalised minority in journalistic discourse will help refocus society’s image of itself and encourage wider society, whether journalists or otherwise, to better strive for social justice and the protection of human dignity.
Sincerely, honestly and accurately amplifying the voice of a minority such that the majority is encouraged to listen can also help reduce polarisation, combat mis- or disinformation, and tackle pre-existing prejudices that marginalised that group in the first place. Simply having a journalistic environment centred around reporting the lived experiences of those who are affected by whatever injustice begins to lay the foundations for a wider society built upon the principles of solidarity during hardship.
With solidarity as the foundational principle of a journalist’s work, this should also manifest itself in their work environment. While journalists may personally disagree on points of political contention, if or when the time comes that journalists are persecuted - as is often the case in very many countries around the world today - journalists should themselves act as agents of solidarity vis-à-vis each other. In times of crisis, when the state renders journalists a marginalised and downtrodden demographic, fellow journalists should be duty bound to adopt the cause of their colleagues.
This is, however, perhaps the most fragile and vulnerable pillar of solidarity journalism. In those same countries in which journalists are marginalised, persecuted, or even killed for their profession, it is often other “fellow” “journalists” who operate not as agents of solidarity unto society and their colleagues, but as agents of propaganda and disinformation on behalf of the state. Taking the example of Russia, the “journalists” on RIA Novosti will do nothing at all to campaign for the rights and protection of those working at TV Dozhd, BBC Russian, or Novaya Gazeta.
Instead, as conscious individuals operating as journalists in name only, they will be part of the same system that intends to destroy the very profession in which they purport to work, and are therefore complicit in that destruction. Again, it is the crushing power of authoritarian states such as Russia that strangles independent journalism, thus making solidarity journalism so difficult. I fear that Russia, even long before 24th February 2022, reached a point of no return in this regard.
Journalist-journalist solidarity is therefore the weak link in this matrix, so vitally important and yet easily corrupted by monetary corruption, violence, and intimidation etc. The way to combat this is to build those bonds of solidarity between society and journalists, the idea being that when journalists feel supported by the society for which they themselves are campaigning, journalists will feel empowered and emboldened to assist fellow journalists when they are being persecuted, or to shun those journalists who have been co-opted by the long arm of the state.
Civil society - that is to say, NGOs, universities, cultural organisations, religious groups and so on - can play a very great role in this regard, offering financial or moral support, platforms for solidarity journalism, training, workshops, networking and so on. This explains Vladimir Putin’s complete annihilation of independent civil society in Russia. A strong civil society motivated by a fight for social justice can create bonds of solidarity between majority and minority groups, thus threatening hegemonic regimes such as that in Russia. The absence of a healthy civil society wrecks any form of solidarity, depriving a nation of information, empathy, variety, cultural and intellectual stimulation, priming it for a regression that allows for a complete state co-optation of journalism. Appealing to journalists’ professional integrity and morality, and creating a society that supports them accordingly, will help journalists stand in solidarity with each other.
Refocusing journalism’s lens from impartiality to social justice for marginalised groups aims to build a societal consensus supporting journalists who, with the right skills, knowledge, support, access, and funding from civil society, can be agents of social justice across the demographic spectrum, thereby engendering a widespread society-journalist solidarity that can better hold rogue officials, politicians, or governments to account. The origins of society-journalist solidarity lie in the first part of the solidarity journalism matrix. The attention that journalists will pay to society’s most vulnerable and their focus on those people’s lived experiences will engender a wider societal awareness and support of journalists’ cause.
If such a situation arises whereby the state begins to threaten independent, solidarity journalism, then the wider population will be considerably more aware of this. They will more easily be able to conceive of a world in which the journalism which once fought for the betterment of their own families, their own friends, and their wider civil society, is no longer. Solidarity journalism stresses that “we [the journalists] are supporting you [society], so you [society] need to support us [the journalists] too”. That is not to say that journalism does not do this already - in many cases, it does. But, as mentioned, “neutral” journalism can complicate or corrupt objective, lived experiences of marginalised groups, rather robbing the story of the impact it deserves, and harming or muddying bonds of solidarity between society and journalists.
Another benefit of solidarity journalism could therefore be the creation of a more forum-based journalistic arena enabling discussion, cooperation and consultation. Instead of analysing the opinions of experts or politicians and “ordinary people” in isolation, and “leaving it up for the viewer to decide”, solidarity journalism can become a vehicle to enable these sides to have an ongoing, physical, face-to-face constructive conversation about how to best solve the latter’s problems.
It is also a question of trust. In Georgia, the green shoots of society-journalist solidarity are there and should not be ignored. In a June 2021 survey for the International Republican Institute, 58% of Georgians said they had a favourable view of Georgian media, while 37% expressed an unfavourable view (IRI, 2021). If Georgian journalists can harness the solidarity of the majority of media-supportive Georgians for good through journalist-subject solidarity journalism, then a very large chunk of the population will be more receptive than before to their work and to the value of journalists who openly, knowingly, deliberately, and visibly fight for the social justice of marginalised few.
That is not to say that Georgian media is untouchable and Georgians aren’t aware or receptive of the dangers that Georgian journalism faces. Very many are. Of the 31% that believed that Georgian mass media was not free to express certain political views, 52% believed it was because of government pressure, and 27% believed that Georgian media is corrupt (ibid.). This is if anything evidence that a not inconsiderable number of Georgians do not hold the current state of journalism in the country in a particularly high regard, a situation which can be amended by better paying attention to what their concerns are, namely governmental meddling and corruption, and refocusing their journalistic lens to tackle the problem head on.
This would build trust, respect, and solidarity from society with journalists, providing the latter with the civil society support base which would, in the event of state-led threats or intimidation, come to their defence. With the knowledge that civil society is behind them, journalists would also support fellow journalists, knowing that if one person is in danger, then the credibility of the entire profession is also at risk.
Keeping journalists, subjects, and society united
To summarise succinctly, the aim of solidarity journalism is to create a self-perpetuating feedback loop of support between journalists, subjects, and society. In those countries where journalism has not been suffocated and journalists can still operate with a modicum of independence, they must use their profession to better represent the lived experiences of ignored minorities. This will empower and embolden those minorities, combat majoritarian prejudice, fight back against mis- and disinformation, and help put society back on the path towards greater social justice. Journalist-journalist solidarity, the weakest link in the matrix, is vulnerable to state-influence, corruption, and intimidation, the short-term solution to which is to appeal to journalists’ individual integrity and morality.
Longer-term, however, journalist-journalist solidarity can be strengthened by society’s view of journalism being reprogrammed away from “professional neutrality”, to being more in tune with society’s concerns. Journalism would be local, personal, and relevant, not detached, neutral, or haughty. This would encourage the society that journalists serve to rally around them if the state seeks to dismantle the bonds of solidarity that keep journalists, subjects, and society united.
IRI (2021, June). Public Opinion Survey Residents of Georgia: June 2021. International Republican Institute: Center for Insights in Survey Research. 1-112. https://www.iri.org/wp- content/uploads/legacy/iri.org/iri_poll_presentation_georgia_june_2021_public_release.pdf.
Norén, P. (2022). Rights over Religion, or Tradition over Tolerance: Can Orthodoxy and Democracy Coexist in a “European” Georgia? Media and Communication Educational and Research Center. April 2022. COMPLETE CITATION ONCE PUBLISHED.
University of Texas (2022). Biography: Anita Varma. The University of Texas at Austin: School of Journalism and Media. https://journalism.utexas.edu/faculty/anita-varma .
Varma, A. (2021a, November 18). Solidarity Journalism. The University of Texas at Austin: Center for Media Engagement. Moody College of Communication. https://mediaengagement.org/solidarity-journalism/
Varma, A. (2021b). Solidarity Journalism. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/journalism-and-media-ethics/ resources/solidarity-journalism/.
Varma, A. (2021c, December 22). What Solidarity Journalism Reveals To Us. The Indypendent. https://indypendent.org/2021/12/what-solidarity-journalism-reveals-to-us/