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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

“Suffering is Not a Natural Destiny”: Why Solidarity Reporting on Public Safety

Anita Varma, PhD

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP

Anita Varma, PhD (@anitawrites) is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Social Sector Ethics. She leads the Solidarity Journalism Initiative. Views are her own.

Try to list all of the examples of communities subjected to violence in the United States in the past decade. You’ll likely find that your list is incomplete. Here’s one example of an inexhaustive list:

The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. The Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas. Police killing Black people including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Wallace Jr., Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many more. Parkland. Sandy Hook. Las Vegas. Chicago. Gilroy. Boulder. Atlanta.

The painful wisdom of “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night” is demonstrated over and over again. Endangerment of marginalized communities in this country is not isolated to one region or group, and certainly is not isolated to a set of individual “bad actors” who simply need to be removed from the system to restore justice. Yet instead of representing this lived and historically undeniable reality, we instead witness the continued gaslighting of communities living in terror through media narratives that seem determined to convince us it is not happening at all.

“Oppression Olympics” is where too many news outlets’ coverage begins and ends. This set of people is under attack this week, so they’re the lead story. Next week, another group will take their place, and maybe a follow-up story will appear about last week’s deaths. A piecemeal and incremental logic offers nothing by way of a true account of the breadth of what is happening, why it is happening, and how it can stop.

Drama, violence, individualism, and elites weighing in make marginalized communities newsworthy, according to traditional news values. These news values lead directly to distortions, minimization, and the proliferation of misinformation by dominant, white-led news organizations.

Solidarity news values, on the other hand, regard communities as newsworthy, and lead journalists in the direction of representing community cohesion and long-term significance instead of flashes of bloodshed, shock, and dismay. Most importantly, solidarity reporting means starting with and centering the perspectives of communities subjected to conditions not of their own making, rather than the stories of perpetrators and protectors of a severely unjust status quo.

Marginalized communities have already developed coalitional visions for a better future – which dominant news outlets are often slow to notice and even slower to amplify, if at all. Journalists of color are, in many cases, already doing the hard work of convincing their editors to allow them to report and publish stories aligned with solidarity against social injustice. They cannot and should not have to do it alone.

As Scalawag’s Executive Director-Publisher Cierra Hinton wrote last week, “The marginalization of ‘ethnic’ media means that we don't get to decide which stories become news outside of our communities. But our communities depend on mainstream media to care—because if they care, the majority cares, and because of how power exists and persists in this system, the majority has to care in order for us to have any true hope for accountability.”

When covering issues that subjugate marginalized communities, news organizations need to start with marginalized communities—not police officers and politicians whose power relies on the continuation of the status quo. If that sounds obvious, it is. And yet in the wake of the Atlanta shooting, we see yet another example of immediate national news coverage that gravitates toward the shooter, seeking to explain away and minimize the reality that thousands of Asian American people in this country are terrified to step out of their homes.

The most recent perversion of a call to center lived experiences based on firsthand knowledge has been a rash of stories that have amplified the claims and denials of the shooter as if his self-reported motives invalidate the significance of his actions. His psyche is not newsworthy. What is newsworthy is that the existing system of public safety in the United States has yet again failed people of color who have been told, again and again, to trust it.

Every marginalized community in this country has sound reason to believe that their public safety is endangered and ignored. Marginalized communities have come together, yet again, not to call for retribution against individuals but for justice for those we have lost and those of us who are still here and struggling to survive conditions of terror that turn even the most basic activities (like stepping outside) into risks.

“Suffering is not a natural destiny,” philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote in 2010. Yet dominant news coverage in this country continues to suggest that suffering is simply a natural state of affairs for minorities, who in turn vocally refuse to accept the status quo as our collective fate. Instead of rendering the gruesome mundane and awaiting the next, news organizations have an ethical obligation to amplify the stories of those affected and subjected to violence that we cannot end on our own. As communities march with specific and concrete demands for justice in solidarity with each other, dominant news organizations still have a chance to get this story right.


For excellent examples of solidarity reporting, check out: 

"'Black and Asian Unity': attacks on elders spark reckoning with racism's roots" by Vivian Ho and Abené Clayton 

"Today, Explained: The surge of anti-Asian violence" by Cecilia Lei

"What would 'Justice for George Floyd' actually look like? A community discussion with Sahan Journal" by Becky Z. Dernbach


This article was updated on April 26, 2021.

Mar 23, 2021

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