Do We Need a New Journalism Vocabulary?

Recently, I’ve encountered some convincing arguments that we may need an entirely new language for understanding and practicing journalism.

A friend recommended I read a book called  The Little Book of Contemplative Photography by  Howard Zehr, a professor and documentary photographer who contends that the words and metaphors of photography – “taking a picture,” “shooting,” “aiming” – are predominately aggressive and predatory, but also inaccurate.

Zehr writes:

This metaphor of taking an image does not accurately reflect the photographic process itself. When we photograph, we do not actually reach out and take anything. A camera is basically a dark box with a receptor (film or digital sensor) on one side and a small opening on the other… When we do photography, we receive an image that is reflected from the subject. Instead of photography as taking, then we can envision it as receiving. Instead of a trophy that is hunted, an image is a gift.

Zehr goes on to suggest new ways of talking about photography. He sees:

  • Image as received vs. image taken
  • Image as ours vs. image as mine
  • Subject as co-creator, collaborator vs. subject as an object
  • Photography as revelation vs. photography as expose.

I found the idea compelling, but wondered if it could be translated to other forms of journalism.

For one, Zehr’s photography is deeply connected to his religious, philosophical, and personal beliefs. He is an advocate for restorative justice, a way of approaching crime that emphasizes repairing the harm done to the whole community, not just punishing the offender. This is evident in his portraits of  victims of crimes, as well as photographs of men and women serving life sentences in prison.

Many journalists, I thought, might be suspicious of such a value-laden approach and suspicious of the language shift as well.

A few days later I stumbled upon a Web site called Journalism That Matters founded by group of news editors who hope to save the industry by rethinking traditional newsroom culture, approaches, and metaphors.

Journalism That Matters argues that the news process should be defined as:

  • Conversation rather than a lecture
  • Many-to-many rather than one-to-many
  • Community connector rather than a central authority
  • Relationship-centric rather than knowledge-centric.

I find both of these vocab-lessons valuable in thinking about how journalism might be re-imagined.

In both of these paradigms, journalism education might be less about teaching students how to gather and distribute information and more about helping students engage with the people and communities they are covering.