Making Newsworthiness Decisions in Solidarity

What makes a story newsworthy? Reporters often share that they are disappointed when editors reject pitches by saying social justice issues and communities affected by them “aren’t really news.” Usually, editors are not using a list of explicit criteria to decide what counts as “really news,” but researchers have found that dominant criteria for newsworthiness tend to include:

  • Novelty (is it new?)
  • Unexpectedness and surprise (will the audience be shocked?)
  • Negativity, including violence (is it bad?)
  • Power elite or celebrity involvement (did an elected official comment on the issue? Are celebrities taking action?)
  • Rugged individualism (did an individual lift themselves up by their bootstraps to overcome adversity?)
  • Magnitude (is this big news compared to everything else going on right now?)

On the other hand, criteria for newsworthiness in solidarity reporting include:

  • Ongoing social justice issues that remain unresolved
  • Continuity of marginalized communities’ dignity being denied or disrespected
  • Grassroots efforts to address issues
  • People directly affected by the issue (including community organizers) speaking out
  • Community cohesion
  • Long-term significance

By using these less-dominant criteria, four types of solidarity have a chance to become newsworthy: intragroup solidarity, moral solidarity, civic solidarity, and political solidarity.

4 Types of Solidarity that Become Newsworthy

1. “We take care of us” (intragroup solidarity)

Intragroup solidarity means communities are taking care of themselves. Stories that report intragroup solidarity locate power in the community affected by social injustice to show how they stand together through efforts to collectively self-determine. These stories challenge dominant narratives that suggest marginalized people are dependent on charities, state social services, or the kindness of privileged strangers. Instead of waiting for outside agencies or heroic philanthropists to validate and meet their needs, members of marginalized communities often work together to keep each other safe, share necessities like food, and develop their own housing communities. Intragroup solidarity stories provide a stark and important contrast to stories that profile an exceptional individual with a “rags to riches” narrative.

2. “Let us live – here’s what we need from you” (moral solidarity)

Moral solidarity means that there are inhumane conditions that marginalized people cannot change or remedy on their own, and so they are calling for concrete, specific changes on the part of outside institutions. “Let us live – here’s what we need from you” is an appeal for basic survival. While intragroup solidarity stories are newsworthy because they represent how communities take care of themselves, moral solidarity stories are newsworthy because they represent structural constraints that prevent marginalized people from resolving social injustice. For example, laws that criminalize homelessness cannot be changed solely by the people subjected to them, nor can racial profiling or solitary confinement in prisons. Ending these practices requires outside institutions to change what they do and how they do it. Moral solidarity stories amplify people’s shared needs in their own words, in contrast to stories that use elected officials and nonprofit organizations to speak on behalf of people experiencing injustice.

3. “We live together and so we need to address injustice, even if it doesn’t affect all of us equally or personally” (civic solidarity)

Civic solidarity means that people are taking action to address injustice that affects their neighbors, even if it doesn’t affect them personally. Civic solidarity often overlaps with solutions and remedies coming from the nonprofit sector, where people outside of affected communities may offer interventions and support. These stories challenge the idea that people only engage when it is advances their self-interest. Instead, civic solidarity stories show that people of comparative privilege are also working to address social injustice, on the basis that people living in the same region share a local bond – even if they are strangers to each other on a personal level. These stories should also include reactions and evaluations from people who are directly experiencing the issue and intervention, in order to distinguish between civic solidarity that stands with people affected versus charity that prescribes and passes resources down from above.

4. “We must dismantle the structures that uphold social injustice” (political solidarity)

Political solidarity means that people are calling for dismantling structures that uphold social injustice, such as capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism (and the connections between them). Political solidarity stories quote people who criticize the structural dimensions of an issue and demand transformative change. Calls for universal housing as a human right are an example of political solidarity since (in the United States) this means reimagining and transforming the housing system as it currently exists. Political solidarity stories, like moral solidarity stories, call attention to the limits of what grassroots and civic efforts can achieve alone by emphasizing the dire and continued need for structural change beyond community grit and local engagement. These stories dispute the idea that social injustice is the outcome of poorly executed programs or “bad apple” individuals in otherwise-benevolent institutions.

Solidarity stories are rare compared to stories about politicians or celebrities, which may be intriguing for editors who are looking for distinctive angles. For examples of solidarity reporting, check out: https://mediaengagement.org/examples-of-solidarity-reporting/

This resource is based on a peer-reviewed study published in Journalism. If you would like a PDF of the study, please email anita.varma@austin.utexas.edu.

Varma, A. (2022). Moral solidarity as a news value: Rendering marginalized communities and enduring social injustice newsworthy. Journalism, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/14648849221094669