SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 18, 2013

Column: What charity can learn from journalism

Stephanie Francis
The Salem News

---- — Sociologists are damned with the burden of knowing all the troubles of the world. In his book “Culture Making,” Andy Crouch describes journalists as the poor cousins of sociologists. Both study the mechanisms of culture, and both are damned.

As a sociology major who has aspirations in journalism, I suppose this makes me doubly damned. But I am also learning how culture allows me to understand what needs to be fixed. And my generation is one that wants to right the wrongs of the past; the increasing numbers of non-profit start-ups reflect that.

We want to help those starving babies in Africa that our mothers told us would appreciate the Brussels sprouts left on our plates, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hunger is bad and should be something we want to disappear. The passion and urgency we have approaching these problems is inspiring, but I’m afraid we’re doing it wrong.

In my journalism class we were required to read “The Elements of Journalism” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Like many beginning classes, we learned the foundational necessities for journalism. But these ideas can also be useful when thinking about charity. The ideas of verification, truth, and loyalty to the citizens are good virtues to apply to life.

Verification is the process of making sure the facts are, in fact, true. Verification is what separates “infotainment” and hearsay from the actual news, and though the news world has struggled recently with properly exercising this process, this doesn’t take away from its importance.

In 2010 after the Haitian earthquake, many people and organizations flocked to help. The Red Cross “led the Calvary.” According to CBS News, the association raised $444 million, but only $111 million has gone to help the victims of the earthquake. The process of verification provides donors with discernment to research the effectiveness of the charity beforehand.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” the authors state that a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. Part of that truth is looking at all angles of a story. I think that many times charities do a good job at looking at the presumed victims’ story but ignore that of the oppressor. By ignoring the oppressors’ story not only does the charity fail to get to the root of the problem, they fail to figure out why the problem was caused in the first place.

A prime example of this is when the non-profit Invisible Children released a video aiming to expose the plight of children soldiers. Organizations who ask for money and get involved with broad issues should ask why the issue is happening. It’s easy to point your finger and name someone the bad guy, but the Kony 2012 video did not ask why Joseph Kony formed the Lord’s Resistance Army and is forcing children to join it. It is easy to ask how, but more difficult and less common to ask what is going on behind what we immediately see.

It is also a journalist’s job to look out for the public. When writing the news, it is imperative that journalists provide information that allows fellow citizens to make their own decisions. This means writing something that is without bias and that tells the truth. Charities should also practice this loyalty. Many times people discover an issue, become extremely eager to help, but do not think to actually communicate with those people and see what their needs are.

This is disloyalty. Charities should seek to tell the truth about the people they are helping, and in order to do so they should listen to their needs. They need to see “suffering” people as people, not projects. In order to properly aid people, charity organizations need to set up situations that allow people to better themselves, so they aren’t dependent on foreign aid.

I’m not saying we should not help anyone. One of the great things about the world is when disaster strikes we are quick to gather around and help. Just look at the tragedy in Boston. I’m just urging others to be careful about how we help. Because if we don’t, our good intentions will damn them as well.

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Stephanie Francis ‘14 is a Gordon College communication arts and sociology double major from Boston who served as a journalism Fellow with the Gordon College News Service this spring.