The Twitter post stopped my scrolling thumb in mid-air. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it said something like, “You don’t need to speak up for marginalized people — just pass the microphone so they can speak for themselves.”
Wow! It was one of those moments when you can almost feel your mind shift.
Of course, I have seen the trend in recent years of formerly excluded people communicating for themselves, be it via ‘development’ projects that provide them with tools (often cameras) that they can use to represent their own realities, by growing representation of these groups in existing media — particularly in North America — or when they create their own media, as Indigenous peoples have been doing for decades in Canada. But until reading that Tweet I had never made it personal.
When I became a journalist 30 years ago, I don’t know if I would have articulated my mission in these words, but over time I began to think of my role as being a ‘voice for the voiceless’. In fact, I think that might have been the slogan of a news agency where I once worked. Regardless, in time that sentiment became a cliche.
Looking back, I don’t think it was a bad thing to strive to highlight issues of discrimination towards people who were on the margins. And I’d like to think that at least some of the articles that I’ve written for that purpose had a positive impact.
Yet, the world has changed incredibly in the past 30 years and one positive impact has been the growth of online media, which allows everyone (all of us who have Internet access, that is) to be a publisher.
So what are the implications for ‘mission-driven’ communicators like myself? I think it means that the least we should be doing is amplifying the voices of those who are spotlighting the same issues of social injustice that we ourselves would have pointed out because unlike ourselves, these new voices are speaking from a lived perspective.
Training, mentoring or financial support
If we can, we should also be supporting those voices in other ways, say through training or mentoring or with financial backing.
It’s not easy to accept that yours should not always be the loudest voice, or the one that makes the headlines, just because you’re a veteran communicator who knows the process of creating for traditional media. I think we like to believe — or perhaps we just assume — that over time we ‘earn’ that privileged space thanks to the energy we’ve invested on something that is outside of ourselves.
But after reflection, I don’t believe that technical prowess or commitment can compensate for the fact that my words about someone else’s experience will lack insight. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what I say will be incorrect — the facts might all be there — but they are likely to lack the authenticity of a report that is underpinned by personal experience. Put simply, they might not be as powerful.
So, while I’ll keep reporting about issues that I think need to be highlighted, I will be on the lookout for others who are doing so from a unique lived perspective to see if there is a way I can support their work.