The past year has brought a host of new challenges for journalism: the ongoing pandemic, a new presidency, increasing extremism following Jan. 6, to name a few. Nieman Reports’ columnists and writers have addressed these and other challenges, with nuanced analysis and insightful commentary. From the importance of obituaries to the need to publish salary ranges for journalism jobs, here are five of Nieman Reports’ most thought-provoking opinion pieces of 2021:
In June 2020, Alex Roman Jr. and his mother Sylvia painted one of the most iconic art pieces after the murder of George Floyd: a mural in Houston, Texas of Floyd with angel wings, the words “forever breathing in our hearts” written above him. That image of Floyd as angelic invites journalists to reconsider the language they use around crime and police brutality, argues Austin Bogues, a commentary editor at USA Today. Journalists can sometimes gravitate toward black-and-white portrayals of crime victims: They were innocent and angelic, or they were evil beyond redemption. Bogues insists that most of us are somewhere in between. Floyd, for one, was a loving father and a star basketball player, but also a man struggling with addiction. “Journalists don’t need to make anyone into an angel or a demon,” Bogues writes. “Instead we need to capture the nuances of their humanity.”
Since the pandemic’s start, more than 800,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 — a loss that is felt more acutely when we remember how early restrictions barred many communities from grieving together. Though in-person funerals came to a halt last year, Maureen O’Donnell highlights one way that communities stayed together when social distancing requirements kept them physically apart: obituaries. An obit writer for The Chicago Sun-Times, O’Donnell reflects on the invaluable histories, identities, and values that obituaries capture about a community, and how the pandemic is prompting newsrooms to preserve them. As newsrooms shrink and obituaries become outsourced, O’Donnell makes an impassioned argument for why news organizations should continue to invest in obituaries after the pandemic. Unless we do, says O’Donnell, “one fundamental way of keeping people together — and informed — will be lost.”
Many journalists searching for media jobs are familiar with the process of going through multiple applications, interviews, and editing tests without knowing the answer to one essential question: How much does this job pay? Kami Rieck, a social media editor at Bloomberg Opinion, argues that for news organizations to truly be transparent and fair, they must publish salary ranges with every job posting. Doing so not only saves applicants hours of unpaid time spent interviewing only to discover that the job doesn’t pay a livable wage, but that transparency also creates more diverse newsrooms and helps address pay disparities. Publishing salary ranges might not solve the issue of pay equity once and for all, Rieck writes — but it’s a great place to start.
When Kabul collapsed into the hands of the Taliban in August, many were quick to compare the events to the fall of Saigon. Columnist Issac Bailey proposes a different paradigm: The best parallel to Afghanistan today is not Vietnam in 1975, but Baghdad in 2003. As hundreds of cheerful U.S. soldiers toppled the city’s statue of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi citizens were about to enter a long and brutal war — and journalists shied away from asking the tough questions that would have helped audiences understand the implications of the U.S. invasion. “Had we done a better job two decades ago asking questions and looking beyond our kneejerk responses to powerful images, would Afghanistan have become the nation’s longest war ever?” Bailey asks.
In a time marked by a deadly pandemic, police brutality, war, rising authoritarianism, and more, it often feels as though the world is caving in. HuffPost editor-in-chief Danielle Belton offers a word of advice for journalists trying to navigate the chaos of our current moment: If you’re going through hell, keep going. Belton reminds us of the important role journalism has in truth-telling amid a hell of disinformation and disruption. “I choose progress,” Belton writes, “a newsroom that is more diverse and representative of our society, a press that is more nimble and adaptive, an office that is your coffee table or kitchen table or whatever you’ve fashioned as a desk in your home, one that is compassionate and empathetic towards those in the field every day, mired in the business of muck, and one that is resilient in the face of the apocalypse.”