The value of voice
By Raul Ramirez
In my four decades as a journalist, the power of people’s voices has shaped the reporting and storytelling I have pursued. Like many journalists, I have long spoken of my role as that of a watchdog and a facilitator of civic dialogue. To me, journalism always has been about the power of voices.
My views on just what this has meant to me and to the people whose voices have populated my work have evolved over the years.
To be sure, I know that the power of the human voice to change attitudes and create new realities is formidable – something that tyrants everywhere keep in mind as they move to silence dissenters. My earliest adolescent writings were inspired in part by a graphic sticker I plastered on buses and doorways as a young teenager in another country and in another time. It proclaimed over a drawing of a firing squad executing a man: “Ideas are to be debated, not assassinated.”
My first true lesson on the power of voices as a journalist came a few years later, when I signed up for a journalism course at a South Florida high school. As a native Spanish speaker, I was hoping to learn enough English to end the streak of failing grades that had littered my short academic path in the United States – in English, biology, civics and even phys ed classes.
An early assignment in the journalism course was to interview and write about a fiercely taciturn school crossing guard then approaching retirement.
The day the interview was published, an amazing transformation occurred in the crabby guard who had long terrorized students who dared step off the curb in defiance of his mandates. Students gathered around him. They asked him about anecdotes in the story. He smiled and smiled. At one point, he bowed in response to the good-natured ribbing of students. He seemed pleased, and happy. When I came outside as the school day ended, he pointed at me, raised his hand to stop traffic and, with a grandiose and comical sweep of his arm, invited me to cross as he might have done for royalty.
For a neophyte reporter with linguistic challenges, this was a lesson to learn: Give a man his voice and wonderful things can happen. The crossing guard finally had his voice. And I had found mine. It was a discovery that channeled me in the direction of journalism.
For years to come I looked at my role in journalism as a daily responsibility to give someone a voice. It was a framing that I found comfortable. For me, and for many journalists around me, there was empowerment in the act of giving voice to a woman or a man. It would be a while before I reflected on another aspect to that power: The power to deny a voice to those who journalists ignored.
In my early newspaper years – covering poverty, immigrant communities, the criminal justice system – I was very aware of the power of human stories to change the perceptions of readers and, sometimes, to influence the actions of those in power. I thought of my role as that of a storyteller, without whom people and even entire communities would remain in obscurity, marginalized and ignored.
Even though I seldom wrote myself into the narratives, my interpretations were central to the stories I told. The effectiveness of those stories, I felt, emanated from the force of the words I chose to quote, or the words I chose to write. It was I who characterized. It was I who described. It was I who decided what to quote.
But as the years passed and my journalistic experience grew, I gradually realized that the power of words was not something that I, the journalist, bestowed on the people and communities I covered.
The power, I came to understand, was in the stories that people chose to share. I, the journalist, was merely a conduit for the dissemination of those stories. I began to see how journalists can frame the story, to give it context and depth, but that we could not own the story. As that awareness evolved, so did my storytelling and my perception of my role. At one time I spoke of “giving voice” to people and communities. But in my latter years as a newspaperman, and my early years as a broadcast journalist in public radio, I came to view my role as to “amplify” authoritative voices that only lacked access to the means to spread their messages.
This was a master narrative about my work as a journalist that I came to appreciate. I liked how it defined journalists – as generous, thoughtful, civic-minded and caring.
Then along came the Internet.
The communications explosion that the Internet fueled has dealt a devastating series of blows not only to the media industries employing us, but also to the very foundation of journalism. The core business model of newspapers that relied on printed advertising and hugely expensive production and delivery systems has been rendered essentially obsolete. Now, newspapers – and to a growing extent broadcast institutions – struggle to come to terms with a more fundamental challenge. The one-way communication of newspapers and the two-way conversation that broadcasters can facilitate is no longer sufficient for the growing numbers of former readers, listeners and viewers who now hear their own voices in the energetic communications made possible by new social media. The traditional role of newspapers, radio and television is too limiting for the younger audiences that will decide the future of journalism. Today, media gatekeepers are no longer essential, and a growing number of them are hardly missed.
Which brings me back to voices, and to the role of journalists.
Today, journalists are no longer needed to “give voice” to any person or community. Any voice and any message have the potential for instant worldwide dissemination.
So what are journalists for, then? Certainly, there remains plenty of room for us in roles for which we remain uniquely qualified –as aggregators, bloggers, perhaps even as thought leaders. And as the roar and confusion of the Internet becomes unbearable, the role of trusted broker will regain currency with people and communities wanting help in sorting through the hubris that the Internet so easily magnifies.
As for the voices, the Internet’s potential to amplify, sort and refine individual voices has yet to be realized. But the glimpses we get from time to time of the potential for sensible conversation and testimony are tantalizing. Even without me to shape or amplify them.
Raul Ramirez’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.