In the Blog
Dreaming of starting your own media project? 6 lessons from 90 media activists across Canada
Illustration: Shelby McLeod
If you’ve ever mused about starting your own podcast, ‘zine, photography project, or another idea, do it now! It’s an incredibly fascinating time to get involved in media production. Right now there is an abundance of people involved in making media from the frontlines of movements and the communities hardest hit by our society’s deep injustices.
I work with the Media Action Research Group (MARG). MARG works toward feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and queer-trans liberation by collaboratively producing research alongside grassroots media activists. From 2014–16, MARG travelled across the country interviewing inspiring media activists and grassroots journalists, looking to learn about their work, what they’ve learned, and the challenges they face. These included The Media Co-op, Groundwire Radio, CKUT 90.3FM in Montreal, Pjilasi Mi’kma’ki, a bilingual Mi’kmaq/English podcast, and many other projects. Many Shameless editors also participated in these interviews.
MARG spoke with storytellers who highlight both oppression and resilient, visionary organizing, many times with no formal journalism training. We spoke with 90 people in 6 different cities, and it’s our privilege to share their insights with aspiring mediamakers—like you! The media landscape will be much stronger if more young women and trans youth get involved as producers, journalists, creators, and visionaries. We think all sorts of creative and cultural projects are incredibly valuable — like the Somali Semantics zine created by Yasmin Abdulqadir Ali, whom I recently interviewed, and Sumaya Ugas — but our suggestions here are specifically about grassroots journalism and reporting.
Build a structure you can be proud of for your media project.
Grassroots media is powerful not just because of what we create and share with the world, but because of how we do it. Traditional media organizations tend to be hierarchical, with people at the top setting the course. If you want a group of people to get involved in your project, build a structure where the team shares decision-making power.
Agree on shared principles and how you will fight oppression in your own group and beyond. Power and privilege often show up in organizations, and proactively laying a foundation before conflicts arise is better than putting out fires on the fly. As you develop and grow, keep asking yourselves: can we stand behind how we’re running things here? Building organizations that are consistent with our principles is hard, but it’s what sets grassroots media apart from the rest.
Write down your group’s principles, practices, lessons, and major histories, and keep communication transparent by tracking it in places where everyone in the group can see it (lots of groups are using programs such as Slack or Trello). Organize orientations for new members, and consider asking people to commit to a certain length of time in the project (6 months, for example), to avoid lots of people cycling in and out.
You can be active in social movements, politics, and our communities—and be a journalist at the same time.
Mainstream standards of professional journalism typically say that you can’t be an activist and a reporter, especially if you’re covering stories you’re involved in. But many of the people we interviewed spoke about being active within a movement or community and reporting on their own issues with an insider perspective. Why is it acceptable for reporters to be embedded in military units and operations, for example, but not embedded in social movements? All media has bias, but media that repeats a status quo perspective is considered “neutral” and therefore acceptable. The important thing is that you disclose any of your biases, for example, by stating that you belong to an organization if you’re writing about it.
Do your reporting and storytelling in solidarity with communities and struggles.
More journalists are asking how they can be responsible in how they report on the struggles of others—groups they’re not a part of themselves, whether in terms of race, Indigenous culture, class, and more. So often, the reporter has had more power than the “subject” in shaping a story, which can lead to coverage being limited at best and exploitative at worst.
If you are thinking of reporting on a struggle or community that isn’t yours, one way to be more responsible is to focus on creating opportunities for members of that community to share the story themselves. If you have access to certain resources, find ways to share them. That could look like making media equipment or a physical space available for use, supporting people to submit grant applications you might know about, providing training or ongoing support, or other methods. No matter what this support looks like, the key is to build long-term relationships and always start from what communities themselves say they need and want.
Reporting in solidarity also means valuing expertise that comes from living it rather than studying it. Challenge the model of asking government officials, corporate public relations professionals, or other experts their perspective about a policy or problem, and go to the people most affected by the issues. This goes for the people you invite into your media project, space, or events as well. If you’re producing a radio show about prisons, for example, ask someone who has lived experience with the prison system to join the project.
Jade Begay, a filmmaker and producer at Indigenous Rising Media, recently shared her insights on avoiding what she and others are calling “extractive journalism” in reporting from Standing Rock and other struggles on MARG’s blog. For those of us who are not Indigenous, it’s important to understand that Indigenous journalists will likely have more trust and access when reporting within Indigenous communities. Build relationships and partnerships with Indigenous journalists. Find out how you can support their work.
Be conscious of making media spaces accessible.
Access to media production can be limited to different people in all kinds of ways, and here are some things you can do about it. If your project involves hosting events or creating a physical space, think early and often about making sure the space is accessible to people using wheelchairs and those with limited mobility. One great resource to check out is the Radical Access Mapping Project (RAMP); the project offers free templates to do your own audit of a space, and thinks about accessibility in a broad, inclusive way. Thank you RAMP!
Language is another important area to consider accessibility. Our interviewees talked about the importance of producing media in Canada’s non-dominant languages, be they Indigenous languages or those spoken by immigrant communities.
Another way media activists can sometimes unintentionally exclude people is by using examples or terms that are based on familiar points of reference or shared understandings. Sometimes when we know one another well or have shared a lot of the same experiences, it can create a culture that’s not welcoming to new participants. Explain histories, break down acronyms, and avoid jargon.
Unfortunately in media, assumptions are often made that everyone has their own computer, smartphone, high-speed Internet access, or a certain degree of comfort with technology. This overlooks generation gaps and carries the risk of discriminating against older folks. It’s a big privilege to have access to technology over the course of our lives. Think about ways you can include and reach people who haven’t had that privilege!
Get creative to make your project financially sustainable.
To pay people or not to pay people? Who to pay, and how? Even the biggest media companies are struggling to figure it all out right now, so don’t feel bad if you’re having trouble!
Whether you decide to pay your contributors, your editorial team, or figure out another arrangement, it’s important to make your media project financially sustainable. You want to have a range of ways you’re bringing in money to avoid relying too much on one source. Build a crowdfunding platform and ask lots of people in your networks to each give a little if they value the work you’re doing, including getting your supporters to give small regular contributions. Try partnering with a community organization that has funding, and research available grants in your province.
Lean on other media producers in your networks, especially when you’re just getting off the ground. Borrow printers and other technology from friends and partner organizations. Ask someone you know to teach you to edit sound or video.
Work hard to reach “beyond the choir.”
It’s important that your ideas reach beyond the circles you already agree with. Focus on building your networks beyond social media. Go to events that are outside of your social circles and ask people to sign up for your email list. Don’t rely on Facebook as your only distribution method; the timeline algorithm makes it so that only the usual suspects see your posts, and asks you to pay for advertising to spread your posts any further.
If you’re starting a media project, or already involved in one, MARG would love to hear from you! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to put your project on our Activist Map. We hope you’ve found these insights and recommendations helpful; if you have or want to talk further, get in touch with us.