Note: We are in the process of expanding this set of principles into a style guide, which we hope will serve as a tool for other citizen journalists to use in working through common questions that come up in the writing process. If you have feedback, ideas, or concerns that might relate to this statement or to that ongoing project, please let us know.
Independent Media Association (IMA) is committed to abolition—that is, the dismantling of oppressive systems in favor of imagining (and practicing) something else. That includes, for us, resisting language policing that upholds linguistic supremacy and working instead for linguistic justice. However, we are also a publication with an editorial team, and we are thus constantly making decisions about language—how we’ll structure stories, punctuate sentences, spell words. Publications are often fraught with various forms of gatekeeping—from the paywalls they’re guarded behind to language rules that codify white, upper and middle class cisheternormative language norms and call it “clarity” or “good English.” IMA has consistently prioritized stories that are often not told by mainstream media either implicitly or explicitly because the language in which people express those stories is not deemed acceptable to a mediascape that assumes white, middle class, American language norms that are tailored to a white, middle class, American audience—that is, they’re not told in white mainstream English (WME). As IMA continues to grow and develop, we will continue to unapologetically prioritize those stories and their languages.
As IMA has worked to reposition (citizen) journalism not just as a tool for “professionals” but as a set of tools anyone can use to engage with their community, tell stories that get overlooked, and push for the transparency and accountability that many find lacking in their communities, we’ve had many questions about how to do journalism, or reporting, or witnessing. There’s no one answer to that, and we won’t pretend to have one, but, as we continue our work, we do try to offer citizen journalists a jumping off point—a set of tools they can use to begin to understand and deploy journalistic genres and conventions, whether to work with IMA or to use the tools of citizen journalism to work elsewhere in this community.
We expect our ideas about language will evolve, and we hope someday we’ll all live in a decolonized world where we don’t have to negotiate with carceral structures—including those our citizen journalists negotiate with to tell stories at IMA. However, from where we are right now, we see five basic things we need language and language policy to do for and in citizen journalism.
Be visible. There’s always a language policy, whether you can see it or not, and both visible and invisible language policies have immense power. Not having a language policy for IMA wouldn’t mean there isn’t one; it would just mean we’re not being upfront about what it is. But we see one of citizen journalism’s primary jobs as making invisible power structures visible—so that they can be questioned, challenged, and remade to better serve all the people, not the privileged few. Our language policy should be just as visible as we demand any other power structure should be. We’re working on a style guide that makes all of that policy clear, but in the meantime, we’re as open and clear as we can be in communication with citizen journalists who work with us in any capacity. It also means we’ll tell you why we made a stylistic call—both in conversation/editing and in our future style guide. And, if you disagree with how we’re using or thinking about language, we invite you to talk with us about it.
Language for people. Language policies and genres and style are tools that are meant to serve those most impacted by the stories we report on (and if you, the citizen journalist, fall in that category, then that includes you). IMA chooses language that prioritizes people, because language is by and for the people who speak it; while a few of those decisions, such as naming guidelines and language specific to an abolitionist stance, are ones we explicitly adopt, many are more general guidelines that we’ll ask you to apply with us in the editing process. “I did that because it’s ‘correct,’” is not a standard we’re ever interested in upholding; “I did this to serve my reader or my subject in this specific way,” is.
Make us legible as media. To gain and maintain the legal protections and the types of access afforded to journalists, citizen journalists have to negotiate a mediascape in which citizen journalism is often seen as “less than” when it does not bear the markers of “professional journalism,” including many conventions that come from the AP stylebook (which IMA does not and will not use in its entirety) and often privilege mainstream language norms. However, we also know that it is and continues to be important, when our citizen journalists have their media status questioned by public officials and employees, that the website we use to back our credentials is easily legible as journalism—problematic though those standards for legibility may be. Therefore, we make a limited number of decisions in editing that are explicitly aimed at helping IMA continue to negotiate that system of legibility. We’ll tell you when that’s what we’re doing, and if you have a better idea, we’d love to talk about it.
Contextualize consistently and clearly. We don’t believe in uniformity for its own sake. But, from its first publications, IMA was committed to using its platform to give context to the “why” behind the stories that matter most to citizen journalists and their communities. Generally, that means we aim to give our audience context—the “who, what, when, where and how”—as concisely as possible, and then get out of the way so that the “why” of the story can speak for itself. One of the ways we get out of the way quickly is by using contextualizing patterns across our work—no matter the writer or format—to help our readers quickly recognize context as context and story as story. We’ll be upfront when these are the guidelines we’re giving.
Prioritize lived experience. One of the things we love most about citizen journalism is its ability to bear witness to experiences that get overlooked. When we say lived experience is our most important source, we mean it all the way down to how we construct our stories and write our headlines. You’ll see that reflected in guidelines ranging from not editing dialect or language in quotes to how we name people to how we put a story together to who is quoted first.
Here are a few things we will not do with language:
We will not treat white mainstream English (also called “American Standard English”—a term this guide will not be using) as the default. We will not demand or encourage arbitrary conformity to mainstream English.
We do not and will not pretend language, writing, editing or reporting are ever apolitical. Instead, we aim to make explicit the ways in which every language decision is political, and we seek to help writers wield language as a political tool through which they can engage with their communities, tell stories that matter to them and those around them and demand answers of those with power.
We will not use language as a means of policing or gatekeeping. “Good English,” is a social construct, and deviance from it is often criminalized in deeply anti-Black and anti-Indigenous ways. When relevant, we’ll point out what the construct is, but we won’t say you need to arbitrarily follow it.
We will not treat ideas about language as static. We will update our guidelines, practice and any future style guidelines based on feedback from our associates and our community, and we anticipate this will be an ongoing process.
Our news and the style guide and other editorial documents we publish to support the writing of that news will never be paywalled. Core educational materials will always be freely usable, in whole or in part, edited or not, under a creative commons license and will remain so for their duration as publications.
See the version of this statement with explanatory footnotes, including citations to the below authors, here.
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