Lewis Raven Wallace on the end of parachute journalism
Lewis Raven Wallace is an award-winning independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. He is a co-founder and co-director of Press On, a southern media collective that helps journalists produce reporting driven by communities through the practice of movement journalism.
The orders say to stay at home and, for me, it’s been easy. While I was jumping all over the country on airplanes giving talks and recording interviews the last few years, I made my home in Durham, North Carolina. I’m not from here, and being “from here” for many means not just being born here, but being four, six, nine generations steeped in Carolina history. My neighborhood is inhabited by the descendants of the people enslaved on forced labor camps nearby, built on their graves. The stories are deep, and suddenly I find I have more time to dig in.
I’ve been giving a workshop called “Parachute Journalism” about the myriad problems of parachuting into communities to tell stories. Parachuting can mean exploiting, extracting, or missing the point of a story altogether. Being connected to a place and its geography, or being connected to a specific community, is a form of expertise that cannot be taught to a journalist who seeks to churn out a byline. I’ve decided to stop giving this workshop because it ends up exploring a problem that can really only be solved by stopping the practice altogether: if you must parachute to report a story, go forth, but don’t look to me for absolution.
Journalism needs to think bigger, which is also thinking smaller and more local. Journalists must be supported to tell the stories of the communities we’re in, not as supposedly objective outsiders but as witnesses with skin in the game. The organizations doing this already are ahead of the curve: City Bureau in the Midwest and Scalawag in the South train and pay people to tell stories from the vantage point of their communities, geographic and otherwise. The organization I co-direct, Press On, conducts a fellowship called Freedomways that supports storytellers of color with deep community connections across the South. Our Freedomways fellows highlight what folks down here already know: that we don’t need outsiders to come in and tell stories about us, and that marginalized people are tired of that dynamic. The skill is here, just oftentimes not the resources.
The end of parachute journalism is a simple idea whose time has come, especially as travel becomes more restricted by necessity. I’m not just talking here about COVID-19 restrictions. In the future, the threats and realities of climate change will limit our freedom of motion by plane and automobile. Of course, we should reinvest in local and hyperlocal journalism. But regional and national outlets, where so much power is concentrated, also need to be interconnected and supportive of the folks who stay home—who know the lands, cultures, and gossip of their local communities. No one should need to parachute into Appalachia or Atlanta or the Navajo Nation for a day or three to pull out a story. Instead, those with the resources to parachute should redirect those resources toward supporting the training, power, and platforms for the homegrown members of these communities.
This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.