Solidarity Journalism: Opening Remarks for Social Justice Week event at Toronto Metropolitan University

Anita Varma
7 min readSep 28, 2022

The following remarks were prepared and delivered for the event “Solidarity Journalism: Why social justice is newsworthy,” hosted by the Journalism Research Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) on Wednesday, September 29, 2022.

Hi everyone, thank you for being here. My name is Anita Varma and I lead the Solidarity Journalism Initiative. I’m deeply grateful to be here today, and to share a few thoughts to frame our discussion of solidarity journalism.

To start things off, I’d like us all to imagine this scenario. And, spoiler alert, for some of us in this room it won’t be a far stretch or even something unfamiliar. Here it is: imagine that there’s a problem in your home. This problem isn’t unique to your home, and is affecting your neighbors as well as people you don’t know well but who live in homes with the same structure as yours. Maybe it’s a problem with heating, in the coldest time in Toronto, or a problem like not having clean water in the taps, or finding it difficult to breathe because of mold in the walls. The issue is affecting your day-to-day life and it isn’t something you can fix on your own. You’re not a complainer, but you are suffering and you’re hearing from others in the same situation that it simply isn’t livable for this issue to remain unresolved.

News outlets have taken notice of this issue and there are journalists reporting on this problem. This could be a good turn of events. So what are the journalists doing? They start by speaking to the property manager and apartment building owner, who say what’s happening isn’t really a big issue. Then they speak to a local government official, who also assures them that it’s barely a problem and doesn’t affect anyone’s day-to-day life, and also says there could be a couple exceptions but nothing major. Then they speak to a nonprofit organization, who says that they are committed to the community — but they don’t say much more than that. Finally, the journalists speak to a few academics who specialize in researching this issue.

The news coverage goes forward and is published and circulated on social media, based on these sources. Remember, this was not an unusually rushed or haphazard reporting process — they took the time to speak to people in charge of the apartment building, a government official, a nonprofit, and academics.

Who did they leave out? You, or anyone like you who is actually experiencing the issue that is affecting your own home.

You read and watch the news coverage and feel a deep sense of alienation, frustration, and disappointment. The coverage is not accurate, even at the most basic level of describing what the problem is and how it is affecting people. You know this, of course, because you are living the problem and it is affecting you. A few weeks later, the problem is still unresolved, and a journalist finally does call for a follow up story. But the journalist has one and only question for you: how does this situation make you feel? You try to offer more than your feelings, to first explain the facts of what is actually happening which the reporting still hasn’t stated accurately, but the journalist says they really want to focus on your emotions. They try to reassure you by saying: “we have expert sources to tell us what’s going on.”

This scenario, as I mentioned, is not a far stretch for some of us in this room and plenty more who are not here today. Solidarity journalism seeks to address this problem, which recurs across place, topic, and era: the people who know the most about an issue, based on their own lived experiences of it, are often least represented in journalism that claims to represent precisely that issue. The disproportionate focus and airtime goes to people with credentials.

Many people have argued and continue to argue that journalists veering towards people with credentials is a wise move — they have credentials for a reason, I’m told! PhDs, official positions, leadership roles — these are indicators of power! Surely, these are the people we need to hear from most in journalism if it has any hope of being accurate (or so the argument goes).

My contention, and my work on the Solidarity Journalism Initiative as a publicly engaged journalism researcher and educator, is all about demonstrating how solidarity journalism is often more accurate than journalism that defers to officials and credentialed experts. Journalism regularly loses its way from providing accurate reporting due to longstanding news reporting routines that place reporters’ focus primarily on powerful people with podiums. This makes sense if the topic at hand is something that primarily involves powerful people. But when the story is about an issue that affects and causes suffering for people who are not necessarily in powerful positions, then news routines that ignore the people affected end up detrimental to the pursuit of truthful reporting.

How does solidarity help address this problem? Let’s start by defining what solidarity means.

Solidarity, as I define it, is a commitment to social justice that translates into action. A commitment to social justice that translates into action. The phrase “social justice” has gotten me into some heated debates, since of course we know that across the world, amidst some of the largest solidarity movements for social justice in a generation, the term has also been strategically distorted and misused.

So when I say social justice, I mean dignity for everyone in a society. Dignity is quite simply the worth we all have by virtue of being human. Dignity isn’t something you earn or get promoted into — it’s part of each of us from day 1 of our lives.

And yet we also know that while dignity is inherent, it is far from guaranteed for institutions and people with institutional power to respect or recognize everyone’s dignity in a society.

That’s where journalism and specifically solidarity journalism has a role to play, and has historically played a role by reporting an important truth: people whose dignity is being denied or disrespected need and deserve better. They deserve better not because they’re special or upstanding, but because they’re human.

How have journalists done this? Well, when journalists report in solidarity, in scenarios like the one we started with, it means that the story they write about your home or mine would begin with our firsthand observations, our insights, and our needs. Starting with us is an action aligned with recognizing, respecting, and representing our basic dignity by including our knowledge of our own lives and the pressing, often ongoing issues that affect them.

Usually when I speak about solidarity journalism, I avoid talking about myself — in part because I think what we really need to do is precisely what is about to happen, in the form of hearing from people who are on the ground, doing this type of reporting, as each of our panelists are engaged and committed to providing. But before I turn things over to our panel discussion, I thought I would take just a few minutes to situate myself so you know where I’m coming from in this work.

My ancestral home is in a place called Bihar, India. As you can probably guess from my very American accent, I grew up in Pennsylvania, but as many of you probably also know, our ancestral homes come with us wherever we may be. Bihar is a place that should be known for its poetry, for being the site of Buddha’s Enlightenment, for being a place of steadfast community, resourcefulness, joy — and, certainly, for being a place with plenty of struggles. Yet in most settings, if I admit to being from Bihar to people who have seen news coverage of Bihar, the only response I hear is immediately dehumanizing.

Here are just a few examples of real responses I’ve heard when people become aware of my ancestral home, including in university settings. “Bihar, really? But you speak so well, not like a Bihari.” “Bihar? Oh, ok, so you must be corrupt like everyone from Bihar.” “Bihar, now there’s a clear reason British colonial rule never should have ended.” These are real quotes, and none of the people who said these things have ever been to Bihar. So where are they getting these ideas of the place? Media narratives are often what they’ll point to as “evidence.” The reality, past and present, of Bihar is much more than the worst and most stigmatizing stereotypes about a place and its people. The same holds for places and people much geographically closer to where we are right now: so many dominant media narratives of places like Michigan, Texas, and Mississippi are barely a small sliver of the reality of these places and the people who constitute them. To be clear, news media may not have originated these narratives, but in many cases they have — in the name of “neutrality” — perpetuated, amplified, and reinforced misinformation about people experiencing injustice.

In closing, the point of solidarity journalism is not to ignore or sugarcoat the ongoing struggles that people experience in places as close as Toronto and as far away as Bihar — but instead to do it all justice, by starting with the sources who know and can therefore speak truth. Solidarity journalism unapologetically prioritizes people impacted and holds space for people to speak on their own terms about what is happening, what it means, and how it could change for the better. People are fighting for better, even as we speak today. Journalism’s ethical obligation is to represent the truth of their fight. Thank you very much.

To learn more about Solidarity Journalism, check out