Journalism is extractive — but it shouldn’t be

How can problematic practices like parachute journalism be reduced?

Get The Objective in your inbox every week.

The idea of national journalists parachuting in for a news hook isn’t unique to one organization — it’s a phenomenon playing out across the country and world. Whether to cover a mass shooting, environmental disaster — or really, any event or subject — many journalists will appear and then disappear as soon as the article is published. It’s one of the many ways journalism can be extractive.

“The attention span of media outlets appears limited … easily distracted by just about anything else,” said Fiona Delta. “Elevated Access gets many inbound calls, and a surprising amount fade away with minimal dialogue. From the outside looking in, it feels very inefficient.”

Delta is a volunteer marketing professional working with Elevated Access, a volunteer pilot network that flies people in private aircraft, at no cost, to access abortion and gender-affirming care. Delta agreed to speak to The Objective via email when they shared frustration about “inefficiency.”

As a matter of policy, Elevated Access uses fake last names to protect volunteers.

In the nine months since its founding, Elevated Access has received over 150 requests from journalists for commentary, which Delta says is a number “astonishing” for such a new nonprofit. Delta is also responsible for communicating with journalists, a heavy lift for a volunteer organizer.

Extractive journalism isn’t unique to coverage of healthcare access, and doesn’t affect everyone equally. Experts I spoke to cited a number of different marginalized communities most hurt by extractive practices. Among the list: people of color, queer people, unhoused people, people in recovery, people with an addiction, and disabled individuals. But there are many organizations and individuals that are trying to reimagine journalism as less extractive. 

“Extractive journalism is what it sounds like — you’re taking and defining value in terms of what you can take from a story or a person or community, and not thinking about value in terms of what would be valuable to that community, to that person, and that might translate into doing stories that are about communities rather than for/with them,” explained Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor in Temple University’s Department of Journalism. 

This act takes many forms, and a lack of follow-up is just one part. 

“It’s a sense that the journalist is there because it’s their job and they want to tell a story that will benefit them financially, will benefit their company financially, and is making money off of people’s experiences and lives in a way that [the story subject will] never see any benefit from,” Wenzel said. 

Another area of extractive journalism is expectations for covering trauma.

Anita Varma, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media at University of Texas at Austin, cites coverage of school shootings like Uvalde as a classic example. (Varma is an advisory board member of The Objective.) 

In these instances, many journalists are encouraged to go up to parents who have lost children in gun violence for the sake of a quote in a story.  

“The point [of the quote] isn’t a coincidence, it’s directed at extracting pain/emotional contents and making it into a story that serves a journalism outlet,” Varma said. 

Parachute journalism — in which reporters cover stories or areas that they have no prior experience or knowledge of — is similarly an extension of extractive journalism. Most well-resourced legacy papers are published in places of cultural privilege and power, like Washington D.C. or New York City. They may send reporters to cover less affluent places, rather than hire a freelancer local to the area. 

As Varma puts it, extractive journalism “encompasses a lot of the worst of journalism … [it’s] normalized and treated as if it’s a sign of professionalism.”

The groups that are hurt the most are those outside the dominant groups of power, Wenzel adds.  As she explains, when stories are being told with a certain skewed understanding of who they’re for, it results in “not as complete a picture as it would be otherwise.” 

“It does a disservice to everyone.”

But not every news group or journalist is following in the industry’s previous and current patterns.

One group aiming to forge a new path is Southerly. Founded on the principles of community care, the organization’s goal is to equip communities in the southern United States who are facing environmental injustice and are most at risk from effects of climate change with resources to help make themselves healthier, more informed, and equitable. 

Lyndsey Gilpin, a founder and executive director, sees slowing down and listening as a way to improve both journalism about the communities — and the communities themselves. Southerly has worked on a few projects directly aimed at helping people not as a “content” service, but an information service. The organization also launched a community reporting fellowship to encourage those invested in their communities to cover them. 

“If you want to fix extractive journalism, you give people tools to do journalism themselves,” Gilpin said. 

Resolve Philly is another organization committed to moving away from extractive practices. 

“Journalism has harmed,” said Cassie Haynes, the organization’s co-founder and co-executive director. “News organizations have harmed and the practices are harmful. Part of our focus really is behavior change to shift our industry away from those extractive practices.” 

The group has undertaken a number of efforts to make sure journalists are not harming the communities they cover. 

One of Resolve Philly’s initiatives involves working with other organizations to try and shift languages and framing around certain topics. But Haynes says the change doesn’t have to be limited to an organizational level. 

“I think there are things at the individual level that you can be doing, regardless of your institution, regardless of how your boss edits your work,” she explained. “[For example], being cognizant of not wasting sources’ time… knowing what you’re trying to get from a source before going into an interview.”

Varma also sees solidarity, and specifically solidarity journalism, as a way to counter some journalism’s extractive qualities. To her, solidarity is a commitment to social justice that translates into action: “In solidarity journalism, that action is reporting by starting with the perspectives and experiences and knowledge of the people experiencing marginalization first hand.”

“It’s not a proposal for a new direction of journalism — it’s something journalists do all the time and don’t get enough credit for doing this,” she added. 

Related: Solidarity journalism can help the cause of public safety for marginalized communities

Being extractive is easy, however. Routine newsroom practices are well-known and comfortable lanes, and solidarity journalism — let alone less extractive journalism — is a less-traveled road. Among the comfortable routines are journalistic ideals, like objectivity, that have been embedded in the industry for decades. 

“Journalists think of themselves as needing to keep a distance,” Wenzel explained.

Haynes, who also recently announced her departure from the co-executive director position at Resolve Philly, sees the incentive structure of journalism as another barrier to doing better. 

“As long as we are looking at blue birds and the numbers of likes and number of followers and number of clicks and number of eyeballs, and associating that with personal success as an individual journalist and institutional success, it’s going to be really difficult to change anything,” she said. 

There’s also the problem of institutions and newsroom power dynamics, where editors, publishers, and board members are the primary decision makers for editorial practice.  

“I’ve seen with my own eyes exceptionally talented journalists who have the right intentions and are doing the work, building trust and relationships with communities, but get shut down by institutions,” Haynes said.

Varma also acknowledges that editors can be a major roadblock. When presenting to other journalists about solidarity journalism, she finds the most common question she gets is “How do I convince my editor?”

That shouldn’t stop journalists from trying, though. “You may have a conversation with your editor and you may not win,” Varma said. “And that’s still a valuable conversation to have.”

“We have this shared language now and can start to build power around it,” Gilpin, from Southerly, added. “There’s an incredibly long way to go, policy-wise, getting legacy media on board, and changing the industry structure. It’s very daunting, but the fact [that] there is a contingent of journalists, editors, organizers, people who are seeing the importance of that is really powerful.”

And sources can tell the difference too. Natasha White, the director of community engagement for Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a formerly incarcerated survivor of solitary confinement, and says all her encounters with journalists have been nothing but positive. 

Why she’s had good experiences, she says, is because of those individual journalists’ commitments to getting to know sources and demonstrating a genuine interest in her work.

“[Journalists should] develop a relationship with the people you are talking to,” White said. “Don’t interview people just for an interview. Really listen to that person and what affects them. Because what affects them eventually affects you.”

Hannah Docter-Loeb is a D.C.-based freelance writer who loves to write about pop culture, science, and her hometown of Washington D.C. You can find her work at

This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge. Copy edits by Janelle Salanga.

Our stories are funded by readers like you. 

The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

Become a sustaining member of The Objective!

Help us examine systems of power and inequity in journalism

We’ve refined our mission and we have a plan to shift the way journalism is done — but we need 33 sustaining members to put it into action. Will you join us today?

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top