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How to cover mutual aid networks

March 27, 2020

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Mutual aid is a voluntary exchange of resources and services. Essentially, it is a way for people to support one another in times need.

Mutual aid networks have become increasingly visible in recent days, as people affected by the coronavirus pandemic create new groups to support one another. But mutual aid stems back to at least the 1890s, when Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin published a series of essays that would later become the 1902 essay collection titled Mutual Aid: Factor of Evolution.

Mutual aid networks work to deliver aid to people under self-quarantine, practicing social distancing, dealing with job loss or reduced hours at work, or struggling to find childcare as schools close.

Mutual Aid Networks Are Not Run By One Person

It may be tempting to try to find the “leader” of a mutual aid network, and there are often people tasked with setting up social media accounts or creating shared documents to coordinate volunteer efforts and community needs.

Although interviewing organizers can make for a great story, it’s worth noting that mutual aid networks require large groups of people to perform tasks like delivering diapers or groceries to people suddenly out of work, offering to watch a neighbor’s children, or even arranging drop-off points for people to safely pick up supplies with a much lower risk of infection. Focusing on various community efforts and highlighting multiple people can give a better overview of a community than simply profiling someone in a leadership position

Focus On Specific Types of Aid

In some cases, even the existence of a mutual aid network may be newsworthy enough, especially if people are struggling to come up with ways to help.

The work the groups are doing can also highlight areas in your community that aren’t up to this challenge. After finding your local mutual aid network, do some digging to see if there’s anything happening in your region (or to your target audience) that might look different than outreach efforts in other cities.

You can start there to research any local government or non-profit organizations that typically try to meet that need, and see how things have changed or what gaps still need to be filled. This can tell you a lot about how your community is responding to coronavirus, and where local resources fall short. You can even see if officials are concerned about the situation getting worse.

Respect People’s Time and Privacy

Mutual aid networks are set up for assistance, and it can be difficult to find the best way to ask for an interview. Posting in a Facebook group asking for an interview might be fruitful, unless it’s a group that’s heavily moderated to assure that only relevant information is posted.

Reaching out to a volunteer directly might be an unwelcome intrusion. Emails for the group setting up the form might be a better bet, but organizers are often overwhelmed with requests.

This isn’t to say that journalists shouldn’t try to get interviews. But being patient with interview requests, reading through any ground rules on public groups and paying attention to the dynamic is generally a good idea.

Also keep in mind that even if a group is public or visible, people seeking or receiving help may not want their story publicized. Approaching each situation delicately with the awareness that it may be sensitive will help you build trust and minimize harm.


  • Yael Grauer

    Yael is an investigative tech reporter covering privacy and security, digital freedom, hacking, and mass surveillance. Yael currently works at Consumer Reports as a tech journalist and the content lead of CR Security Planner. She has freelanced for m...

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