Doing journalism at its most basic level is a combination of two essential tasks. The first is reporting — gathering information via research, interviews, etc. The second part is telling your audience what you’ve learned — writing (in the broadest sense, including video, audio, graphics and more) and editing.
The demolition of the professional journalism business model has led to a sharp decline, one I don’t see slowing anytime soon, in traditional media. Many people in the field have been asking an obvious question with a not-so-obvious answer: Who will do the serious journalism we need in the future?
I have another question that will lead us to an answer. Not the answer, but one strong possibility — if we start thinking about, and helping, the “almost-journalists” among us to do actual journalism.
Anyway, here’s the question:
What famous journalism organization has, until very recently*, done the best reporting (remember, that’s the gathering process) about the United States government’s Guantanamo Bay prison? That’s the place where the United States holds the people the government has declared to be terrorists, a prison where prisoners have been in many cases tortured and, until recently, held without access to the legal system.
The people who’ve done the best reporting on this scandal have not, for the most part, been working for major media outfits. They’ve been working for that famous journalism organization called the American Civil Liberties Union.
Yes, the ACLU, which has done prodigious work to uncover the truth about America’s actions in creating this extra-legal system, shrouded in secrecy and in general disregard for international law and norms, not to mention America’s traditional respect for human rights. And on the ACLU’s “Rights in Detention” sub-site, you’ll find a huge amount of information — and advocacy — about this topic.
Note the word “advocacy,” because it’s critical here. The ACLU is an advocate, a passionate one, for the Bill of Rights. It is utterly up-front in that advocacy, and is working hard to change our policies in a variety of areas.
Now consider Human Rights Watch, the mission of which is “Defending Human Rights Worldwide.” It’s another advocacy organization that does superb reporting on the issues it cares about and they produces media to spread its message. Take a look, for example, at its report on Saudi Arabian domestic workers to see an exhaustively researched document on some troubling practices.
And then check out the Council on Foreign Relations “Crisis Guides” — see, for example, this one about Darfur – that provide remarkably detailed coverage of global political crises. As the judges of the Knight-Batten Awards said of the council when honoring its work, “This is an institution stepping up and honoring the best of journalism. It’s filling an absolutely articulated need.”
What the council did was journalism, by any standard. It lived up to the vital principles of journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence and transparency.
What the ACLU and Human Rights Watch did was what I’m calling almost-journalism. Their reporting was superb, but what they produced fell just a shade this side of journalism. They didn’t fully apply journalistic principles to their media, and that’s a shame.
Their media? Yes. They are absolutely in the media field now, because they are using the tools of media creation to learn and tell stories, and to make those stories available to a wide audience. These organizations and countless others like them — small and large, local and international — are part of the media ecosystem. With just a little extra effort, they could be part of the journalistic ecosystem too, in ways that go far beyond their traditional roles.
Consider the former public-knowledge trajectory an organization like the ACLU had to follow in the past. It would do painstaking research on topics like Guantanamo, and then it would issue reports. Its public relations people would contact reporters at, say, the New York Times and hope that the newspaper would pick up the story. If the national press ignored the report, no matter how powerful the content, the information would be known to a tiny number of people.
The ACLU still works hard to get its reports covered by the Times and other national media organizations. The traditional media retain a powerful role in helping the public learn about important issues. But advocates have new avenues, which they are learning to use more effectively.
They’d be even more effective, I believe, if they applied the principles of journalism to their work.
They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness. This is a broad and somewhat fuzzy word. But it means, in general, that you a) listen hard to people who disagree with you; b) hunt for facts and data that are contrary to your own stand; and c) reflect disagreements and nuances in what you tell the rest of us.
Advocacy journalism has a long and honorable history. But the best in this arena have always acknowledged the disagreements and nuances, and they’ve been fair in reflecting opposing or orthogonal views and ideas.
By doing so, they can strengthen their own arguments in the end. At the very least they are clearer, if not absolutely clear, on the other sides’ arguments, however weak. (That’s sides, not side; there are almost never only two sides to anything.)
Of course, transparency is essential in this process, and for the most part we get it from advocacy groups. The one we can’t trust are the ones who take positions that echo the views of financial patrons. The think-tank business is known for this kind of thing, and it’s an abysmal practice.
As the traditional journalism business implodes financially, the almost-journalists are going to play an increasingly important role in the ecosystem. As traditional journalism companies are firing reporters and editors right and left, the almost-journalist organizations have both the deep pockets and staffing to fill in some of the gap — if they’ll find a way to apply those old and new journalistic practices to their media, whether it’s designed to inform or advocate.
We in the journalism education business have a special role. We can help the almost-journalists — the ones who want the help — to understand and apply these principles.
If we can get this right, the advocates and think tanks will have more credibility. The public will have more credible information sources. Isn’t that what we all want, and need?
UPDATE: My friend and colleague Ethan Zuckerman pushes back. In a meeting today at Harvard’s Berkman Center he observes that Human Rights Watch gets funding from the same foundations that support his own Global Voices Online project. They’re competing for a limited pool of money, he notes — and, besides, this doesn’t solve the who’ll-pay-for-journalism question but rather shifts it one level away from the reader/viewer/listener.
I’d respond this way: Yes, GV and HRW compete, and yes, in some ways we’re only shifting the sustainability question. But I still think it’s a good idea to elevate (if that’s the right word) the NGO-almost-journalism? As long as these groups are doing something so close, a small amount of leverage can produce some great new supply — and that’s worthwhile in its own right.
Also, see this posting by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, where he accurately says:
It has been left to the ACLU and similar groups (such as the Center for Constitutional Rights and Electronic Frontier Foundation) to uncover what our Government is doing precisely because the institutions whose responsibility that is — the “opposition party,” the Congress, the Intelligence Committees, the press — have failed miserably in those duties.
Yes, there have been many failures, leaving these openings for advocates. But they’ve always been a key source of material for reporters; what’s crucially changed is that they are now media outlets in their own right.
* And, the qualifier near the top, where I said the best journalism has been done about Guantanamo until “very recently,” had come from the ACLU, linked to the McClatchy Washington bureau’s brilliant series that ran in June, “Guantanamo: Beyond the Law” — a explainer that everyone should read. Naturally, other journalists basically ignored it, exemplifying the not-invented-here syndrome that weirdly continues to afflict the craft.
Finally, welcome to BoingBoing readers, and a thank you to BoingBoing for the pointer.