4.3 Advocates: The Almost-Journalists

Newspapers, magazines and broadcast news aren’t the only places where deep investigative journalism is to be found. Nonpartisan think tanks and not-for-profit organizations do a lot of it. For example, the “Crisis Guides” published by the Council on Foreign Relations provide remarkably detailed coverage of global political crises—the council’s report on the genocide in Darfur is a great example. 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.”

Others are also helping to fill this need, even if what they’re doing isn’t, strictly speaking, journalism. Call them the advocates.

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 people what you’ve learned: writing (in the broadest sense, including video, audio, graphics and more) and editing.

So, by these notions, what famous journalism organization has done some of the best reporting 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.

With a few exceptions, notably at the McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau and the New York Times, 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—a passionate advocate for the Bill of Rights—has done prodigious work to uncover the truth about America’s actions in creating this extra-legal system. And on the ACLU’s “Rights in Detention” sub-site, you’ll find a huge amount of information—and advocacy—about this topic.

As my Salon.com colleague Glenn Greenwaldobserved in 2008:

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.

Now consider Human Rights Watch, whose mission is “Defending Human Rights Worldwide.” This is another advocacy organization that does superb reporting on the issues it cares about. Its report on Saudi Arabian domestic workers, for example, is an exhaustively researched document on some troubling practices. This is incredibly fine reporting.

Smaller advocacy organizations are becoming more active in this sphere, too. The Goldwater Institute, an Arizona think tank named after conservative patron saint Barry Goldwater, hired an investigative journalist in 2009. Since then, Mark Flatten has produced several noteworthy “watchdog” reports on local government matters.

Recall the 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 issue reports. When a new report was released, the organization’s researchers or public relations people would contact reporters at, say, the New York Times and hope that the newspaper would write a story about it. If the national press ignored the report, no matter how powerful the content, the information would reach only 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—principles I’ll be discussing in detail in the next several chapters.

The productions by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and many similar advocacy organizations are what I’m calling “almost-journalism.” Their reporting is superb, but what they produce tends to fall just a shade short of journalism—not always, but often enough that this caveat is necessary.

Are they part of the 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.

The area where they fall the shortest is the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness. This is a broad and somewhat fuzzy word, and we’ll spend some time on it in an upcoming chapter. 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. The best in this arena have always acknowledged the disagreements and nuances, and they’ve been fair in reflecting opposing or diverging views and ideas.

By doing so, they can strengthen their own arguments. At the very least, they are clearer, if not absolutely clear, on the other sides’ arguments. (That’s sides, not side; almost everything has more than two sides.)

Of course, transparency is essential in this process, and for the most part we get that from advocacy groups. The ones we can’t trust are the ones that take positions that echo the views of their financial patrons. The think-tank business is known for this kind of thing, as we’ve seen earlier, and it’s an abysmal practice.

As the traditional journalism business continues to implode, the almost-journalists will come to play an increasingly important role in the media ecosystem. With traditional journalism companies firing reporters and editors right and left, the almost-journalist organizations have both the deep pockets and the staffing to fill in some of the gap—if they can find a way to apply fairness and transparency to their media, whether it’s designed to inform or to advocate.

Like everything else, this notion gets serious pushback. Ethan Zuckerman notes that Human Rights Watch competes for foundation funding with actual journalism organizations such as his own Global Voices Online project. He also says that helping the almost-journalists doesn’t solve the question of who will pay for journalism, but rather shifts it one level away from the reader/viewer/listener.

I can’t dispute what he says, but I still think NGO-almost-journalism is worthy of the public’s careful attention.

Ultimately, this conversation is about who deserves to be listened to. New York University professor Jay Rosen defines it elegantly. In a talk he gave to budding French journalists, he said:

Your authority starts with, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” If “anyone” can produce media and share it with the world, what makes the pro journalist special, or worth listening to? Not the press card, not the by-line, not the fact of employment by a major media company. None of that. The most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W. Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Or, “I was at the demonstration, you weren’t, let me tell you how the cops behaved.” Or, altering my formula slightly, “I interviewed the workers who were on that oil drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let me tell you what they said.” Or, “I reviewed those documents, you didn’t, let me tell you what I found.” Your authority begins when you do the work. If an amateur or a blogger does the work, the same authority is earned.

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