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Advocacy Journalism in the Digital Age

Ted LeonsisWhat does advocacy journalism look like? Panelists at The Newseum's Advocacy Journalism in the Digital Age conference agree that it is traditional journalism, it is advocates creating media, it is crowd-sourced information, it is issue awareness, it is partnerships, it is powerful video and it is so much more. The Newseum partnered with American University's School of Communication to host a discussion on the landscape of advocacy journalism in the age of new and digital media, made possible by the Ford Foundation. Bob Sipchen, Director of Communication for the Sierra Club, polled the audience and few people identified as either purely traditional journalist or purely traditional advocate. Advocacy journalism is about what falls in between.

Tracy Van Slyke, Senior Advisor at the Media Consortium (and co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber with the Center's Research Director Jessica Clark), indicated that advocacy journalism falls across a spectrum that moves from NGOs to mainstream journalists. Today's landscape is made up of pure-play journalism, a one way communication model with comments but not interaction; journalism in community, which figures out how community takes part in the editorial process and distribution; then on to journalism in action, which places the emphasis on actions by the community; and finally, the hybrid media makers, in which NGOs and nonprofits become media producers. Slyke went on to say that media makers envisioning the future changes see journalism moving increasingly toward "journalism in community and action."

Other panelists and presenters made a finer distinction between traditional journalism and potential for activism. Jon Sawyer, Executive Director for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, made the distinction that as a traditional journalism outlet the Center advocates for issue awareness on global issues. Using original content, traditional news platforms, and perhaps most importantly, partners, the Pulitzer Center engages the "broadest possible public" without focusing on advocates.

Sawyer pointed toward the issues of transparency and credibility, which was a common thread in every discussion. Speakers generally agreed that a key point for the future of journalism is transparency. Keynote speaker Ted Leonsis said, "The new consumer craves authenticity." Today's consumer would much rather do business with their neighbors, but small businesses struggle to compete. Leonsis was consequently inspired to foster Groupon, a platform for local people and local businesses to strive.

Susannah Vila, who presented case studies from Movements.org, echoed this sentiment through the case study of advocacy for jailed Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer. The success in the advocacy media was due to humanizing Amer as much as possible, providing personal connections, and also reaching out to similar people--other bloggers. Transparency has to do with direct connections. Leonsis tweets and blogs everyday without a writer or an editor, and his fan base (such as Washington Wizards and Capitols fans) rewards him for it by supporting his business decisions.

Closely related to transparency is credibility. Patrick Meier of Ushahidi said the most successful use of the Ushahidi platform for crowd-sourced election monitoring was in Egypt, which collected 2700 individual reports--in multimedia form, not just text. Egyptian journalists started planning three months in advance of the election, creating a flow chart for how information is collected, processed, verified, mapped and engaged through online media. This plan for verification begets credibility. Meier said that it's not just access to media that will change people's minds, but having that information echoed in communities by friends and family.

Chuck Lews, Executive Editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, also part of the School of Communication at AU, moderated a discussion that more closely examined credibility. Lewis pointed out that multiple-year pursuits of stories no longer really happening, budget playing a significant role. So how does journalism at any point on the spectrum achieve credibility? Danielle Brigida with the World Wildlife Federation said that admitting mistakes and ignorance is key. On the one hand, new media (which Leonsis pointed out is no longer new, it is "the" media) provides us with an over abundance of information. On the other hand, Lewis reminded us that primary sources are still the "ultimate currency" for journalists and advocates alike.

Sandy Close, founder and Executive Director at New America Media, provided significant insight into the use of advocacy in the journalism context. Close pointed out that the term "advocacy" is problematic because it supposes a certain virtuosity, though advocacy can be used to enable very different and extreme points of view. Likewise "progressive" is a problematic term because it's a piety, assuming that you move in the right way. Taking a step back and looking at Steinbeck, "the genius of literature has been to show me how I'm implicated in the life of a coal miner that I'll never otherwise know," said Close. She went on to point to a more modern example in which the press lept to condemn Michael Vick, when in fact the investigative question may have been what drove a professional athlete into a situation to begin with. Journalism should embrace the contradictions.

Close was asking the question: how do we do justice to turmoil? Ethnic media play a crucial role historically. Ethnic media have worked in concert with their communities to mobilize around issues; there wouldn't have been a Million Man March without black newspapers. On the other hand the communities that many advocacy journalists convene are communities of interest instead of physical ones, this leaves gaps. Journalists need to be embedded within communities more often. Close feels like she knows less now than five years ago about everyday people's experiences because of the landscape not being covered.

So much of the discussion on advocacy journalism comes back to the question of technology.  Apollo Gonzales from NRDC said "tools don't make change, people make change." The challenge is teaching people to use tools effectively. ViewChange.org is trying to do exactly that. Wendy Hanamura introduced ViewChange.org's semantic technology that recognizes the underlying meaning in contextual searches for information. This search technology recognizes concepts and not just individual terms, and searches open source databases to aggregate media information.

An audience member and communications director at the Sunlight Foundation pointed out  there are tools like Churnalism that help you see much more than what's in an article by linking terms to additional sources. Meier said that the "get alerts" feature on Ushahidi helps create real time situational awareness akin to military availability of information. Technology is powerful, but it's the utility that changes the landscape.

Sipchen went on to say that whether something is advocacy or journalism—or both—is an open question. Sierra Club partakes in mainstream media, NGO and hybrid work all at once. While they have a number of effective advocacy video productions, Sipchen also believes it's important to report on environmental issues, without befuddling or brow-beating people. Both angles have critics and supporters.

The Advocacy Journalism conference opened up many questions to us as media producers. The takeaway is that there are certain tenets essential to success, regardless of your approach: transparency, partnership, and effective use of technology.