Bearing Witness and Becoming a Source

Drones have been in the news a lot this month, but that coverage hasn’t always been easy given the incredible secrecy around the drone program. While hearings on Capitol Hill and leaked memos shed some much needed light on the program, there is still a lot more we don’t know.

Over at the Huffington Post, Michael Calderone has a good piece on where journalists are turning for details and in-depth information on drones. Calderone’s article focuses on the work of Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal and his work tracking drone statistics, but the story is part of a larger trend of individuals bearing witness and becoming sources for newsrooms that increasingly have less capacity for the long, sustained work of tracking these kinds of details:

“While the use of drones is perhaps the most controversial foreign policy issue of President Obama’s second term, major media outlets have been outsourcing the collection of strike data to three lesser-known news-gathering entities. The covert U.S. drone war in Pakistan and Yemen has been notoriously difficult to track over the years, making The Long War Journal’s statistics -– along with those compiled by theNew America Foundation and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism -– essential for news organizations that haven’t been independently tracking each strike or number of suspected militants and civilians killed.”

In October of 2011 I began tracking journalist arrests at Occupy Wall Street protests when New York Times journalist, Natasha Leonard, was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. By the end of the month ten journalists had been arrested, and a month later that number was over thirty. Police interference with press around the US became a major story for much of 2011 and the first half of 2012.

My chief concern when I started tracking these arrests was to create a detailed account of each arrest, collecting as many facts and details I could, in an effort to highlight what I saw as a troubling trend. I developed sources on the ground in key cities and focused on transparency and verification, making my work as public as possible. Initially, I felt responsible to the journalists being arrested, to tell their story as fully as possible, but as the list became a source for journalists, lawyers, researchers and advocates that universe of responsibility expanded.

Since 2007 Erica Smith has tracked newspaper layoffs and buyouts on her blog Paper Cuts. Her work has been cited widely by journalists, academics and advocates. Poynter called her maps, “the de facto standard source for tracking newspaper layoff numbers for the past couple years.”

“I started out because I was curious about the number of cuts. Now it’s because I have too many friends who’ve been laid off,” Smith told the American Journalism Review in 2009. At that time, Smith said it took her 10-12 hours a week to keep her maps up-dated. This was on top of her job as a graphic designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Like Smith, my tracking was a work of passion, something that spilled well beyond my day job into all hours of the night.

In an era where we face a flood of information, these kinds of tracking efforts, that take a laser focus on one issue and cover them with depth and on-going attention, are growing more and more popular and important. Sites like Homicide Watch in Washington, DC, Gun Crisis News in Philadelphia, PA, and Shine In Peace in Oakland, CA are all tracking gun violence and homicides outside the bounds of newsrooms. Inside newsrooms data journalists are doing terrific work turning government data into stories that go far beyond the numbers. What unites these very diverse projects is that they are being approached with the rigor and values of journalism, regardless of whether they are located inside a newsroom or not. Sorting through the flood of information, from government data to social media, is another way journalism is become more of a service than a product.

Disclosure: I have ties to two of the organizations mentioned in Michael Calderone’s piece. I am on the board of directors for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which is currently raising money for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. I also work with staff at the New America Foundation on projects related to media policy and the future of journalism often.

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