Defining Civic Action Beyond Institutions in Journalism and Politics

A few common themes have long animated my work in education, conservation and journalism. Collaborating with a range of national and local organizations across these sectors I focused on building community, mobilizing civic action, collaborative problem-solving, fostering new networks and grappling with institutions in moments of profound flux and change. As such, I’m keenly interested in how people engage with their communities and their government, and how those actions are facilitated or hindered by institutions in media, education and the nonprofit sector.

I’ve written before about these dynamics, and the tensions between networks and institutions in news and civic life. We are at a moment when many of the institutions of civic action and information, from advocacy groups to journalism organizations, are re-imagining themselves as networks. The Columbia University report on “post-industrial journalism” is one of the clearest descriptions of this moment. But the corporate and government institutions that are so often the targets of civic action are in many ways growing stronger and more monolithic. C.W. Anderson puts it this way “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.”

One problem with institutional models is that they tend to define the norms of acceptable (or “real”) action. In politics, this is why voting and other electoral organizing is held up as most meaningful and legitimate. In news, this is part of the reason citizen journalism and blogging has long been treated as something less than traditional reporting. That is in part how institutions preserve themselves. And that preservation has both costs and benefits, as I’ve explored in the case of disaster and crisis response.

All of this is why I was so interested in the Twitter chat I have embedded below, in which Jonathan Stray, Anthea Watson Strong and Ted Han debate the intersection of legitimate civic action and the role of institutions. How do we understand the differences between community action and civic action? When do we need organizational action versus individual action? Can diffuse networks circumvent, replace or take on powerful systems? Continue reading

From Audience to Allies: Building a Public Movement for Press Freedom

After British authorities detained the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald for nine hours and forced the Guardian, where Greenwald works, to destroy its computers, The Columbia Journalism Review declared this a “DEFCON 2 journalism event” — a reference to the code used when the country is one step away from nuclear war.

And they weren’t alone. A number of leading journalists have weighed in over the past week arguing that we have reached a crisis moment for global press freedom. Amy Davidson, in The New Yorker, writes that the events of this week remind us that we are “lucky in this country to have a press with a better shot at avoiding prior restraint.”

However, she argues, both the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases raise doubts about that “better shot.” Indeed, many saw Manning’s 35-year sentence, handed down this week, as yet another effort to chill the newsgathering process. All of this comes on the heels of a long string of press suppression and intimidation that came to light in the United States this summer. Taken together, argues Davidson, these cases show “why it’s worth pushing back, and fighting.”

That sentiment was echoed by Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire: “In the battle with the security state, those who might commit acts of journalism have three choices: acquiesce, push back or step away.”

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Missed Opportunity of Newspaper Endorsements

Research, both scholarly and anecdotal, suggests that newspaper endorsements make little difference in the minds of readers. This fact led Edward Morrissey at The Week to argue that “Newspaper endorsements are at best meaningless anachronisms, and at worst damaging to the newspapers themselves.” Given this, Morrissey asks, why do it?

However, what if, instead of scraping the newspaper endorsement we re-imagined it? Could we make it work better?

Over the past week the New York Times endorsed President Obama for a second term and the Des Moines Register endorsed Governor Romney, the first time they have endorsed a Republican since Nixon. The endorsements were very different in tone and style, but they had one thing in common: There were no links in the web version of either editorial.

While the reticence of some newspapers to link, especially to articles outside their own archives, has been well documented I think the lack of links in most, if not all, newspaper endorsements is a missed opportunity. Continue reading

Putting People at the Center of Journalism

I saw a tweet last night that went something like: “People must love biased news because CNN is doing so poorly while the other networks are doing great.” This was inspired by new reports of CNN’s second quarter ratings, which New York Times reports, “plunged by 40 percent from a year ago,” for its prime-time shows. We can all debate about definitions of doing well and doing poorly, but in general I think a lot of people agree with this sentiment that bias drives views.

I don’t.

CNN isn’t plummeting in the rankings because people love “biased news.” However, what MSNBC and FOX News understand, that I think CNN doesn’t, is that people want to see themselves in the stories they consume. This is as true of novels they choose as it is of the news they decide to watch.

This aspect of the debate over objectivity has received too little attention, but it is fundamental to how stories function. For a long time objectivity was a source of trust – (i.e. “You can trust me because I don’t have a dog in this race”) – but it also had a cost. The cost was journalists’ relationship with their audience and their communities.  Continue reading

Hindsight Journalism

In an earlier post I picked apart Ted Koppel’s graduation speech to the students at UMass Amherst. However, I wanted to return to his remarks briefly and take a closer look at one portion of the speech that I didn’t contend with in my earlier post.

For quite some time I’ve been wondering if we are entering an era of “hindsight journalism,” where some of the most important stories of our time emerge after the fact. This kind of journalism shines a spotlight on critical issues, but serves as more of an autopsy than an antiseptic. It dissects issues like specimen, instead of shining a light on problems before or as they emerge. Hindsight journalism emphasizes having an explanation for how a problem happened – the chain of events – over why a problem happened – the structural forces and power dynamics that created the problem. It dissects rather than illuminates.   Continue reading

Media Making as Participatory Democracy: Port Huron to Occupy Wall Street

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said,
then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” 
– The Port Huron Statement, 1962

 We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”
– Occupy Wall Street, 2012

Fifty years ago, the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote that “Every generation inherits from the past a set of problems – personal and social – and a dominant set of insights and perspectives by which the problems are to be understood and, hopefully, managed.” 

Today, the generation that sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement has likewise inherited a distinctive set of problems and generated its own new insights and approaches to them. One of the most important characteristics of the Occupy movement is the expanding universe of media makers – citizen journalists, livestreamers, artists and others – who see their work as overtly political and a central part of the movement itself. 

New tools and technologies are empowering more and more people to commit acts of journalism – many for the first time – as their preferred mode of engaging with the movement. For many, grassroots media is not just a means to forward the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Creating media and telling a new story about our society is also an ends in and of itself. Media making is increasingly a political act as important as the occupations themselves. Continue reading