Authentic journalism: weapon of the people

The path out of the crises wrought by commercial journalism opens when citizens steal back the mission that big media claimed but failed to do: Honest, coherent storytelling by Al Giordano

anselhertzNewspapers are downsizing and going out of business. Major  broadcast, satellite and cable news organizations are outsourcing and closing international bureaus. The credibility of commercial journalism is at an all time low. And with these events comes the constant tearful drumbeat by media commentators that “the media are in crisis” and lament that this is supposedly bad for democracy.

They have it backwards: News media have lost credibility, audience and budget precisely because their editorial behavior has helped produce crisis and become a burden, not a benefit, to democracies.

In the United States, we know that the jig is up when complaints about “the media” are now so popular that an entire sub-industry of commercial cable TV media has identified the public’s discontent as its very own market niche and now rents its attention to advertisers. From the U.S., – a country whose few surviving net export products include media and entertainment – came a recent example in late October when cable channel Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert drew hundreds of thousands of citizens to “The Rally for Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, DC, which The New York Times described as “an expensive, engrossing act of media criticism.”

There, Stewart aimed a brilliant critique at the “24-hour political pundit professional panic conflictinator;” the amalgam of cable TV “news,” newspapers (both high and lowbrow), magazines, radio and Internet commentators that drum up the daily outrage on all sides around the ever-changing scandal du jour. “The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen,” Stewart said, “or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.”

While the daily struggles of people and even entire nations receive passing, superficial or no attention from the mainstream media after the first days of a story’s novelty (a movement in Iran, resistance to a coup in Honduras, the aftershocks of an earthquake in Haiti and its people’s efforts to rebuild are some recent examples of the mass media’s attention deficit disorder), media organizations have been reduced to chasing ever smaller subgroups of audience share and can only hold their attention by pandering to each group’s prejudices and preconceptions. In the U.S., Fox News tells the bloodthirsty right what it wants to hear, MSNBC seeks a similar market on the unhappy left, and now Comedy Central caters to those of us who are annoyed by both political flanks and seek a little comic relief.

It is already cliché to say that “the problem of media” is now central among the challenges to democracy, freedom and justice. The bigger question and challenge is: What can we do about it?

The Internet, we were told by its pioneers, would solve all this for us, providing a shiny new world of democratized media. But no matter how much “new media” appears to displace its predecessors, the old rules still apply: Power concentrates around those who already have it, and each new run at it from below is absorbed by even newer technologies of cooptation.

Yet, there are cracks in the shifting media landscape that can be exploited and widened from below, presenting opportunities to those who have critical stories to tell and are resourceful enough to create their own media to do so.

After working as a journalist in commercial newspapers, magazines, radio and television and early Internet provider services, in the 1990’s I left behind the commercial media (a category which properly must include state-owned media, from PBS to BBC to Al Jazeera) and never looked back. For the past ten years I’ve published Narco News – – reporting from Latin America, and founded its School of Authentic Journalism, which trains talented young men and women of social conscience to put journalism to use for the good of societies rather than only the good of one’s career. If we take any lesson from having survived the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, and the encroachment by big media on the Internet over the past decade, it is that David can still fell Goliath, but not by becoming over-enamored with the latest technology available. Far from it: The new and shiny gizmos can’t save us. They’re tools we can use, but the dinosaurs use them too!

For over ten years our own laboratory in creating media from below, rejecting advertising as a funding model (instead relying on the small contributions of hundreds of readers and supporters), has come up with many ideas and innovations, too many to list in a single essay, but the most important, we conclude, are two:

1. A people’s media must take back journalism from the mass media.

The main reasons that so much “alternative journalism” and its younger cousin, “digital activism,” have failed to captivate the public’s attention and support, are that too many of these projects either deteriorated into the equivalent of predictable sloganeering and pamphleteering, or they put too much faith in technology when the real challenge is a human one. The public still wants and respects truthful investigative reporting presented coherently with good writing and decent production value. But from so many bloggers to the much decomposed Indymedia projects, their pages have become spaces for denouncing supposed evils and shouting strident opinions, much like the commercial news outlets they rail against, with very little sense of public service and of opening space for the people themselves to speak. Work that is sloppily done is more easily co-opted, too, by institutional media organizations that often repackage (and distort) the reports of citizen journalists on the justification of “fixing” them to “meet international standards.” The more coherence with which a story is told provides it better defenses against such appropriation and distortion.

Citizen journalism, in some corners, however, has shown it can take from big media what they claim to do and do it better: Go out there and report stories, interview real people, make sure their voices are heard accurately and without distortion, investigate and produce documents and evidence of official wrongdoing (the staggering public support and donations to Wiki-Leaks, for example, indicate a significant hunger and thirst for this kind of reporting). In sum, the solution is no more complicated than embarking on a humble return to the basics of reporting a news story: the proverbial “who, what, when, where, why and how” of what happens each day in human events.

One doesn’t need a degree from a two- or four-year journalism school to grasp and implement these basics. The School of Authentic Journalism teaches the core of it in ten days, much of it in one plenary session. The gist of it can be learned, now, from a seven-minute Internet video:

In sum, journalism is no more nor less than honest storytelling. And since most people have some skill at telling stories, certainly their own if not others, it is a craft that is accessible and available for most people to learn and practice.

Journalism must be demystified and returned to the people. Most people on earth don’t get their stories told in the media, or worse, they are “told” but falsely or tendentiously, so it’s no wonder they’re tuning out from the media, or even when tuning in, disgusted with it. Through the telling of stories of the great mass of people “down below” who are mostly under the mass media radar, authentic journalists gain the attention and earn a chance at the trust of the very public that the mass media left behind. And this brings us to our second main conclusion:

2. The best teachers of those who want to save journalism are those who are already struggling to save their communities, peoples and nations.

Commercial media’s relationship with social movements, civil resistance, and other popular struggles is either one of neglect or outright hostility. People organizing for their human and economic rights, for justice, for freedom, for more democracy, are generally ignored or treated with great condescension by institutional media organizations. Much of this happens because the interests that movements and peoples struggle against – corporations and governments – are the power-holders that commercial and state-owned media have chosen to favor and indulge well before movements erupt to challenge them. Thus, media and its practitioners now find themselves in a struggle of their own for survival, but without a clue as to how to wage that fight, because they don’t understand the dynamics – strategic, tactical and moral – of political dissidence and social movements.

We conclude that simply sharing the skills and tools of communications – the “know how” of journalism – with a wider public, important as it is, offers only half a solution. The other half requires that authentic journalists walk with social movements, place ourselves closer to them, and become something more than mere reporters of their stories, but students of their strategies and tactics.

At the School of Authentic Journalism, a large part of our curriculum is to listen to people who have organized and led successful civil resistance, community organizing campaigns, and strategic nonviolent struggles, and learn something more complicated than the all important basics of journalism, too: the underlying strategic dynamics of such conflicts and movements, so they can be reported effectively.

At the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, we heard from the Rev. Jim Lawson – the right-hand strategist of Martin Luther King, Jr. and organizer of the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 – during multiple sessions of the school. Here’s a video, made by students and professors who were there, that shares part of what we learned from Lawson in Mexico:

It has been through reporting on the struggles of indigenous peoples, environmental and labor movements, civil resistance against coups d’etat, and corporate and government abuses, that we, as authentic journalists, began to get a clue as to how to wage our own struggle to dislodge and replace the official media that so ill serve and worsen the injustice and repression that disfigure societies on every continent. We’ve done this mainly in Latin America, where such movements have obtained many victories over the past decade. To us, reporting their stories has also provided us with ways to develop strategies and tactics to win our own struggles to bring forth a more authentic journalism in service of the people.

Our path out of today’s media miasma is thus found by starting over: Democratic society cries out for a return to the fundamentals of what old media claimed to be: the simple slingshot of real, truth-and-clarity-seeking, shoe-leather-eroding, Old School reporting and journalism; the kind that bubbles up from the streets and back roads where real people live and work and, regularly throughout history, helped citizens to reassert ourselves as captains of our own destinies. History has always been written by such struggles, and the present time is no different.

The life’s blood that gave birth to all freedoms and to all democracies throughout history has been people’s movements and struggles.

The road to a more authentic journalism is found by walking alongside, learning from, and reporting on those movements.

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