Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ground Truth Project offers an innovative approach to covering international news, and structuring media

With a packed auditorium at WGBH studios in Boston, the Ground Truth Project officially launched, hosting a panel of journalists from the worlds of print, photo journalism, radio and new media. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Last night I sat in a darkened auditorium at WGBH radio in Boston, and listened as a panel of journalists talked about their chosen careers, the important role that genuine empathy plays in quality reporting, and their collective sense of excitement around the Ground Truth Project, a new non-profit media organization co-founded by Charles M. Sennott and Gary Knight. In his opening remarks Sennott outlined the driving idea behind the Ground Truth Project, which is that in order to really cover global events and their impact on communities, reporters need to get out into the world; trying to capture the essence of a breaking story, let alone an on-going complicated saga like the turmoil in the Middle East, simply does not lend itself to armchair journalism. 

The panelists onstage, who ranged from relatively rookie reporters to veteran foreign correspondents, opened by sharing something about what drives them to do the work they do, and how they hope that the Ground Truth Project will influence coverage of world events.  One major theme that emerged from the conversation was the centrality of humanizing important, but otherwise abstract, issues, such as the impact of climate change or what it’s actually like to be displaced by the war in Syria. Throughout the evening the importance of being able to feel empathy as a route to greater understanding of the human impact of events came up repeatedly.

From left to right: Charles M. Senott, Deborah Amos, Joel Simon, Lauren Bohn and Ben Brody. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
"I wanted to cover the people that were involved in the events, and not the events themselves," said NPR reporter Deborah Amos, who opened the conversation by talking about her own experiences covering conflict, and how she tries to see what's happening around her at a profoundly human level, always keeping in mind that when it comes to reporting on people displaced by conflict, that "...they had lives before they became refugees."

Joel Simon, Executive Director of Committee to Protect Journalists spoke next, telling the audience, "There is less press freedom today than there was twenty years ago... How could that be?" Simon went on to note that historically journalists were safe because they possessed a kind of unique utility in sharing information, a status which social media and other modern technologies have eroded. I was also glad to hear him highlight the importance of trying to see this new technologically-infused media landscape, in which professional journalists as well as activists (and others) play a role, as clearly as possible. Lauren Bohn, Ground Truth Project correspondent, echoed this last sentiment, and shared her belief that in an age of information overload that it is more important than ever for journalists to figure out the most effective way to reach audiences.

Although time ran a bit short and the crowd didn't get to hear too much from photojournalist Ben Brody I recommend checking out his work as part of the Foreverstan project, a comprehensive look at the change in Afghanistan in the period following the September 11, 2001 attacks and offers an unflinching look at the difficult reality faced by ordinary Afghans in 2015. Another panelist I would have been interested in hearing a bit more from was Coleen Jose, a reporter who has covered events in the Philippines by seeking out the perspectives of individuals whose lives have been impacted by natural disasters and other events.

With "Foreverstan" the Ground Truth Project offers a comprehensive look at events in Afghanistan over the last 14 years, telling the story of the impact of so many years of conflict on the lives of ordinary Afghans.

One thing that really struck me about this endeavor is the way that the Ground Truth Project partners American journalists with local aspiring and established journalists in places like Burma, not only to tell compelling stories but to improve the skills of up and coming reporters around the world. In this way, what Sennott and his colleagues have set out to do has the potential to make a significant contribution to coverage of international news, as well as strengthen civil society in places where violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, threaten to silence the media.

The Ground Truth Project has an ambitious agenda as well as a number of impressive backers and partners, but ultimately, as is the case with all non-profits, the success of this project may hinge on its ability to attract and retain donors. If the staff and leadership are successful in doing this, they may very well play a key role in ushering in not merely a new revenue model for media outlets, but change the structure of news-gathering entities entirely. It may take a while before we see if this model is successful, but if the Ground Truth Project can gather enough momentum I think it will continue to gain supporters and play an important role in influencing the future of journalism both at home and abroad.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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