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March 30, 2022, 2:50 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalists are increasingly partnering with outside organizations. A new report offers a glimpse at how that’s going

“Impact is often many years or miles away.”

All the way back in 2009, Nieman Lab published “NGOs and the news,” a project that looked at how “civil society actors such as NGOs and advocacy networks are becoming increasingly significant players as the traditional news media model is threatened by shrinking audiences, the availability of free content online, and the declining fortunes of mainstream media.”

At the time, the possibility of collaboration between traditional news outlets and civil society organizations still seemed somewhat hypothetical. But, Kimberly Abbott, then of the International Crisis Group, wrote, such efforts were already taking place: “The truth is, versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly.”

Since 2009 we’ve seen big collaborations like OCCRP’s Azerbaijani Laundromat and ICIJ’s Paradise Papers, as well as dozens of smaller ones. In a new report, “Cross-field collaboration: How and why journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together,” Sarah Stonbely, Ph.D. and Hanna Siemaszko looked at 155 such collaborations, involving 1,010 entities across 125 countries.

Here are a few of the findings from the report.

Cross-field collaboration can solve some specific problems.

“Cross-field collaboration is one way that journalism has answered the questions posed by the technological, social, and political turbulence of the 21st century,” Stonbely and Siemaszko write. They identify three main drivers:

1. Information producers can no longer rely on their content being seen via the usual channels; collaboration helps content take on more incarnations (i.e. text, video, graphics, etc.) and have broader reach.
2. The resource constraints faced by newsrooms, along with the increasingly complicated nature of investigative stories, necessitate specialized skills and supplemental humanpower.
3. There is an increased desire for impact from investigative journalism (or, stated differently, an increasing impatience with lack of impact), which cross-field collaboration makes more likely.

The U.S. plays a big role.

Of the 1,010 organizations that the authors looked at, 55% were journalism outlets and 20.7% were non-governmental organizations. Many of them were based in the U.S., and “the U.S. was also the most common exporter of collaboration, in addition to hosting cross-field collaboration projects at home” (i.e., looking at issues taking place within the country).

“One does not want to be the subject of a cross-cultural collaborative project.”

If a cross-field collaboration is taking place, it generally means that “there is malfeasance, neglect, or some other unsavory activity occurring to which the individuals and organizations participating have decided to direct precious time and resources to bring to light,” the authors note. These were the most common topics:

Impact is still tricky to measure.

Generally, all the parties in cross-field collaborations agree that they want their work to lead to change. The funders of such projects (philanthropists were the most prominent source of funding for the projects the authors looked at) also want to measure change. But it can be hard to tell if change has happened. The authors identify a few reasons for this:

The impact is diffuse.
The impact data are often qualitative, and therefore difficult to capture programmatically.
The organizations involved often have different impact measures and different levels of priority in terms of tracking impact.

Additionally, impacts from investigative projects may not be apparent for a long time, and measuring impact from a distant country is difficult. “Impact is often many years or miles away,” Stonbely said.

She recommends that collaborators build measures of impact into their agreement from the beginning: What kind of impact will be tracked, how, by whom, and for how long? “If the funder requires that impact is tracked, which a lot do, build in money for someone to follow it a year after the project finishes,” she said.

The authors also found that “discordant impact” — impact that was not intended and sought, but unintended — “happens all the time, and it’s less frequently reported on,” Stonbely said; for instance, “maybe the journalists involved are targeted or their families are targeted.” The report includes many examples of both “accordant” (intended, sought) and “discordant” impact; you can check out this “impact matrix.”

While big collaborations like the Panama Papers tend to grab the most headlines, I asked Stonbely to flag a few smaller ones that had measurable impact. Some examples, she said, are Lost in Europe, I Am Aware Ghana, and Verificado.

“This type of cooperation is harder for journalists from the West.”

The authors found that journalists in many Western countries expressed concern about participating in cross-field collaborations, because they were worried they’d be seen as biased. This didn’t actually stop them from participating, the authors note — journalism organizations in the Global North were more likely to be involved in collaborations than journalism organizations from the Global South — but they worried more about it.

“People who came up in a journalism tradition of objectivity really went to pains to say that they kept themselves at arm’s length from the advocacy element of it, to say that they were very careful to remain neutral and took all these steps throughout the course of the collaboration to make sure that they were not influenced in any way by the civil society organization they were working with,” Stonbely told me. In other countries, “journalists were like, ‘How can we not say that human rights are important? How can we not say that we should be fighting against corruption?'”

Here are a couple of the comments that the authors heard about collaborations in the context of the U.S.

“There are certainly still populations, and certainly American society, that view any elements of [cross-field] collaborative work as detrimental to the neutrality of the journalism.”

“This type of cooperation is harder for journalists from the West, and from the U.S. It’s changing, but like 5, 6, 7 years ago, this would be a no-go for many of the Western journalists, because they were taught in school that journalists act alone.”

Meanwhile, an interviewee in Mexico said:

“I find it really difficult to endorse this idea of journalistic neutrality. … I’m not sure what it’s like in other countries, but in Mexico it’s a very close relationship between NGOs, like think-tank researchers, and the media….The media should understand the NGO’s information, put it in context, and then the reader balances it out, not denying it a priori.”

Miriam Wells, impact editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, said:

“I think it’s disingenuous to say [journalists] don’t have an agenda at all. Like, obviously, we have an agenda of justice. We have an agenda of truth. But we don’t have a political agenda. We don’t have a corporate agenda. Again, that’s up for debate. You could say that believing in human rights is a political agenda. Right? And I’d say it’s a lot more gray than a lot of journalists would probably like to think.”

The report was published by the Center for Cooperative Media at the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, and supported with a grant from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. You can read the full thing here.

POSTED     March 30, 2022, 2:50 p.m.
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