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Dean Kirkman Advocacy Journalism Remarks

These remarks were delivered by Dean Larry Kirkman at the Advocacy Journalism in the Digital Age conference, 3/1/11, held by the Newseum in association with the American University School of Communication and the Ford Foundation.

Thank you Paul. And thanks to the Newseum and The Ford Foundation for supporting this conference to help map the field of mission-driven, social justice journalism.

We are here to explore what it takes to broaden the sources of reliable information, what it takes to enable serious reporting that engages, informs and equips broad publics for civic action. We are here because the information needs of communities are not being met.

What else can we do? News companies continue their decline, drastically downsizing, eliminating beats and bureaus, abandoning the watchdog, muckraking journalism we need, relying more and more on government and corporate supplied perspectives and on spin, drama, and sensationalism.

These are perilous times. Who will expose the lies of politicians, for example, about weapons of mass destruction, or the billion dollar investor fraud of Wall Street, the very real destruction of our economy?

Who will ask the toughest questions: Why are these men smiling? Shouldn’t someone go to jail? Who will demand open government and demonstrate how government information can be used to shape public policy solutions to our desperate problems of jobs, education, environment, and health?

What can replace the cut backs in investigative reporting, the cut backs in explanatory reporting, the cut backs in global reporting? Advocacy journalism can speak up and talk back to the powers that be – whether defending human rights abroad and civil liberties at home, supporting the struggles of the poor to improve their lives, explaining climate change or denying a call to war.

When media barrage us with fearsome and unintelligible images of catastrophe, making audiences feel helpless and hopeless, advocacy journalism can provide the context and analysis and the evidence and testimony that frame and drive public debate.

Mission-driven journalism challenges the false dichotomies of popular and serious, personal and political. The conventional wisdom of news media gatekeepers is that their audiences are simply not interested. The job of advocacy journalists is to make people interested in what’s in their interest.

There are wide gaps at the intersection of media, technology and democracy that civil society can fill. Some nonprofit organizations have valuable assets to deploy in their causes – knowledge and trust.

Some nonprofits are becoming news and information providers, linking directly to their audiences, building social networks and partnering with media companies.

How do we adapt the standards and values of journalism to empower these new and diverse voices?

How do we realize the great value of the brand names and social networks of these organizations?

How do we set high expectations for the application of journalistic standards to reporting based on the news, research, opinion, public engagement, and advocacy campaigns of civil society?

This conference cuts across the three divisions of the School of Communication -- journalism, film and media arts, and public communication.

The American University panelists represent many points along the spectrum of advocacy journalism. 

Public Communication professor Caty Borum Chattoo has played a major role in shaping this conference, reflecting her experience in media advocacy, social justice media campaigns and documentary filmmaking, including Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and The Sierra Club Chronicles.

Journalism professor Chuck Lewis, executive editor of our Investigative Reporting Workshop, left CBS’ 60-Minutes to found and direct the Center for Public Integrity, producing hundreds of investigative reports in fifteen years before coming to American University.

In his forthcoming book, titled The Future of Truth, Chuck writes, “As the number and truth-telling capacity of reporters has been significantly diminished, we have been exposed to an increasing, toxic pollution of all means of communication. Political and other lying are on the rise, more sophisticated and pervasive than ever.... The myriad and imaginative ways in which to propagate a palatable but false reality have substantially increased in recent decades, far outpacing the ability of reporters and other independent truth-tellers to hold those lies up to the harsh light of day…. Against these daunting odds, we expect in an open, pluralistic society that journalists and various other watchdogs will safeguard the broad public interest and ultimately provide truth and accountability to citizens. But unfortunately, that is not happening enough today.”

Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence Nick Clooney, a news veteran of more than 50 years, has become an advocate to stop the genocide in Darfur. His work blends reporting, documentary film and media relations.

Jessica Clark is director of the Future of Public Media Project in our Center for Social Media and former executive editor of In These Times. Her recent book on progressive media and the future of journalism, Beyond the Echo Chamber, focuses on the new media outlets for journalism and political commentary.

We come here today with very diverse experience and expertise. Journalists who have left mainstream media because of their passionate intensity to right wrongs and to get the greedy bastards. Advocates who believe they can do more to serve their causes if they are trusted sources of news and information. Let’s get smarter together. Let’s take the high road. Let’s imagine a vigorous and inclusive public media. Let’s anticipate the opportunities in the emerging digital landscape. There’s too much at stake not to.