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Journalists who choose collaboration over scoops

Collective reporting allows journalists to protect themselves while keeping the pressure on governments

January 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

2014 was a bad year for journalists. 2015 is looking even worse.

On Wednesday afternoon gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in central Paris, killing 12 people, including editor Stéphane Charbonnier and nine other journalists.

The shootings capped months of assaults on journalists by thugs, terrorist groups and governments around the world. Attacks included high-profile beheadings, targeted shootings and lengthy imprisonments. Covering the news is increasingly perilous, and the murder and imprisonment of journalists has become so commonplace that it rarely even makes news. More than 60 journalists were killed in 2014, and at least 220 reporters, including three Al Jazeera journalists awaiting a retrial in Egypt, were imprisoned around the world.

“The hysteria of the ‘war on terror’ has become, in part, a war on journalists,” Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, one of the three Al Jazeera journalists incarcerated in Egypt, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times on Jan. 6. Fahmy’s commentary illustrates a growing trend in the targeting of reporters. For example, most journalists targeted in 2014 covered not war, human rights or corruption but politics, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. We know war reporting is inherently dangerous, but so is reporting on the day-to-day affairs of weak, ineffectual and fraudulent governments.

 “I am suspicious of governments … and their version of vital interests,” journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote in her 1988 memoir, “The Face of War.” Journalists around the world rightly continue to share her suspicion of their leaders, who, in turn, are tightening restrictions on independent press and threatening individual journalists for their scoops.

This is why some journalists are beginning to experiment with a form of reporting that runs counter to scoop-based news, which has in many ways defined our profession. Since 2002, the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) has helped build networks of reporters in developing countries to cover news stories. Under this new practice, journalists are banding together to seek more collaborative and less byline-driven ways to cover politics, publish information and hold leaders accountable.

We at JHR have learned that when journalists from various news organizations join forces on a story, what’s lost in the satisfaction of an exclusive is usually made up for in how a community reacts to collective coverage. Tanzania, which dropped 29 points on Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index over the last two years, in part because of the killing of journalists Daudi Mwangosi and Issa Ngumba, offers an excellent example of such collaborative reporting. In 2012 police shot and killed Mwangosi during a scuffle over the arrest of another journalist. Ngumba was found shot and strangled in a forest near his home a few months later. Since then, reporters from multiple media organizations have been cooperating to research, investigate and distribute stories that are deemed unfavorable to the government.

If citizens truly value the contribution of journalists to the democratic process, they should put pressure on governments to ensure that journalists around the world have safe environments to do their jobs.

The revolutionary tidbit here is not that journalists follow one another’s work or report on a news story. It’s that a reporter with a great scoop calls and shares the information with other reporters, arranging to release the information to the public at the same time. By way of comparison, imagine if The Washington Post’s editors had shared Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate investigation with The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal before they published their exposé.  

The journalists who JHR works with miss the days of breaking big political news, but in the trade-off gain personal safety and job stability. While many governments often don’t think twice before arresting, intimidating or even assassinating individual journalists, they are much less likely to target several reporters or media houses. In 2013, Tanzania banned two local dailies, Mwananchi and Mtanzania, for running what it called a seditious story about government salaries. Unable to continue their normal work, journalists at the two newspapers began publishing breaking news on Facebook, which is not covered by the country’s Newspaper Act, which legislators used to silence them.

Another innovative example of collective reporting comes from West Africa. The Liberian government routinely arrests or threatens journalists for critical reporting. In 2011, after the re-election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, JHR partnered with local journalists through the Liberia Media Center to track progress on the government’s 150-Day Action Plan, using mobile technology. A network of journalists and citizen-journalists signed on to monitor 85 policy promises that the new administration pledged to execute in the first 150 days of her new term. The government’s initiative was divided into six sectors, which included reconciliation, youth empowerment, better services and economic growth. Journalists around the country then used text messages to report on these issues to JHR’s SMS project. Citizens also conveyed observations and analysis to the team of journalists, who analyzed the information as part of the investigations into the government’s pledges.

On the basis of data gathered through the project, the team of journalists reported that Johnson Sirleaf’s government had met only 19 percent of its commitments at the 100-day mark. Their collective reporting forced the government into action, reaching 66 percent of its promises by the end of the initiative.

Similar patterns of collective reporting have been employed elsewhere. For example, journalists working with JHR in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have formed a network of 11 press clubs that issue alerts and report on threats against the others. Such collaboration is not limited to developing countries. For example, in 2013, when the United Kingdom began pressuring Guardian editors to turn over files leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the paper teamed up with The New York Times to release the documents. Collaborative reporting is becoming an important strategy to further the goals of journalism.

The barbaric attack on journalists and press freedom in Paris reminds us that it is only one strategy in an increasingly hostile environment. Journalists shouldn’t have to continue employing new reporting methods to keep themselves safe. If citizens truly value the contribution of journalists to the political and democratic process, they will need to speak up in the coming days and call on governments to ensure that journalists around the world have safe environments to do their jobs. 

Danny Glenwright is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto-based media development organization. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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