Worth a look: The Groundtruth Project and Foreverstan

Last night I attended the launch of the Groundtruth Project, a non-profit news organization focused on training the next generation of international correspondents and producing international journalism. Today, Groundtruth has published their most recent project, Foreverstan, a current and nuanced look at the United States’ longest war. There’s an introduction video embedded above, but the project website is really worth a look.

groundtruthproject First, a little about the Groundtruth Project. It was founded by Charles Sennott (co-founder of GlobalPost and longtime reporter), Gary Knight (co-founder of VII), and Kevin Douglas Grant (formerly the Senior Editor of Special Reports at GlobalPost). In Sennott’s introduction last night he said that he had been talking with the Ford Foundation, one of Groundtruth’s funders, about the difficulties of running GlobalPost as a business. They said that GlobalPost may technically be a for-profit enterprise, but it’s really a non-profit. Sennott then founded Groundtruth as a non-profit dedicated to international newsgathering and training young journalists for international reporting.

Though last night in Boston was the official launch of Groundtruth, the organization has been active for a few years. They’ve funded a number of reporting fellowships and projects: in Egypt, in Burma, on global health, human rights in Africa, millenials around the world, and this year’s Middle East Fellowship. They’ve also published a number of special reports on topics around the world in addition to these fellowships. Crucially, Groundtruth makes sure that their stories reach wide audiences, partnering with a number of international news organizations including Public Radio International, WGBH, PBS Frontline and others.

Screenshot of the Foreverstan website - a project by the Groundtruth Project
Screenshot of the Foreverstan website – a project by the Groundtruth Project

Foreverstan is the latest of these special reports, published in partnership with WGBH and funded by the Ford Foundation and The Bake Family Trust. It combines writing, video, and photography by Jean MacKenzie, Beth Murphy, and Ben Brody, looking at the current situation of Afghanistan through stories centered around the internationally-built Ring Road in the country. The stories are separated into three sections: a look at the military handover to Afghanistan forces, girls’ education in the country, and the lives of Afghanistan’s millenials, who’ve only known war during their lifetimes. It’s an ambitious project, but one which looks a bit deeper than most conflict reporting. At the launch last night, the founders and panelists stressed the importance of “context” reporting, examining the circumstances surrounding and leading to conflict.

Keep an eye on Groundtruth’s site for future projects and ways to get involved. Also, not to be missed is the Groundtruth Project’s Field Guide, which includes guidelines for reporting from the field and a collection of essays on lessons learned from the field by a number of international correspondents, including James Foley. It’s a free download and a great resource for those interested in international reporting. You can also keep up with Groundtruth’s projects at their blog.

Analyzing ISIS’ Photography

A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.
A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.

In November last year, Aperture published a fascinating article about the use of photography by ISIS (aka Islamic State, ISIL, DAESH, Da’Ish. See this wikipedia section for the various names) by Sam Powers. I’ve been meaning to link to it since then, but am just now getting to it.

The article looks at images in ISIS videos and publications and speaks briefly about the almost journalistic infrastructure across the world that produces and disseminates these images, often for a Western audience. The article examines themes used in recruitment and publicity materials and echo other media outlets’ efforts to analyze the production of ISIS propaganda. Vice looked at video production and branding, PRI examines video production and especially the speed at which videos are released and the quality of their translations, Slate compares the imagery to Homeland and addresses the history of jihadist propaganda, and the Daily Mail (I usually try not to link to them, but this seems like a decent article) reads various ISIS videos in a method reminiscent of the Kremlinology of the Cold War (and more recently). This sort of analysis, looking for clues beyond what is most obvious in ISIS’ communications, is particularly interesting with the videos featuring British hostage John Cantlie as a news presenter.

World Fixer creates worldwide, reputation-based database of fixers

WorldFixer.com
WorldFixer.com

If you worked with a fixer, you know how valuable they can be, and also how difficult they can be to find. Typically, one asks for recommendations from others who have worked in a region to find someone to help with translating, transportation, and access. Now, World Fixer aims to create a worldwide database of fixers for media companies to help facilitate their reporting. This is a huge undertaking and one which requires a method to verify safety and reputation on both sides of the equation. Reporters need to know that the prospective fixer knows what they’re doing and won’t sell the reporter to kidnappers, etc. Fixers need to know that people contacting them for work are actual journalists and not just trying to get personal information so they can kill or kidnap the fixer. Columbia Journalism Review has a good backgrounder on some of the issues at play in the fixer-journalist relationship.

I asked Mike Garrod, one of the founders of World Fixer, a bit about how the site works.

It is common that facilitators let their guard down just because an employer is waving a cheque book but it’s important that they know as much as they can find out before engaging on a project.”Mike Garrod, founder of World Fixer

World Fixer started this year to try and help employers (media, NGO’s and Travel operators) find trusted, local fixers, producers and journalists around the world. The key word here is ‘trusted’ and anyone who has had to use local staff in their ventures will know what can go wrong,” Garrod said over email. So they’ve developed a system for verifying and tracking reputation of both fixers and those who would hire them. Members on the site give confidential references to World Fixer who then call and verify their identity and capabilities. Members can also post testimonials and reviews of individuals they work with through World Fixer. But, he acknowledges that there is “no foolproof system” to ensure trust, and encourages users to perform their own due diligence before working with someone found on the site. World Fixer also offers services to conduct background checks and additional verification of fixers.

Fixers can also work with World Fixer to get background information about the companies and journalists that would hire them. The site encourages users to keep all correspondence on the site so that there is a record in case of any disputes. The fixer-journalist relationship can be unbalanced, Garrod said. “It is common that facilitators let their guard down just because an employer is waving a cheque book but it’s important that they know as much as they can find out before engaging on a project.”

Sites like World Fixer require a critical mass of users to be of any value. Having only started this year, I was curious about how big the database is so far. Garrod says that the founders of World Fixer have 25 years in the journalism business so mined their existing contacts to start. There are now nearly 900 fixers listed in the database and 300 employers have signed up, including independent journalists, BBC News desks, Discovery Channel, ABC, and Save the Children and other NGOs.

Take a look around the site yourself. Garrod said that signups are welcome for fixers, journalists, and media companies. “We are keen to create more work for our fixers in whatever form that comes so [photographers and other journalists] are welcome to [sign up],” Garrod said. Of course, new members must provide contact information so they can be verified before having access to fixer information.

And be sure to check out World Fixer’s blog. There are posts including notes from the field, ideas about physical and data security precautions, and explorations of issues affecting fixers.