By Annie Rosenthal, +SocialGood Community Manager
Journalists are messengers of truth, using their voices and their pens throughout history to keep governments accountable, citizens educated, and important stories heard. As technology transforms the way we communicate, journalists are quickly adapting, turning to new ways and media for reporting. However, in their efforts to bring truth to the world, jounalists remain at risk. 18 journalists have been killed in 2017, and 1,246 since 1992, for bearing witness on behalf of our world.
While most of us interact with the news every day, we rarely turn the spotlight on the people who create it. That’s why +SocialGood has partnered with Sarah Jones Reports, the Committee to Protect Journalists, The Frontline Club, The National Press Club, Muck Rack, the Newseum, International Association of Press Clubs, Knight Foundation, Livestream, reddit and communities around the world to honor the journalists who have sacrificed everything. Learn more about Remembering Fallen Journalists +SocialGood here.
In exploring the state of media today and the inspiration behind Remembering Fallen Journalists +SocialGood, +SocialGood sat down (virtually) with the movement’s founder, Sarah Jones. Sarah is an award winning journalist with a large social media presence and nearly a decade of experience. She is one of the top twenty North American Young Leaders chosen by Friends of Europe and was selected as one of the top one thousand most influential Twitter profiles.
More than 67,000 people follower her under reported news tweets on Twitter and in 2014 she was voted Best Journalist in Social Media by a panel of industry leaders. Sarah is a two time International Reporting Project Fellow and while she is an on-air reporter has won awards for her still photography. On more than one occasion Sarah has been invited to advise senior level military planners and government officials — in the US and allied countries — on social technologies.
For the last three years Sarah has been a Skoll World Forum Delegate and Online Media Awards judge. She is also behind the international moment of silence and online event to help remember fallen journalists with co-partners like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UN Foundation’s Plus Social Good. Sarah has worked with Reuters Trust; VICE; Al Jazeera America; CNN; ITN’s Channel 4 News; Gulf News; BBC World Service; Brook Lapping Productions on the documentary “9/11: The Day That Changed the World”; and ABC 7 News in her hometown of Chicago on a biweekly feature called “Someone You Should Know.”
Note: Interview conducted via email and edited lightly for clarity
Why did you choose to become a journalist?
Sarah Jones: I always thought I was going to be a doctor. When I was about 13 years old, I began writing a cancer awareness publication that was later published by the Cleveland Clinic and American Cancer Society. It was distributed to Leukemia patients and their families by John Hopkins University, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Mt Sinai, and American Cancer Society. I cold-called all these organizations at 13 and at the time thought it was because I was going to be a doctor. It wasn’t until senior year of undergrad that I realized it was because I was born a journalist.
My passion is empowering others with information — just straight facts — so that they themselves can make a decision they believe in. An informed society is the backbone of an efficient society. It’s simply my job to be a megaphone for information.
Did you have a hero or a mentor that inspired your work?
There are journalists whose work I admire, whose old school editorial standards I respect. I’m inspired by the people who trust me to share their stories and be their megaphone. If someone has lived or experienced something and their story is one others can relate to and learn from, it is always worth sharing. Also, my passion is under-reported news. It’s frustrating because I feel the majority of the world is not covered by mainstream media. So I’ve gotten used to hearing, “No one cares about those people, or that country,” but I thank God that it continues to ignite a fire in me to push harder.
The people in my career — professors, former bosses etc. — who have believed in me inspire me as well because I want to pay tribute to their belief and support. Also the people who follow my stories. Because I truly feel grateful and blessed to try to serve the public to the best of my ability as a journalist. I highly regard that trust and never want to take it for granted. It’s a responsibility and a privilege.
Why is independent news and journalism an important part of creating a safer, fairer, and healthier world?
I’ve seen the decline in news grow steeper over the last ten years and I truly believe there is a direct correlation between the quality of journalism and the state of our world. News is information and an informed society is the backbone of an efficient one. News is the foundation of a democracy. This is why one of America’s forefathers — Thomas Jefferson — so famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
How is technology transforming the news industry?
There are three major ways technology is transforming the news industry. The first is that it has completely reshaped the information age. The news used to share a message from one source to a large audience and that was the end of it. Maybe you’d get some letters sent by post or phone calls about a broadcast, but you didn’t hear from your entire audience. What the digital age has done has made it so that you share news and then your audience can reply. This is brilliant because if you can communicate with your audience, you can serve them better! Some outlets are doing a better job of utilizing social media as a way to improve their service to their audiences and the public.
The two other disruptions I see is that technology has completely reshaped the purpose of 24-hour news. It’s not about being first anymore. If someone witnesses a story, they will tweet it or post it first. 24-hour news should be about being right the first time. So people will see a tweet about a possible incident and then they’ll turn on the news to know what’s true. 24-hour news should be providing vetted information — telling us what they don’t know, addressing misinformation, and most importantly providing context and analysis when there’s enough information to do so.
The third aspect of the inter-connectivity of communication around the world means that rumors aren’t just for you and your friends — they go viral. This has also created a genre of debunking that I think would be great for all news outlets to adopt. There’s a point when the rumor reaches a threshold that requires fact-checking, vetting, and setting the record straight from a journalistic perspective.
What are the greatest challenges facing journalists and journalism today?
I would say conflict, especially for local journalists. Look at North Mexico — El Norte had to shut down because of safety concerns. It had a print run of 30,000–35,000 in a city with a population of 1.3 million (Jiuarez in Chihuahua). Now that area only has five local papers. There were several journalists killed in March in Mexico. Yet this is not making the international papers. Many journalists in Mexico continue to risk their lives to help maintain an informed public because they will not be silenced.
Another unrelated challenge facing journalists is ourselves. I think we need to adhere to high editorial standards while also being willing to break out of our box. Get creative. Part of informing large audiences is capturing their attention (without misleading or misinforming!).
Which organizations are supporting safe and effective journalism around the world?
When we talk about journalist safety, I think it’s important to talk about two aspects: physical safety and mental health (the latter is rarely discussed). The DART center is doing some amazing work when it comes to PTSD and mental health. I want to stress that it’s not just reporters or people in the field that are susceptible to these mental health stressors — video editors watch a lot of the footage that will never see the light of day because they have to cut the horrific portions out.
In this digital age, the horrific realities of terrorism and war are often documented. I believe news organizations need to speak more openly about this, yet there’s still a stigma and a normalization of non-healthy coping mechanisms. When it comes to physical safety, the ACOS Alliance, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Frontline Club, the Frontline Freelance Register, RISC, and many other organizations are working to make a higher standard of safety the norm within all news organizations whether the journalists are staff or freelance.
What I love about the ACOS alliance is that it is actually the result of a collaboration between news organizations, press freedom NGOs, and journalists. The major framework they are promoting is the ‘Freelance Journalist Safety Principles’. A freelancer and a staff member are both important. A human is a human is a human. Local journalists, stringers/fixers, and journalists who parachute into a location are all staff and deserve safety and support. Sometimes you hear of young inexperienced journalists who go into war zones — without any Hostile Environment First Aid Training or frankly much experience at all. I really think it’s unconscionable to send someone into harm’s way when they don’t know what they’re getting into and don’t have the experience or reflexes to fall back on.
What other challenges are you and other current journalists facing today?
Having worked in news for ten years, I continually see things I want to change for the better. I feel our audience has completely evolved but the broadcast format of news hasn’t changed. I can have a real-time conversation with an astronaut live while he/she is in space but the evening TV news still has the same-looking anchor, in the same suit, seated behind the same desk. The audience has evolved. I think TV news should evolve as well, but above all it must do so while adhering the journalist creed and not compromising on editorial standard.
There’s a lot of sensationalizing happening in journalism today. If you look at real stories you’ll see there’s no need for exaggeration. The truth is sometimes hard enough to believe itself. All this sexifying of stories impacts audience trust. Once you lose trust, you lose credibility and then it’s game over. That’s a major reason I hate the term “fake news.” News isn’t fake. News is fact-checked, sourced, and verified. We really should be using the term false messaging or propaganda.
All this talk of Twitter bots etc. is just propaganda in the digital age. That is not a journalist’s job to solve. Rumors can now go viral so it’s our job once it reaches a certain threshold to say — “Ok, you may have heard this and we’ve investigated it — and it’s not true because x,y, and z” or “It’s a twisting of information because of this,” or “It’s true!” But leave the propaganda fighting to defense, national security, and foreign ministries. It’s not a journalist’s job to fight. It’s a journalist’s job to serve the public by helping to maintain an informed public.
How can we work to ensure that coverage is fair, inclusive, and true?
Many groups, including Facebook and Google are trying to check the growth of so-called “fake news.”
It’s important to note that there’s an ongoing discussion about verifying news sites and free speech — what are the long-term consequences of saying what is and isn’t a verified news site…who decides the list, how do they decide etc. Here’s a list to start off with of some helpful tools:
- A Merrimack College communications professor Melissa Zimdars has released a simple Google Doc.
- New York Magazine created a Chrome extension that alerts the user to fake news sites based on Zimdar’s list.
- Website Fake News Watch also lists categories of “fake news” sites to be on the lookout for.
What inspired you to create Remembering Fallen Journalists +SocialGood?
I wanted to create a non-political, global moment for media workers and the members of the public they serve to come together and honor the lives of those lost for bearing witness. Over 1,246 storytellers have been silenced since 1992 according to CPJ. I had reached a point where enough was enough and I had to act. I wanted to create a moment where politics and borders didn’t matter. I wanted a moment that was just about humanity. A moment of silence, of reflection, and of gratitude. I wanted a moment to remember fallen journalists. And I wanted something global citizens could have to symbolize this moment.
What were the greatest successes and most inspiring moments you witnessed during the past three years of Remembering Fallen Journalists +SocialGood?
Our first year, we reached nine million people and had events in 10 different countries around the world. From Libya to Mongolia to Japan to the UK to the US. It was pretty amazing. That same year, the Newseum was handing out the Remembering Fallen Journalists +SocialGood Ribbons, which was amazing. This past year, in 2017, an artist in Poland created a memorial. I didn’t even know about it till I saw people in Warsaw posting pictures of it with the hashtag #remembering on May 3rd.
If you were to leave us with one request for action, what would it be?
Join the Facebook group to stay up to date on the latest, tweet the hashtag #remembering on May 3rd and request a free, biodegradable, ethically made “remembering” ribbon at www.rememberingfallenjournalists.com.