Thursday, June 19, 2008

The New Watchdogs

I’m sitting in a movie theater just outside Washington that is jammed with cause advocates, filmmakers, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders. It’s the second day of SilverDOCS, one of the nation's top documentary film conferences, and attendees are buzzing about the transformative power of digital storytelling to engage audiences and create social change locally and globally. This is an edgy, influential crowd: 108 long and short documentaries from 64 countries are being screened here this week; most were made to expose global social ills.

I’m thinking about Tom Bettag—a lot. In May 2001, some four months before 9/11—a day the world got smaller—Bettag, then the executive producer of ABC's Nightline, invited me to attend a conference at Columbia University. Ironically, he and other top journalists were meeting to explore how new digital video technologies—then just emerging—could be used to fight moves by network cost-cutters to slash foreign news budgets and close overseas news bureaus.

Bettag did not hide his frustration. "They (TV executives) say Americans don’t care much about foreign news but that’s a canard put out by the accountants," he told those gathered at Columbia. Presciently, Bettag knew the digital video revolution would make foreign news-gathering far less costly and give more power to those in the field. Why not move immediately, then, to proliferate the technology and give Americans a more authentic, urgent knowledge of the world?

Fast-forward seven years. Much has changed—and hasn't. Digital video documentaries—"cause news docs"—are the hot new medium of the moment. News budgets are still under assault.

Bettag's 2001 activism came to mind this morning, when Michael Markarian, the executive vice president of The Humane Society of the United States and author of a blog called Animals and Politics, spoke on a SilverDOCS panel about the erosion of traditional news gathering, this time by newspapers. “Big cuts in news journalism staff, in funding for investigative journalism and the rapid decline of newspapers is affecting advocacy and is having an impact on documentary filmmakers, as well,” Markarian said.

Markarian knows this well. One of today's "cause-news docs" producers, Markarian in January famously drummed up more than a half-million hits to the Humane Society's fundraising Web site after posting a digital video investigation by his staff that reported the abuse of downed cattle at a California slaughterhouse. In the video, Humane Society executives said the poking, prodding, and forklifting of sick and downed cows there endangered food safety in school lunchrooms across America. CNN and The Associated Press picked up the humane society's story, pretty much unquestioned, and it led to the recall of 145 million pounds of ground beef, the temporary removal of beef from many school lunch menus, and eight congressional hearings exploring the possibility of a link between animal cruelty and food safety. The story also helped the Humane Society raise millions of dollars in new and expanded donations.

“Obviously,” Markarian said, “the news media is changing but the issues remain—so it’s falling more and more to advocacy groups to investigate and uncover what’s happening and play the role of the watchdog in society, which the media are playing less and less.”

Maybe so. Hooray for a concerned, enlivened citizenry. But is this new "cause-news docs" movement entirely a good thing? When does advocacy become propaganda?

Seven years ago, Bettag and other journalists worried about whether the American public was getting enough information. Now—with nonprofits and philanthropists increasingly using digital video technologies to create their own news stories on social issues near and dear to their hearts—there’s a question of whether the public is getting enough of the right information.

Markarian's story, for example, did not include interviews with outside experts, independent food safety officials, meatpacking officials, slaughterhouse managers, or government regulators. It did not investigate the source of the problem nor prove that the abuse had, in fact, tainted the public food supply. (The slaughterhouse, for example, when finally questioned much later, said the cows in question were never processed into food and that forklifts were required to move them, since they couldn't walk or stand by themselves.) Further, the only people quoted in the Humane Society video were employees of the Humane Society, convinced that what was happening at the slaughterhouse was abuse and that the abuse was threatening the health of millions. (see video clip, below)

Appropriately, one SilverDOCS panel was entitled “Is it Propaganda? Using Media as a Tool for Social Change.” Markarian was there. So was Sameer Padania, the director of The Hub, a Web site that debuted in December that offers video training to citizen news documentarians. The Hub is part of the nonprofit Witness, which gives people digital video cameras so they can document human rights abuses around the world. Padania says that ideally, The Hub “will be a platform eventually for citizens, filmmakers, and news organizations to pull together.” Its motto: See it. Film it. Change it.

To be sure, this is a critical, exciting time for filmmakers and journalists—one filled with tremendous opportunity. But even some of the new citizen journalists are starting to question the rise of partisan media. Ethan Zuckerman, the cofounder of Global Voices Online, a new international news site that aggregates news blogs from around the world, asked recently: “Should we expect that people are aware that media has changed and that they should expect every voice to have strong, visible bias? Or is there a need to re-learn how to read/view both online and offline media to understand that we’ve got far more activist media and far less neutrality?”

Back in 2001, Bettag (now the top documentary film producer for the Discovery Channel, a cosponsor of the SilverDOCS festival) and Parisa Khosravi, CNN's chief of international news gathering, warned that the digital storytelling movement would bring with it a critical need to guard against staged news events, misleading and one-sided reporting, inaccurate assertions and lack of context. “It’s going to take some people who have great journalistic voices who know how to tell a story extremely well” to do it properly, Bettag had said. “There are going to be a lot of people who are going to do it irresponsibly, and they will make people hesistant.”

The Humane Society's Markarian, today defending his efforts and those of other nonprofits to break news, says he's confident that viewers "know propaganda when they see it."

But do they? If propaganda is really good, it feels like fact. Let’s hope that citizen media activists of all stripes keep trying, at least, to recognize the difference.

To view the Humane Society's digital video investigation, click on the screen below:

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