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Pulitzer Center Update April 30, 2010

Bridging the Gaps: Old-Media Values in a New-Media World

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Searing images capture a disturbing Ugandan trend -- the recent rise of charlatan priests and the...

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This speech was delivered by Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communications' conference titled "New Journalism, New Ethics?" on April 30, 2010.

I was honored and pleased when Stephen Ward asked me to give this talk. It's a subject close to home, this question of how we maintain journalism standards in the midst of profound journalism change – when traditional news-media gatekeepers hold vastly less sway than in decades past, and when public discourse is increasingly driven by partisan voices that ricochet across the web without regard to attribution, verification or accountability. It is also a time, of course, of unprecedented access to information, and avenues for public engagement and debate that were unthinkable before the advent of the Internet. In the four years since we created the Pulitzer Center I have often said that we cannot change these new realities; I've said that what we can do, what we must do, is hold firm to the journalism standards that matter – and that as we create new financial or editorial models of journalism we be ever mindful that we are also, collectively, creating the ethical groundrules for this new journalism, too.

One reason I've welcomed the opportunity to address these issues is because for these four years I've felt comfortably on the side of the angels – the founder of a non-profit journalism center, backed by individuals and foundations committed to in-depth, fair reporting on big systemic global issues, with a special emphasis on topics and places that traditional news-media outlets have been increasingly less able, or less willing, to address on their own. We have identified strong journalists with important stories, given them the dollars needed to get out in the field, served as agents in helping to place the stories in high-end news outlets, and then deployed them and their work to schools, universities and other public fora to engage the widest possible audience. We have used the Internet to amplify the journalist's voice, creating interactive web portals that address big issues --like food and water, climate change and HIV/AIDS, fragile states and women and children in crisis – and we have structured the portals so as to give visitors the opportunity for direct interaction with journalists and to share their own voices, as part of a global conversation that is grounded in substantive, vetted reporting. In all of this we think we are on the side of the angels, building a model that we think has value and can be sustained, and before I'm done I want to come back to some specific examples of how this works in practice.

But I want to begin with something less comfortable, a project we sponsored that has exposed us to attack on the very subject of this conference – our ethics and our commitment to basic journalism standards. I do not think we were unethical in how we approached the project, nor do I think we violated those standards. We did make mistakes, however, mistakes which we have tried to redress and for which we have publicly apologized. We have learned some painful lessons – lessons that speak not just to the Pulitzer Center but to the new journalism ecosystem we are all engaged in building. I want to explore those lessons in detail, and what we see as fixes that need to be made. I know that some of my colleagues here are well ahead of us, in thinking these issues through. I look to you all for guidance and advice, and I welcome the opportunity for questions and debate.

But enough preamble. I'll give you the headline, at least the headline as reported this past Monday in a tweet from one of my favorite programs, On The Media. "Pulitzer Center photog pays Ugandan family to exhume/take pictures of child's body. Pulitzer Center Apologizes." You have to admit, it gets your attention. The tweet was incorrect. The statement to which it linked, issued in my name and published on our website April 21, explicitly said that we did not believe payment had been made to exhume a body. To On the Media's credit it later corrected the mistake -- and the mistake itself was understandable, given the number of blog comments construing the situation in just that way. That's one of the issues we face -- how do we find the truth amid the noise? ** In any case our statement acknowledged that a body had been exhumed, that our website had displayed one of the photographs of that body, and that after five days we had concluded it was a mistake to take or display that image. We took responsibility for some other mistakes as well, to which I'll return, but we also said that we would stand behind the project and continue the work. How we got to those decisions, and some of the lessons we've learned, is what I hope to address today.

The Uganda project is one of the darkest we have tackled -- the growing incidence of ritual child sacrifice across several countries of Africa and the abuse, mutilation and murder of children to which it has led. There is no doubt as to the seriousness of the crimes involved, the participation in this profitable market by fraudulent faith healers, and until recently a dearth of coverage even in local media markets. It is among the most horrific crimes I have encountered, and one desperately in need of public exposure and effective government response. The issue was brought to our attention by Marco Vernaschi, an Italian photographer based in Buenos Aires. We have worked closely with Marco for more than a year, first on a project on narco-trafficking in the west African country of Guinea Bissau and more recently a global examination of maternal mortality that included work Marco had done in Guinea Bissau.

But the child sacrifice project is not one that we had chosen to fund, at least initially. We had given Marco a grant to work on a different project, continuing the work he had already begun on maternal mortality. He had planned to report first from Nigeria and then move on to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Ghana and beyond. Marco ran into visa obstacles in Nigeria, however, and decided to focus first on Uganda, where he arrived last January for a two-month stay. He was clear to us from the outset that he planned to pursue the child witchcraft story as well, and that he hoped eventually we would also be able to fund that work. Along the way he had given us detailed emails laying out the proposed project on witchcraft; it was clear that he had done significant research and had contacts across the continent. Our challenge was that we were swamped with other projects, and as far as Marco was concerned committed to completing the maternal mortality project first.

We didn't hear from Marco the first several weeks but then there was a stream of emails – and lots of drama. In late January all of his equipment was stolen. Nikon agreed to cover most of the cost of replacing the equipment, largely on the basis of Marco's reputation – a reputation that grew larger still with the announcement that he had won World Press Photo's top prize in the general news/stories category for the work he had done with us in Guinea Bissau on narco-trafficking. A few days later, in mid February, he wrote that he had failed in his efforts to gain access to the clinics and hospitals he needed to tell the maternal mortality story. A few days after that he wrote to say that he had made progress on the child sacrifice project, and forwarded a link to his initial gallery of photographs. He had documented 11 cases of child abuse or murder from the past two months, he said, including one case of three siblings killed in a single incident and another that involved a 10-year-old girl whose arm and leg had been chopped off and her skull hacked open. Marco said he wanted to continue his investigations in the DRC, on both projects, but that he was out of money and needed more support from us. I again said no, partly because I said we needed more information on the full scope of the witchcraft project and partly because our first priority remained maternal mortality.

He sent us another detailed memo, outlining a project that would include a video documentary and book as well as a web presentation – and he referenced the strong interest he had received in publishing this project from some of the most important news outlets in the world. What these outlets didn't offer, however, was the money Marco needed to keep the project going.

So he went home to Buenos Aires and began working on the material he had gathered already. It was at this point, months into the work, that I said we would consider making the child sacrifice work a Pulitzer Center project, creating a project page on our site to promote the work and designating the $15,000 we had originally committed for maternal mortality to this project instead. Marco sent me a link to an updated photo gallery of the project to date but I didn't review the gallery in detail until another two weeks had passed. It was not until a phone conversation with Marco in early April that we agreed to associate ourselves with the project, and to feature it on our site.

Would we have funded this project had it come to us in the usual way, as an advance proposal to support field work on a topic of interest to us? I'm confident that we would have done so. Marco was someone we knew well, whom we trusted and admired; in similar situations, with previous journalist grantees, we have often made quick decisions to fund additional work without detailed vetting of a specific proposal. But this case was different, in that when we made the commitment Marco had already completed his Uganda field work – and in this case our failure to thoroughly vet the work he had done was a major disservice to us both.

Here's why: In that photo gallery I too quickly reviewed were three photos that should have set off alarm bells right and left. One showed the mutilated body of that 10-year-old girl, missing an arm and leg and the back of her head hacked open. Another showed a shrouded corpse, in an open wooden coffin. A third showed a three-year-old boy, naked, with a catheter emerging from where his penis had been chopped away. The photos are shocking, haunting; they convey in the most visceral way the enormity of the crimes that had been committed. I had no doubt that publishing these photos would bring attention to what was happening; I did not consider nearly enough, nor discuss with Marco, the circumstances in which they were taken -- or the wisdom of making them public.

Marco gave his explanation in three articles he wrote for our blog Untold Stories, which we posted on April 16. We were following the same model as on the Guinea Bissau project a year ago, where I worked with Marco on a series of Untold Stories posts that gave a detailed account of how he came to take those photographs. On Uganda we wanted to post the articles in advance of the scheduled publication that weekend in the London Sunday Times of the first of Marco's photographs from the child witchcraft project, and plans by the Times to feature a more complete gallery of the photos online. We also wanted to respond to criticism of the project on a few photojournalism blogs that began to surface that week.

In the three articles posted on April 16 and a subsequent article posted on April 25 Marco explained that the photograph of Margaret Babirye Nankya, the 10-year-old murdered girl, was taken several hours after her burial, that the body had been exhumed at his request. He also wrote that after photographing the body and videotaping an interview with the child's mother he was asked, by her and by a village elder who was present, for help in obtaining a lawyer. He wrote that he "emptied his wallet," giving her about $70. On the case of Mukisa, the three-year-old mutilated child, Marco wrote that he had taken photographs showing the extent of his wounds at the request of the child's parents, who wanted justice in his case and who also hoped that publicity would bring contributions for the medical care the child would need. The photograph of the open coffin with the shrouded corpse was taken earlier, also after an exhumation conducted at Marco's request and with the consent of the family. In the case of Margaret Babirye Marco wrote that he had acted in the emotion of the moment; in the earlier case he said had consulted first with local police officers, who told him that so long as the family agreed they had no objection to the exhumation.

In our conversations since Marco has said that in his view the fact that the bodies had been exhumed was irrelevant, that what mattered was documenting the mutilation of children. It was this search for visual evidence that led him to the decisions he made, he said, a desire to evoke this crime in a way that would compel public attention and response. A number of critics, addressing this issue on Facebook and on photojournalism blogs, fiercely disagreed. They argue that such exhumations could never be justified, that such images would never have been displayed had the victims been Americans, that the entire project was an exercise in sensationalism that exploited vulnerable people. These are serious issues, to be sure, but on balance, at least initially, we came down on the side of publication.

Several critics raised additional objections – that in the initial photograph captions on his own website Marco had misstated the names and details on some of the cases and that according to a statement by the chief of the anti-human sacrifice unit of the Ugandan police Marco's cash gift to the family of Margaret Babirye was in fact payment for the exhumation. We believe the mistaken details were innocent errors. I followed up with the police chief myself, who acknowledged that his statement about Marco's payment for the exhumation was pure speculation – that he had not been on the scene himself and had no way of knowing what the circumstances were.

We ran on our site the photograph of Margaret Babirye, on a jump page after a warning that the image was graphic. We did not run an image of the naked child but we did include a link out to Marco's photo gallery where it could be viewed. We did not run an image of the open coffin. Five days later we decided to take the images down, from our site as well as Marco's, and to issue a public statement of apology. We were influenced in part by the debate on the blogs, in part by our own intense reflection – and Marco's – on the issues raised. In the case of the three-year-old child, we said in the statement that we had concluded that publicizing the crime did not warrant distribution of images that violated the rights of a child to dignity and privacy. In the case of Margaret Babirye we said we had concluded, and that Marco agreed, that "it was wrong to ask that the body be exhumed. It showed disrespect for the dead, and forced a grieving family to suffer anew. It also had the effect of focusing attention on the actions of one journalist, as opposed to a horrific crime that needs to be exposed."

Some of our critics say we have not gone far enough, that because of the exhumations and other issues we should disavow the project entirely. We disagree. The project is bigger than these controversial images. Last weekend we posted Marco's video interview with Ugandan lawyer Richard Omongole, former country director for Amnesty International, who made clear how serious an issue child sacrifice is, and the failures in law enforcement and public policy that have driven the families of victims to seek recourse through the news media. We also posted Marco's video interview with the mother and brother of Margaret Babirye. We look forward soon to the publication of Marco's full project, examining the multiple dimensions of a crime that touches everyone from street children to so-called "faith healers" to well-established church and business leaders, in a country where according to a Pew survey earlier this month 40 percent of the people believe in witchcraft.

I said in our statement last week that "in the course of this project so far we have learned some painful, useful lessons about the ambiguous intersections of free-lance journalism, blog posts and articles that are published or broadcast." Some of our critics took that as an attack on them, or on the blogosphere, but it was not intended as such. Untold Stories, after all, is itself a blog, a showcase for the work of journalists we support who are either still in the field or just returned. What I was trying to get at was a shift in editorial responsibility, and in the economic climate for journalists, that affects us all.

On the lesson side I would start with the obvious, that the internet is both blessing and curse and must be approached as such.

The controversy over Marco's photographs, and his methods, took place entirely on the web, in advance of publication or broadcast on any mass-media outlet. It has been constructive, in that it has led to a quick decision to withdraw the photographs in question, now and henceforth. To the extent that damage has been done, it is hopefully less than would have been the case had the photographs been printed and distributed. The blog debates were certainly useful feedback for us, and I want to acknowledge that. Those debates, regrettably and perhaps inevitably given the nature of the web, were also full of half-truths, distortions and personal attacks, and too often had the feel of a mob more intent on destroying one photographer than on addressing the subject of his report. "I find it disconcerting that we are talking about the method and not about the facts," one blogger wrote on the website of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "It is shocking to see that we are questioning the photographer's ethics but we are ignoring the atrocities he's documenting… Think about that little girl, about her relatives, about those who loved her."

Another lesson is the increased responsibility that organizations like ours must take for the editorial supervision of the work we support.

As the Pulitzer Center has grown our websites are more than just archives for work that we have sponsored to be published or broadcast by other, larger news organizations. Our Untold Stories blog consists of reports from our journalists in the field and from staff members, original content that is posted sometimes three or more times a day and that currently constitutes roughly a third of our total Internet traffic. Some of these Untold Stories posts come from journalists we are funding who are on staff with our print/broadcast partners, as is the case with our collaborations with NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro on water, food or Sudan. Some are free-lancers for whom we have helped negotiate long-term relationships with a specific outlet, as is the case with Bec Hamilton, a lawyer/journalist who will be making multiple trips to Sudan this year, funded by us, as a special correspondent for The Washington Post. Some of our grantees are free-lancers who have established their own relationships with editors and outlets, as is the case with the project on illegal goldminers in French Guinea that Damon Tabor and Narayan Mahon are completing for Harper's magazine. In such cases editors at the outlets rightly take the lead in directing the journalism.

But in other instances, an increasing proportion of our work, freelancers come to us with proposals for travel support on projects with no guaranteed outlet in advance. This is of course a function of the ongoing retrenchment at most news media outlets, a drying up both of funds for travel and of the editorial personnel required to supervise free-lance stringers and nurture the development of their careers. Organizations like the Pulitzer Center have increasingly come to play that role ourselves, sounding boards as to story ideas and guidance along the way, on projects that often don't get to potential "old media" outlets until they are all but done. We have taken this responsibility seriously, working closely with our journalist grantees and helping as best we can to shape their projects. We were deeply involved with Michael Kavanagh's reporting from eastern Congo, a project that entailed three month-long trips and multi-platform reporting; it won the Robert F. Kennedy Award for best reporting on television on international human rights and an Edward R. Murrow award for radio. On another project, investigating health and safety hazards in Chinese factories, we collaborated closely with our grantee Loretta Tofani – on a project that required five trips to China over 14 months and for most of that time had no assured outlet or editorial supervision beyond the Pulitzer Center. The series eventually ran in the Salt Lake Tribune, in late 2007; it swept most of the major prizes that year for investigative reporting, among them a Gold Medal from Investigative Reporters & Editors. We directly supervised an even more ambitious project on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, one that entailed original poetry, music, photography and videography, short and long print essays, video segments for public television, a nationally distributed radio documentary, and an immersive web experience that won an Emmy last fall for new approaches to news and documentaries.

Of course it was easier to sustain these direct, close relationships when the Pulitzer Center was funding 8 or 10 or 20 projects a year. Last year we funded nearly 50, half of them including video elements for public television. Our staff has grown over these past four years -- from just me to two, three, five and now 10 full-time staff, half of them paid interns, but much of their work is about promoting and marketing projects after completion, as we seek together to engage the broadest possible audience in the big systemic issues our journalists cover. One of the lessons of the Uganda project is that we are short on staff for direct editorial supervision. I don't mean to suggest we had no conversation with Marco Vernaschi; my inbox contains 477 emails from him in the past 15 months! I do believe that we were distracted by other projects, other responsibilities, and did not give the child sacrifice project the thorough vetting it deserved.

Another lesson, related, is that we need to be much more explicit as to the statement of editorial standards. I think looking back that we have taken them for granted far too much, asserting that we were committed to the "highest" journalism standards or to "raising the quality" of international reporting without spelling out what we meant. From the beginning we were pitching projects toward publication or broadcast in high-end "name brand" outlets; I think we assumed – again, too easily – that if our projects appeared in TIME, the Christian Science Monitor, PBS NewsHour and others of that quality, then journalists and the public alike would recognize the standards we hoped to meet. We assumed too much. An urgent task before us now is to spell out explicit standards, in our criteria for grants and as part of our mission statement, to make clear where we stand.

I want to recognize here the great service of Stephen Ward, Brant Houston and our other colleagues, in the report released this morning, Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom. It's an invaluable discussion of the challenges we all face, in the establishment of these new journalism entities, and a practical guide as to the specific steps we each need to take. I should note here in particular the report's focus on funding and transparency, two subjects that were not at issue in the Uganda project but hugely important, in my view, both to the Pulitzer Center and to all of the initiatives that have sprung to life in recent years. We were highly fortunate that we began with a seed grant from members of the Pulitzer family, who very much shared our commitment to multiple voices on big global issues and a determination that the journalism we funded be absolutely independent. They have since put their support on a semi-permanent basis, assuring us stable funding for just under half of our current budget. The Pulitzers have served us equally well as model donors, demonstrating by their actions the kind and terms of funding we could accept from other foundations and individuals. We have built our funding base on multiple legs, from foundations interested in our educational outreach to traditional news media donors to foundations with an interest in raising the visibility of specific issues. We have acquired this funding support because donors believe we are successful in crafting news-media and outreach campaigns, for sustained visibility and engagement on issues of interest to us both. The process has succeeded so far because the donors also understand that the journalism we fund has to remain independent of any special influence, including theirs. We share the new report's commitment to transparency; we make public our list of donors and will continue to do so.

The last lesson I would draw from our recent experience is that as we get bigger we need to hold firm to our own core values.

The Pulitzer Center is an unusual hybrid organization, to my mind unlike most of the new journalism organizations that have been built on the ashes of old media's collapse. We are a significant funder/producer of original journalism content, to be sure, but we are more than that. At one level we serve as agent for our journalist/grantees, matching them with outlets willing to pay for their stories; we also work with them to expose their work as broadly as possible, not just on various news-media outlets but via appearances at schools and universities and through the interactive portals we have built for distribution on the web. This week three of our journalists and two of my staff colleagues have been in St. Louis, speaking about Haiti and Afghanistan at a dozen schools and three universities. Two of our journalists were at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls earlier this week, as part of our Campus Consortium program that brings Pulitzer Center journalists on campus twice a year and that gives students at participating universities the chance to compete for Pulitzer Center travel reporting fellowships. Next week we'll bring to Washington the five winners of this year's Project:Report, a video-reporting contest in collaboration with YouTube, Sony and Intel that gives aspiring journalists the opportunity to compete for $10,000 travel reporting fellowships – and to have their work featured on YouTube in the context of the Pulitzer Center's work with professional journalists. We are working hard to make our Gateway web portals a continuing presence at any school, anywhere, giving students the opportunity to engage the issues via top-grade journalism, to interact online with journalists and with other students, and to post their own take on the issues through our YouTube and Google maps-based Share Your Stories.

But the outreach and engagement we champion is only as good as the journalism on which it is based. The child sacrifice project I have discussed today is very good journalism, on a topic of great import that goes to the heart of our mission of shedding light on issues that would otherwise go unreported. My hope is that in being open about our mistakes in the execution of this project, and moving to rectify them, we can restore the focus where it should be – on bringing an end to the abuse of children in Uganda, an abuse that Marco Vernaschi has eloquently documented.

So that's our case study, more or less in real time. Thanks again for the opportunity to be here. I welcome your questions.

(NOTE: A text of this talk posted earlier did not include the reference in the talk, as delivered, that to the fact that On the Media had corrected its inaccurate tweet. In the text above that reference is now included. We have also added hyperlinks within the speech text.)

View comments and video from Sawyer's speech.