Outgoing ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan urges journalists "not to give in to dark scenarios"
By JOYCE BARNATHAN
International Center for Journalists President
Before I step down after 15 years of serving as the president of the International Center for Journalists, I want to share a few thoughts with the wide network of journalists around the world I have been so privileged to work with. Times look bleak, I know. Afghan journalists are facing deadly attacks as the Taliban takes control. In Russia the Putin regime is trying to shutter independent news groups such as IStories and Meduza. In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, founder of the outstanding news site Rappler, is facing seven active legal cases against her. And far too many journalists have been murdered, from Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia, who helped ICFJ on our Middle East programs, to Ján Kuciak of Slovakia, whose intrepid reporting partner Pavla Holcová ICFJ will honor in November.
The list of challenges goes on and on.
We are witnessing the rise of autocrats and populists in Eastern Europe and Latin America—at a time when we expected democracies to be flourishing. Social media platforms have become purveyors of massive misinformation and disinformation, endangering lives in the process. The business model of journalism is under attack, with citizens demanding free news media as well as quality news media, which costs money. I have never been one for gloom or doom. I urge us all not to give in to dark scenarios. When I look back, I also see tremendous progress. In a pandemic with rampant disinformation, often perpetuated by top leaders, many people came to appreciate trustworthy journalism, which is needed to keep us informed, to help us make smart decisions, to hold our officials to account. With all the fanfare years ago about social sites “democratizing the media” by allowing everyone to be a journalist, I think we now understand that we need gatekeepers, trusted journalists who can sort fact from fiction.
When I look at the work of journalists in our global network, I feel optimistic. I see that investigative journalism is strong, despite dire predictions of its collapse when I first started at ICFJ in 2006. In the U.S. we have seen the rise of distinguished nonprofit journalism groups such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project. Witness, too, the phenomenal investigations by our international partners, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Eastern Europe and Connectas in Latin America, among others. They broke huge news, and also linked up to collaborate on cross-border stories, from money laundering to human trafficking. Think Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. Media innovation is also global. Certainly U.S. media innovations, from the iPhone to Twitter, are everywhere. Yet over the past decade, we have also witnessed what I call South-to-North innovation, as journalists from less developed countries introduce exciting journalistic techniques to newsrooms in wealthy nations. One example of many: Our 2021 ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award winner, Natália Leal, a distinguished fact-checker from Brazil, created an interactive graphic on COVID-19 that inspired a similar one at The Washington Post. Speaking of fact checkers, this is also a global phenomenon. You may be aware of The Post’s Fact Checker column, which awards “Pinocchios” to public officials who spread misinformation. There are scores of fact-checking groups across the world, some backed by ICFJ: Chequeado, AfricaCheck, PesaCheck, to name a few. The Poynter Institute has brought them together in the International Fact-Checking Network to share great ideas for sorting lies from the truth. We are also seeing worldwide experimentation in new ways for media outlets to turn a profit during challenging financial times. In the United States, the American Journalism Project is supporting nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations to stave off the alarming trend of communities losing their only sources of local news. In Latin America, with our partner SembraMedia, we have launched the Velocidad accelerator for digital news outlets, which are finding additional sources of revenue even during the pandemic. We are taking case studies from that project global to help other media outlets strengthen their bottom lines.
Nonprofits that support the news media have also joined forces under the Global Forum for Media Development. I feel proud to have been a former chair—and a longtime member of the steering committee—of a group that is committed to help journalists worldwide. We may compete for limited funding for journalism—and funding is scarce—but we are collaborators first and foremost. It’s essential that organizations like ICFJ remain nimble, and that’s not easy. Many nonprofits can spend only the funds they have raised for dedicated programs, not for the sudden twists and turns that the real world often presents. What were we to do when a pandemic hit and journalists needed to understand COVID-19, a virus few knew anything about? I’m particularly proud of ICFJ’s efforts to help journalists cover the pandemic. Without initial funding, we organized hundreds of webinars in five languages so that reporters could learn how best to provide life-saving information. Our unparalleled International Journalists’ Network, IJNet.org, kicked into gear and now offers more than 1,100 resources for journalists on COVID-19 in eight languages. We were fortunate that the funding poured in to support our efforts. I have worked, over many years, with a stellar team of genuinely talented and passionate colleagues at ICFJ. I have them to thank for helping ICFJ become what it is today. Tens of thousands of journalists have benefitted from our training, our innovations, our resources, our research. Through it all, the ICFJ team has stayed on top of trends that have transformed our field, backing early experiments in mobile news for the poorest regions of India and training citizen journalists before the Arab Spring. The list goes on and on. My successor as ICFJ president, Sharon Moshavi, has been an indispensable partner for 14 years, and I am certain that she will lead ICFJ to new heights. Though there is tremendous work still to be done, let’s not forget how far we have come. More and more people understand that journalism is a key pillar of democracy. I personally believe our democracies are at stake. We have made progress, and we will make more because we must. This wouldn’t happen without our dedicated funders and board of directors and to them I remain deeply grateful. To my journalism colleagues worldwide, I am so proud of your work, your bravery, your commitment. And I’ll be there, rooting for your success.