STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I'm Stephanie Sy.
My guest today is Charles Sennott, who spent 25 years on the front lines around the world, much of that with The Boston Globe in the Middle East and Europe and later with the GlobalPost, a news organization and website that he co-founded.
Today he is focused on training a new generation of—let's call them Millennial journalists in the digital age. The GroundTruth Project that he founded has awarded more than 100 fellowships to these early-career journalists, and they are producing award-winning work that you can see on their website thegroundtruthproject.org, as well as on their partner platforms.
Charles, thank you so much for joining us.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thanks for having me.
STEPHANIE SY: It's such an important inflection point and time for journalism. The landscape has changed vastly. You were a foreign correspondent, a bureau chief in Jerusalem and in Europe for The Boston Globe during what many of us journalists would sort of consider a "golden age," when there were foreign bureaus, when people were on the ground reporting from all over the world. How much has the industry changed since then?
CHARLES SENNOTT: I think we're really in a dramatic time of transformation of media. I think it's a revolutionary age for media. I really think it's not an overstatement to say that not since Gutenberg have we had a moment to change the way we tell stories to the world.
STEPHANIE SY: Not since the printing press.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Exactly. This is that big of a revolutionary change. I think the old days of great newspapers and big networks that did a good job on foreign coverage and had great revenue to sustain those big news operations, they were a time of blue sky, and you really did as a young journalist—when I first came in in the 1980s and saw a path forward where you could become a foreign correspondent, you could go tell the stories that matter.
For me, that timed both tragically but importantly with 9/11. I had been covering the Middle East for about nine or ten years before 9/11, and after 9/11 I really covered Afghanistan and then Iraq for about eight months out of the year for the five years after 9/11.
That timeframe was extraordinary. The Boston Globe, where I worked, dedicated a lot of resources to covering the story. The networks dedicated a lot of resources. I don't know that I'd call it a "golden age," but I think that it was an age of a big commitment of large news organizations to telling the story no matter what.
STEPHANIE SY: Was that a factor of American foreign policy at that time? Leading up to 9/11, before that—there was probably, looking at some of the bureaus that had been based in Eastern Europe; after the Wall fell, some of those bureaus started to close. Was the coverage and the bureaus that you saw around the world just a function of American foreign policy at the time?
CHARLES SENNOTT: I think there's always an ebb and flow with how foreign policy is being carried out in the world and how journalists are going to cover that, so you're absolutely right. The fall of the Wall really led a lot of news organizations to contract and to pull back from covering the Cold War; it was over.
I think there was a sense of turning the story into America in the 1990s, in the Clinton administration. There were a lot of important domestic stories.
When 9/11 hit, I think the whole country understood that this was an attack on America, and this was an extraordinary and transformative moment for the world, when a struggle against terrorism would begin, and it would begin a long war, the longest war America has ever fought. The war in Afghanistan, at 16 years and counting, is our longest war, longer than the Civil War, longer than World War II. It does not have the same level of casualties, but it definitely has a level of expenditure, of intensity, of a drain on our country, on our economy, not to mention the suffering of the people in the places where this war is unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq.
STEPHANIE SY: Does The Boston Globe, do major newspapers still have bureaus open in Afghanistan? Where is the coverage of the war today?
CHARLES SENNOTT: The war in Afghanistan is still being covered. The New York Times still has a bureau in Kabul, National Public Radio (NPR) still has a correspondent who goes in and out of Kabul, some news organizations are still there. But there has been a lot of pullback from covering that war as intensely as we all did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
This war on terror is spreading, and I feel like sometimes we feel like it is endless war, and there is that feeling in the air, but I think it's a time—it's a generational struggle against terrorism. How the media will cover it is quite a challenge because it's not going to have conventional front lines. We're not going to have the kind of invasion we had with Afghanistan and then with Iraq, where we can go and embed and cover these stories. These are big challenges that are complex and nuanced, and I think the reporting is going to have to reflect them.
That said, large news organizations are indeed pulling back, and I think we're going to see more and more of that. The idea of GlobalPost was—when we first had the idea and we launched in 2009, foreign bureaus were starting to close then in large numbers. The Boston Globe, for example, closed all of its foreign coverage; the same was true with The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune. Great newspapers across America that had always had international staff were now retrenching, pulling back, and realizing they could no longer afford that. That was because of the disruption of—the web had changed their business model and made it very hard for them to fund it. GlobalPost pushed forward into that space, and we tried to fill a void. We had 70 correspondents in 50 countries, a confederacy of freelancers. It was a new, very stealth model.
But we couldn't sustain it. To come up with new business models for journalism is really challenging right now. There are very few who've cracked the code on how you sustain in-depth, quality international reporting right now, in this moment. We're proud of the effort we made at GlobalPost, but we didn't succeed. We had wonderful editorial success, but we didn't have business success.
STEPHANIE SY: It's expensive to newsgather. Not only is it expensive to newsgather, but there are safety issues, which obviously you're very aware of at the GlobalPost, having lost James Foley, one of your correspondents, who was covering the Syrian War at the time when he was kidnapped. Equipping those journalists with the type of training and equipment that they need to be safe on those front lines is very expensive.
CHARLES SENNOTT: It is. This was the insight at GlobalPost about three years ago that we had: "What if we actually created a non-profit that could come out of GlobalPost, that could actually go at these issues with a mission-driven sense of how do we sustain, support, and inspire a new generation of journalists?" We couldn't do that as a business model, so we created the GroundTruth Project.
The GroundTruth Project, as a non-profit which I run now, is separate from GlobalPost, but it has an idea, which is to say: "We need eyes in the world. We need young journalists who are going to be out there. The future of media is unfolding right before our eyes."
What we're hoping to do with the GroundTruth Project is to build what we call a "culture of safety," really be sure that we teach these young journalists how to work in the field responsibly but also how to work on in-depth projects and have the revenue and the resources they're going to need to take those on. If they get the standards right and they become good at this, they will figure out the future. So the idea is: We fulfill a need for a generation that needs more opportunity, but we also fulfill a need by placing the work with traditional news organizations that need good content from smart, young people. We hope we're going to be part of the future of journalism and really inspiring a new generation.
STEPHANIE SY: Let's unpack the model of what you're doing at the GroundTruth Project a little more. First of all, these journalists are not just American journalists, right?
CHARLES SENNOTT: Correct.
STEPHANIE SY: They're basically being granted fellowships—journalists around the world—and they're all young, Millennial journalists, recent J-school grad types?
CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes. We always say "emerging journalists" because we leave open the opportunity that someone could be in a mid-career shift and have only been a journalist for a few years, and we would welcome them as well. We've had a few of our reporting fellows who would fit that, so we always say "emerging journalists."
The idea is three to five years of experience; you've already been through graduate school or you've gone to a journalism program as an undergraduate; you've moved on into your career, and you've hit a point where you're maybe really struggling to do work that matters. You may be at a news organization where you're in a cubicle and you're part of a process of just the news wheel and you're not actually getting out of the building and doing the stories that matter. You might be a freelancer with a really big idea, and you haven't been able to find a news organization that could sustain it.
We then partner with those young journalists through what we call "reporting fellowships." They range from as short as one month—sort of an intensive program—up to a year, where we'll fund a project for someone to really dig into a big project, like some of the work we're doing now on climate change. It's very in-depth and very long term, and we have partnerships with traditional media—ABC News, PBS' Frontline, Public Radio International's (PRI) The World. We work together with them to put this work out and distribute it widely.
The idea is really to say to a new generation: "We want to be there to inspire you, to support you, not just because we think you're owed something"—because no one is really owed a career—"but we need you, we need those eyes in the world, we need top young journalists to be doing great work so that we can really rebuild the future of journalism."
STEPHANIE SY: It sounds like a great model.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thanks.
STEPHANIE SY: As far as the funding for these fellowships, I assume that's through private foundations and donations?
CHARLES SENNOTT: That's right. We have been very fortunate to have the support of leading foundations. We've had the Ford Foundation, which provided our cornerstone grant, and they continue to fund us. We've had support from the MacArthur Foundation, which is critical because it's operating funds, and that allows us to really begin to build our organization. We've also had tremendous support from the Luce Foundation for reporting on religion and other foundations that have supported our work in different areas.
STEPHANIE SY: Does that allow you editorial independence?
CHARLES SENNOTT: Great questions. We only take the funding with a clear understanding that we have complete editorial independence. That's a very important aspect of what we do, and we're adamant about that. We feel the same with our individual donors, who have been incredibly generous to us. We've had two significant donors who have really allowed us to do a three-year project looking at the human consequences of climate change.
We're in a time of the political landscape in which we have a new administration in the White House with President-elect Trump, and that administration really is changing the game in terms of the relationship between Washington and climate change. There are a lot of skeptics on climate change who will now be in positions of power in Washington, and our reporting there, I think, is more important than ever now because what we're looking at is fact-based human consequences of climate change now.
STEPHANIE SY: That's what I like about the reporting I've seen. By the way, you can see all this reporting at groundtruthproject.org; you have multimedia presentations on climate change. What I like about what you're doing with climate change is you're focusing on the human story, how climate change today is actually having an impact on people in the Philippines, for example, and the knock-on effects of climate change, so it's different.
Is that the key to get people to care? I feel like in this country there is still this conversation about whether it's even a problem.
CHARLES SENNOTT: I know. It's funny. Our team—a really smart team of young editors—came up with the name for the series, which is "Living Proof." In the summer of 2016, when it didn't seem like the political landscape would change the way it has, we were wondering—or I was wondering specifically—why are we calling it "Living Proof?" Everyone understands climate change. We don't have to prove this to anyone, do we? Our young editors were a lot smarter than I was and felt like: "No, we really do need to start the conversation with the idea that you have to see climate change." Something about the human condition is that when we're presented with numbers that feel so overwhelming, there's a sense of doom that sets in, and it can be debilitating, and we don't have any ability to act in response to that.
Our team of editors and journalists in the field wanted to focus on the human consequences to show people that this is real, this is happening. The stories we've looked at—if you look at human trafficking in the Philippines, what does that have to do with climate change? Actually, the typhoon season is three times more frequent and three times stronger. What that's doing is creating refugees across Southeast Asia and other parts of Asia where climate refugees are in a terrible position in their lives. The human trafficking rings know that and are literally preying on these camps and going into families and buying young women and putting them into human trafficking. They are also taking men and putting them into what is tantamount to bondage for labor on fishing ships. This is real, and these are people who are suffering because of the conditions in their lives created by climate change.
STEPHANIE SY: Right. Of course, you're drawing the link that NASA scientists have drawn between the severity of weather events and their frequency and climate change models and showing the knock-on effects of that.
A story like that—you were talking earlier about your partnerships. A big conundrum it seems for a lot of journalists is how to distribute great content. You've got this great story you've invested in, and you've put people in the fields in the Philippines to report this out. Are you satisfied with the eyeballs you're able to get on the content?
CHARLES SENNOTT: We would say we're happy with our distributive model where we as a small news organization can reach millions of readers and viewers through our partnerships with editorial partners who share our values for news. When we work with PRI's The World, our coverage can get out to an audience that's very large—hundreds of NPR stations across the country. When we work with Frontline, our films can get out digitally into the Frontline audience, which is growing every day online, and there's a really great opportunity for us to work with them.
That said, we are really trying to grow our audience by building a community around the GroundTruth website as well so that we can say: "If you're looking for the best work being done by young people, you can come to our website and you can see that work curated, and you go to the groundtruthproject.org and it's there for you, and you can link out to see how it's expressed in traditional media."
It's hard for people to sometimes get their head around how this would work, and I think a great example is our project "Foreverstan." "Foreverstan" is about the road to ending America's longest war in Afghanistan. We call it "Foreverstan." We're very proud of that project. It was a year of work all through 2015 and 2016. It produced a series of short films on one girls' school, where a filmmaker who works with us immersed herself in this school for three years to really tell the story of one girls' school and the community around it. We had another journalist who has lived in Afghanistan for over five years, really dedicated herself to understanding the stories, and she told the stories of millennials in Afghanistan. This is a generation that's only known war, yet it's the most well-educated generation in Afghanistan in several generations, and it's the hope, it's the future, and it's the opportunity.
And we looked at the military handover, three very different chapters to the story, and those chapters ran on PBS NewsHour. They did a special report, "Foreverstan." We ran them on WGBH News, where we're based, the flagship PBS station in Boston. We ran them with PRI's The World as radio stories. We had a feature film that came out of in on the girls' school, which ran on PBS nationally.
That kind of distributive model, where we're giving a team an opportunity to do in-depth work and then distribute it out is something we're excited about. It cuts across platforms. I think it's the future of media. I think you can be a small team now and work with larger news organizations and in that sense really punch above your weight class and really do important work that can reach a wide audience. It's transformative. You no longer need to own a big newspaper or have a big network in order to go great work and have reach.
STEPHANIE SY: The only problem I foresee with that, and the reason I like that model, is because you're not beholden to any corporate interests, you don't have to chase ratings. There's all sorts of good things about the sort of publicly funded journalism model that you're partnering with with PBS and NPR. The problem is: What happens when the grants run out? Is there a self-sustaining aspect to that revenue model that you feel confident in?
CHARLES SENNOTT: That's a really big concern for all non-profits—how do you sustain? We were very fortunate to get an investment from a venture philanthropy firm that's based in the Bay Area. They are Draper Richards Kaplan (DRK). They search for non-profits that they believe have an opportunity to really go to scale.
We're really lucky to have them as a partner, and they're really setting out to help us think through that, to think like a start-up, to think like a start-up that needs to get revenue, that needs to transform journalism and really take advantage of the moment we're in right now. We need fact-based journalism.
The media, I would argue, did not succeed in its coverage of this election. We didn't enlighten and inform. I think the way out of some of the aspects that are broken in traditional media is to really empower a new generation to change the way we do it. DRK saw that in us, and they've invested in us, so we are right now actively looking at revenue streams that we can bring into our organization.
STEPHANIE SY: Without putting cat videos on your website.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Very well said.
STEPHANIE SY: This is important, because I have worked at many news organizations. I have worked at legacy organizations, I have worked at websites, and it is very difficult to get around the cat video. Whether you're talking about the evening newscast with one of the major networks, or you're talking about an online news outfit like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post, it is very difficult to get around how do we build traffic, because that is what your revenue depends on. When you're building a website like that, you depend on ad revenue, and the ad revenue comes from being able to show this traffic, and you don't have millions of people clicking on the climate change video that you made in the Philippines.
CHARLES SENNOTT: I think you're right. I think the challenges are enormous, but the opportunities are great as well. Right now we live in a moment where we are going to transform media, and I think the future is bright. I think we live in one of the most exciting moments right now for a new generation to redefine journalism—not to question its core values, which in my mind will always be about being there on the ground, hearing the story firsthand, being right there on the edge of history, telling the story through the eyes of the people who are living it, making sure you're giving voice to the voiceless. Those are the core goals of great journalism, and they're never going to change, but the way we tell those stories, the way we can push the stories out through social media campaigns, through impact campaigns, is extraordinary.
The revenue potential that's there for us to tap into this is serious, and we're committed to that. We are a non-profit, we are mission-driven, we're grateful for foundation support and individual support, but we're actively pursuing revenue. Documentaries—because of HBO, Showtime, Netflix, there's a real market for quality documentaries right now that can actually bring revenue into your organization. For us, that would not mean profit for our shareholders, because we're a non-profit. For us, that means revenue to continue to do the work we're doing, and we feel like we can really get there to be a blend as a non-profit with revenue and become self-sustaining.
STEPHANIE SY: The reason I'm talking so much about the business model and revenue is because ultimately as journalists what we all want to have is impact. Without being able to scale this, Charlie, you know that the impact will be smaller.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes.
STEPHANIE SY: That's why I'm harping on that issue.
But I want to get back to another issue.
CHARLES SENNOTT: I actually have to say I really admire your questions here, because these questions get right at the core of this, which is that we live in a time where we need great journalism in the world, and we live in a time when journalism has never been more under attack. It's under attack physically as we tragically saw with our friend and colleague Jim Foley. It's under attack editorially as you see across the world—in Russia, where journalists are thrown in jail if they criticize the Putin administration; it's in Egypt, where the new military junta that has restored itself is locking up journalists left and right. It's across the world.
STEPHANIE SY: It may be here as well.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Journalists here are going to face some real challenges, and they're going to face challenges from viewers and readers who feel they've failed, and there's a lot of pushback. I think this a time for reflection of media in this country that wants to do a good job. It is a really good time to stop and reflect but not stop great journalism. It's a time to push forward, really listen to the lessons we need to learn, and go do great work.
We talk about a feeling in the country that we've never been at a more divisive point. Have we ever seen our country so pulled apart? I'm a student of history, and I think we have had times when we've been this pulled apart, and one of them was 1968—you had Bobby Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King's assassination, Nixon was elected in a landslide, the war in Vietnam was raging—
STEPHANIE SY: Domestic terrorism, you can go on and on.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Rioting was happening in cities across the country.
What I think is worth reflecting on is how did we pull out of that, and what role did journalism play in pulling the country up and out of a war that history proved was ill-fated and wrong. That was great investigative reporting on My Lai that did that, if you remember, by Sy Hersh. We also went after an administration that said, "the press are the enemy," and actually Woodward and Bernstein went very hard into that presidency and ended up doing great investigative reporting that changed history and ended up with President Nixon resigning.
I think it's a moment for us to focus on great journalism, not be deterred by some of the failings of the past, and not be deterred by a tenor in Washington that's going to attack the media. It's time to be strong; it's time to do good work.
STEPHANIE SY: But with the Sy Hersh article on My Lai, would that have been widely distributed and read in order to make change in today's world where you have such a diffuse amount of journalism on social media? David Fahrenthold did terrific reporting at The Washington Post during the election, and people who attack the media en masse maybe didn't read his reporting, which was trying to hold both of the candidates to account. But his beat was Trump, so he looked very deeply into his business connections and into the potential conflicts of interest there. Those stories were reported, and yet they didn't seem to be picked up on en masse.
CHARLES SENNOTT: That's a great question. I think one thing we have to do is stop and unpack the word "media." "Media" is being kicked around these days, and it's too big a word because you have people in a basement in Macedonia fabricating fake news stories that we all know about that were just pure, unadulterated lies put out through social media. Is that "media?" I would call that just "criminality." That's something that exists in the dark corners of the web right now.
In the middle, you have websites that may not have the same standards as traditional media, that may play a little bit more fast and loose with the rules. Then you have the cable networks that have seen a business opportunity in going into polemics—that's MSNBC on the left, and that's Fox News on the right. Then you have networks in the middle like CNN that have done a lot of good work through the years but are struggling right now financially, and in Donald Trump they saw ratings, and they went for it, and they've had record revenue.
You have newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post that have staffs of some of the best journalists in the world who work every day very hard to get it right, and you have others like Breitbart that are looking at stories that I think are very disturbing in the way they are a dog whistle for racism, for sexism, for a lot of the really darker aspects of what has come across the media landscape. The landscape itself is varied, it's complex, and we can't really talk about one media.
But when you talk about could Sy Hersh today tell that story of the My Lai Massacre—
STEPHANIE SY: And make a difference.
CHARLES SENNOTT: —and would it resonate the same way, it's an excellent question. I think we do need to worry about what happens when we live in a world where facts are devalued, where truth is seen as malleable, where we can't even agree on the same set of facts anymore as a country. How do we have an enlightened debate? I think that's the challenge of the future of media is how are we going to come across in a way that we're trusted and we create a new future for this.
The way I think we're going to do that is it's not going to be me. I am not a digital native. I'm part of a traditional media background, but I get it now that young journalists will figure this out, they will find a way forward, and we're going to empower them not only as journalists with good standards but with an entrepreneurial spirit. Right now is a time for entrepreneurs to create new models of journalism. I'm going to hope they hold onto the great values of traditional journalism but push forward into new ways to tell it. We need them, and we really need this generation to be empowered.
STEPHANIE SY: I was a journalist for 16 years—I still am—and I still would categorize myself like you as sort of an "old-school" journalist, not an "old" journalist.
CHARLES SENNOTT: You can call me, "old school." I'm proud to be that.
STEPHANIE SY: But as an old-school journalist, one of the courses that stood out to me early in my training as a journalist was an ethics course I took at the Poynter Institute that really informed my journalism throughout my career. Do you feel that Millennial journalists or "emerging journalists," as you were calling them, have that same sense of ethics when they go out into the field and report?
CHARLES SENNOTT: I think there are some extraordinary young journalists out there with great talent and a great ability to tell a story. I think the frustration they have as young journalists is that these news organizations haven't been very loyal to them, and they don't necessarily have that sense of trust and camaraderie and support that maybe I would have felt coming of age at a time in newspapers when it felt like there was a lot of blue sky ahead.
I think one of the things that we who have had a great opportunity to be in these big news organizations and done the kind of work they were able to support, is to recognize that and to think about how we're going to support them. How are we going to give them the opportunities that we had, again not because they're owed that, but because we need them; they're the future. That's one of the great challenges of traditional media right now: What are you going to do to bring along a new generation? GroundTruth is really trying to be part of that and trying to be part of saying, "We think there's a need here that we can fulfill, but there's also something that's a need for all of us." We have to have a new generation of journalists who are going to be out there telling these stories.
I think they have a different kind of ethics. I think their sense of the immediacy of news is pretty extraordinary, the way they move things so quickly. I don't think they have enough reflection in their journalism sometimes. I think it can be too fast. I think that when you combine that speed with corners where there can be adequate reflection then we're going to start really getting there.
This generation of journalists, like I said, because they're digital natives, they understand the way to tell these stories across platforms. They understand a lot, but they also need, I think, some support and some mentoring about how you tell a story in a way that is eternal, that really is about the art and the craft of great storytelling.
We, as veterans in this field, owe it to them to share those lessons. I learned them from my mentors at The Boston Globe or in the different news organizations I was lucky enough to work with. I had great mentors. I had people who really took the time to give back. GroundTruth is trying to institutionalize that feeling of giving back, but also pushing forward and creating new opportunities.
STEPHANIE SY: I think that veteran journalists are also faced with a crisis right now. I appreciate that you're focused on this new generation of journalists, but I think what you're saying is societies need them, we need them, the world needs them.
But I think veteran journalists are faced with a particularly tenuous time now, too. I know a lot of journalists who are simply out of work and piecing together freelance work because of the contraction at newspapers and major television networks. What is your sense in how to bolster those experienced journalists, those voices that are also so necessary to give context and to give facts?
CHARLES SENNOTT: We need veteran journalists, too. We need people who really know the story, who can bring that historical perspective and context and gravitas to the stories that we need to know more about, whether that's climate change, or terrorism, or the national security threats that are very complex right now. You need framing, you need context.
I hope that GroundTruth can be a convening space where a lot of those veteran journalists could come join us and be part of mentoring a younger generation. We're really actively seeking that out as we build GroundTruth. How can we deepen our relationship with the veteran journalists who are our advisers and have been part of what we do and some of whom are on our staff? How can we build that up? How can we really get GroundTruth to become more of a place where those who care about the future of great journalism can come together, veteran journalists to share lessons with a new generation, and a new generation that can teach a lot to veterans like me in this field?
Every time I go out in the field with one of our teams, whether we're in Egypt covering Tahrir Square or Burma looking at an emerging democracy—when I'm around these teams of young journalists, I am learning a lot about what's possible and about how we're going to tell stories in the future. I hope we're also imparting some lessons to them, but I know the lessons are coming the other way as well.
STEPHANIE SY: I want to get back to the essential part of the name "GroundTruth," which is just being on the ground and reporting. That seems like Journalism 101, and yet there was this period when there was a lot of this contraction happening, in the mid-2000s, 2005, 2006. I was based overseas for part of that time, and I saw some contraction with the foreign bureaus where instead of going to the story we would just pick up the phone.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Right.
STEPHANIE SY: Talk about the importance of having people on the ground and having also local and regional knowledge, having the journalists actually be in many cases from those places, or at least be based in those places for some period of time.
CHARLES SENNOTT: You bring up a really important point. This generation of journalists too often go to Google or do some kind of search on social media to find out information, and that can be valuable, but that's not the same as going to see someone eye to eye in the middle of a story where it's happening and really getting their story. It's hard to even get them to pick up the phone and talk to people.
This is the biggest challenge for this generation: To realize that the way you really get the story is when you can see it, when you can smell it, when you can feel it. When you're there on the ground you can convey that story, and I think you get a much deeper understanding of what's really happening.
GroundTruth is a pretty old-school concept that great journalism is about being there on the ground, but it's actually very much a digital word, a word about technology, so "groundtruth" has a technical definition that I'd love to share.
I love the name "GroundTruth" for its metaphor. "Groundtruth" is actually a process, a calibration process, that was coined by NASA. What this means is: NASA has satellites in the sky that make visual measurements of the Earth, pictures of the Earth, so when you go on Google Earth, and you come down on your neighborhood and the rooftop, you're using a calibration process from the satellite down to the Earth. The satellites that NASA has also measure barometric pressure, they measure ice melt, they measure gases that can tell us a lot about climate change. This process of using the technology of the satellite to understand what's happening on the Earth is critically important for us, particularly around climate change, but also around national security, where movements are happening.
But those images on the satellite or that data on the satellite make no sense without a reading on the ground. That reading on the ground has to be done by a human being—for example, locking in on one patch of Earth and studying temperature or locking in on patch of Earth visually and then comparing that to the satellite image. That comparison process of what the digital pixels of the satellite are putting together compared to the patch of Earth it's focused in on has to be calibrated. That process is known as "groundtruthing." In an age of technology and sometimes too much information, we still think the really important role of journalism is to calibrate that very complex digital technological reality down against what's really happening on the ground, and we think we need more of that.
STEPHANIE SY: So at GroundTruth—you were talking about these teams that you build, and my understanding is you comprise these teams based on local journalists as well as American journalists.
CHARLES SENNOTT: That's right. We've had a bunch of what we call "pop-up newsrooms." What we do with that is we'll go into a place like Egypt right in the throes of when the demonstrations after Tahrir Square really erupted and the country was very much in tumult. We pulled together a team of eight great young American journalists who wanted to cover that story and eight Egyptian journalists who were there living the story. We built the team, we built a newsroom, and we began to tell some really important stories about that by getting them to work together.
You have the American journalists who typically come out of journalism schools with a very well developed sense of inquiry but no local knowledge. In Egypt, you had young journalists with an unbelievable level of local knowledge—it's their life, it's their country, it's their city—but maybe not the spirit or tradition or history of inquiry. You put those two together, and the American-Egyptian journalists were working together as a team, and I think that's gold.
I think that's a really big part of the future of journalism, to get rid of the old, almost colonial models of journalists going over with a fixer who helped them figure out the country. If you approach it as equals, which we try to do in every fellowship we do with GroundTruth, then I think you're getting a whole new quantum, a power of two from that.
We worked with the Open Hands Initiative foundation in 2011 in Egypt, and they really gave us this idea. They're a very interesting foundation that thinks about people-to-people diplomacy. They asked us: How could you apply that to journalism?
People-to-people journalism is really at the core of GroundTruth. We did it in Burma, where we took young American journalists to work with Burmese journalists, and again local knowledge meets spirit of inquiry, and you're really able to do great work. We're looking forward to doing more and more of that. We really believe in this model of pulling journalists together across cultural divides.
One of the questions now for GroundTruth is—there are a lot of divides in our own country, right here in the United States. How do we start pulling together teams across divides nationally? How do we start getting stories from journalists that might come from the coasts and from the big cities that were very different in the way they voted in this election and get them working together with other young journalists in the middle of the country, really sharing what they know, going over questions, challenging policies, looking at what is happening with leadership in Washington—how would they question it? What kind of stories can we do that can pull forward the great challenges that I think millennials face in a very uncertain time?
STEPHANIE SY: You bring up a really important theme that I wanted to get to, which is the polarities and the divisiveness that clearly election 2016 and the campaigns leading up to it really brought to the fore, and that is also infecting and affecting mainstream media. Is that a goal of the GroundTruth Project, to try to bridge that divide in the media, or do you end up being part of the he-said-she-said atmosphere that has polarized media and that has further added to the polarization of the electorate?
CHARLES SENNOTT: There was a lot of good journalism that was done in this election as well. A lot of news organizations worked very hard and did good work. There are a lot of young journalists, I think, who want to emulate that great journalism, who want to be part of really doing the hard work to bring home the stories that can have impact and effect change.
I think there is a core there that we try very hard to work with at GroundTruth. We really do not want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the future and part of figuring out how journalism can be better, how it can take advantage of the moment we live in online, with great opportunities to report across platforms and to reach very wide audiences.
Trump took control of a lot of the messaging through social media, and I don't think the media should get down on the president-elect about that. That is the future. No one got down on Lincoln when he figured out the telegraph; no one got down on Kennedy when he figured out the televised press conference, although there were people at the time who questioned both of those presidents using the technology of their time.
The challenge is for the media to use the technology. How do we get ahead of the messaging? How do we start putting the questions out to the White House via social media that are really hard, undeniable, right at you, important, fair, balanced? How do you bring that into the future of media?
I think that is a history that is not yet written, but it is unfolding right in front of us. We want to be a part of figuring that out, but again I really think this is going to be up to digital natives to push forward and find the ways to create dialogue across the divide. I think we face an enormous challenge in the coming years for that. GroundTruth is going to be part of it, but it's really going to be up to the young journalists who we support to be the innovators, to be the entrepreneurs, and if we do our job right for them to bring the real traditions and standards with them.
STEPHANIE SY: How do you build credibility for your news organization at a time of social media and at a time when so many people distrust news media in general? I know we've said that media means a lot of things these days, but the level of distrust aimed at media is the same as the level of distrust we see around the country aimed at other institutions, like Congress, or the legal system, or police. It's the same for media. We're under that same scrutiny. How do you build credibility?
CHARLES SENNOTT: You do good work, you roll up your sleeves, you stay focused, and you try to get young teams of reporters to recognize that's what it's all about. At the end of the day, great journalism is about hard work.
At The Boston Globe we're very proud of the film Spotlight. I think the journalists who worked so hard on that real-time story, now a big-hit movie, really tell a story about what journalism really is, and journalism really is hard work, and if you do it right, you can effect change.
Some of our work has been getting recognized with awards, which matter to us. The series I told you about, Foreverstan, has won a DuPont Award.
STEPHANIE SY: Congratulations.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thanks. It's won the Edward R. Murrow Award. It's been recognized by traditional media for its excellence, even though it's digital and even though it's driven by an organization dedicated to young journalists. That matters to us. We want to do the good work that matters. We want to do the good work that gets noticed.
I'm really reminded in these incredibly challenging times of a sentence I heard Vartan Gregorian say—Vartan of Carnegie Corporation, who I deeply admire, a really great thinker. Vartan one time was sitting next to me at a conference of journalists talking about the future of media and there was a lot of hand-wringing about, "What are we gonna do? What's happening to the future of media?"
Vartan stood up, looked a little bit annoyed, and with his great voice with great gravitas, said, "The truth is never going out of business."
STEPHANIE SY: You feel that way? You feel that optimistic?
CHARLES SENNOTT: I do.
STEPHANIE SY: Even with a president-elect that has questioned intelligence agencies based on evidential facts?
CHARLES SENNOTT: I do. I think we live in a time where even if you have climate skeptics, the global momentum to recognize that climate change is imperiling the planet and the many forces that are going to work for it and work really toward changing that are underway. Whether the United States is with the future and with change or not, it's going to happen.
I think the same is true with human rights. I think the same is true with a lot of stories. I think the world is a better place when America leads, but if we enter into a time when America won't lead, I think there's enough momentum for change that those things are going to go on, and I hope we can get back to a place where we lead.
I really think this is fateful moment for the American century and maybe a time where we're going to see what the world looks like when America doesn't lead. I really believe that journalism can play a role in highlighting that, really getting at those stories that can reveal the importance of America showing its leadership on the big issues around climate change, the big issues around human rights and diversity. How we're going to do that is by just doing the good old-fashioned journalism that really matters, that takes hard work and putting it out there by taking advantage of this moment we live in when media is facing a revolution and there's an opportunity to really break through in new ways of storytelling that can be global and that can be very impactful.
STEPHANIE SY: Did the election make you reexamine where you were going to put the resources as far as your future fellows at your organization? It seems like you had quite a lot of foreign news coverage—you were in Paris covering that landmark climate change agreement that came out of that; you were in Morocco to bookend that trip, also for a conference on climate change. Are you thinking of readjusting the resources to be more America-focused?
CHARLES SENNOTT: We know that America is one of the world's leading polluters, and America is a country that is part of the globe where I have four sons who I want to have a future, and we all have families, and we all want to see this planet thrive. That story is never going away. That story is the story of our lifetime. It's the most important story we have to tell. We're never going to stray from that story. That story of climate change and how we tell it, how we look at the human consequences of climate change, is going to be a big part of what America does.
I think some of the stories we do around the global economy and around looking at inequality, looking at youth unemployment—those stories, I think we've always approached them globally, looking at America and the world. I think GroundTruth now has a moment where we really could pivot on those stories to focus more on the United States.
There are a lot of stories we need to do right now that have been missed in under-reported corners of America. We always talk about hitting under-reported corners of the world, but we have under-reported corners of America that we need to do a better job on. I know we're not alone in recognizing that. I think a lot of news organizations are going to make this effort.
I think you could make the argument that it's too little too late, but that's presuming all things are political. There are important stories we missed, and it's time to go out and get them.
STEPHANIE SY: Great point to end this on. Charles Sennott, thank you so much for speaking to Ethics Matter.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thanks for having me.