Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is it Just Me, or Is the Movement to Save Journalism Too Damned White?

Autumn is the time of year when journalists and media educators fire up their Vision Machines and apply for grants and fellowships. Since the media eco-system is in massive flux, the past few years has seen a growing number of hyper-local and citizen-journalism projects receiving funding from organizations like the Knight Foundation. Too few, however, are designed by journalists of color, and aimed at addressing the news and information needs of black and brown people in the US and around the globe.

Here's the story of one person who is seeking to change that.

I recently had a great conversation with Ron Nixon. He is a reporter at The New York Times, and a friend. Like me, Ron is concerned about the future of the news business, and more pointedly, about opportunities within the evolving media eco-system for journalists of color.

Can I tell you how refreshing it is to know someone who is not just thinking about how journalists of color are faring in this new landscape but who is actually doing something to improve conditions for journalists here and abroad?

Take a look at Ujima Project, an investigative reporting and research initiative for African journalists and others who cover the continent. It is the brainchild of Ron and colleagues at the non-profit Great Lakes Media Institute, in Kigali, Rwanda.

Based on a newly-minted principle that Ron calls "reverse transparency," Ujima is an online database of information on the spending and workings of African governments, non-governmental agencies and businesses operating on the continent.

Ron coined the phrase "reverse transparency" after he'd spent years covering development and emerging technology in Africa -- and kept running into major hurdles whenever he sought to obtain relevant data and statistics from officials in the countries where he was reporting, including Nigeria and Rwanda.

"There's no such thing as 'open records' laws, or open access to government data in many African nations, not even in Botswana, which is a darling of US development efforts," Ron told me recently. But what can be obtained is information from the US and the European Union, and many other nations that do business with African countries.

"The problem has been that the information that is available is all over the place, and takes a lot of work and time to figure out where it is and how to get it. But with this [Ujima Project] database, it will now be available in one place," Ron said. For example, there are lots of NGOs spending billions of dollars across the continent to fight HIV/AIDS, and to provide education programs designed to influence public opinion about the causes of the disease. But for journalists in Africa seeking to track the progress and efficacy of these initiatives, knowing where and how the money is spent can be hard to ascertain, Ron said.

"While these NGOs are there doing good work, you still would like to be able to see where their money goes. But there is no transparency, since many of the NGOs avoid dealing with the governments, for many reasons," Ron said.

"So, for example, when you learn that there's a company in Boston that has a contract worth eighty million dollars to do AIDS work in look at that and think,'So where is all that money going?'" Without disclosure from the Kenyan government, journalists there can't be sure if that Boston company is directing the money to appropriate efforts.

At the same time, Ron says, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US State Department, and a handful of other American agencies must approve and vet such arrangements.

These agencies have open records policies for key relevant information on international aid groups and the African nations which do business with them. Thus, by using Freedom of Information Act requests, open records rules, and available online data from American and participating EU nations, the Ujima Project is building a comprehensive, one-stop-shopping resource to help journalists on the Continent "follow the money."

You may be interested to know, for instance, which African nations are buying military weapons and "toxological agents" from U.S. companies. You can find that out at Ujima.

Funded in part with small grants from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Open Society Institute; the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Media, the project in beta was unveiled last month in South Africa.

On hand for the unveiling, along with Ron Nixon, dozens of African journalists and academics, was Adam Clayton Powell, III, of USC's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. In his role as Vice Provost of Globalization at Annenberg, Powell had attended the Highway Africa Conference, an annual development, media and democracy gathering sponsored by Rhodes University in Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Powell said he was impressed by the demo of Ujima, and told me he believes the Project can emerge as a "go-to" resource for journalists and investors working on the continent.

"Transparency is an issue everywhere, no more so than in Africa, where lack of transparency is a barrier to development," Powell said in an email interview over the weekend. "Assistance and investment just won't take place unless grantmakers and investors can follow management and administration -- and see where their money is really going."

The database's main target group of users, though, is journalists, in which case Powell added, " with everything online, the [information at Ujima] is the start not the ending of reporting on a subject. Given the leads in the Ujima database, reporting can become that much more efficient and effective."

The project went up in beta form early in September, and was developed by Ron and by programmers and designers at AppFrica, Appfrica Labs, a softwear and development firm in Kampala, Uganda. Ron built most of the programming himself, and entered the information in portions of the site's databases painstakingly, line by line.

"There were a few times when I felt the RSI happening, but it had to be done," Ron said, laughing.

Going forward, though, as the estimated ninety-plus investigative journalists currently working for news organizations on the African continent begin to use the site, Ron estimates that Ujima's collections of data-sets will broaden, following an increase in demand.

The "reverse transparency" operating principle of the the site can be replicated, too, in the Middle East and in Asia, with journalists taking advantage of the open-records laws of Western nations that fund projects in those parts of the world, Ron said.

He and his colleagues have applied for a grant from the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge contest.

The members of the Selection Committee for that august organization may be interested to know that "Ujima" is the Swahili word for "collective work and responsibility."


  1. Amy, its only 2 dollars per Kenyan I think...

  2. What's the difference between "reverse transparency" and "transparency"? Aside from being an illogical metaphor, it doesn't seem to justify it's existence as a buzzword.

  3. Good question, "Anonymous." Here is another: Why are you commenting here without posting your real name?

  4. Good question.

    Inner city black majority neighborhoods also suffer from biased reporting. Too often white journalists come down to write a story based on filling in the blanks of their prejudices and stereotypes. Since they are unfamiliar with our community they can't jump in as they might in a place that they know.