T. Christian Miller of the independent, non-profit news organization ProPublica recently won the prestigious 2010 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. Editor & Publisher reports that it was a collaboration between The Los Angeles Times and the non-profit news outfit that produced Miller's winning report into abuses of insurance coverage for private contractors in war zones.
Just last week, the winners of the George Polk Awards in Journalism - usually given to courageous and skillful reporting - were announced, NPR's On the Media explains. Among the usual big media winners was a surprising win - the anonymous Iranians or Iranian who captured the death of the 26-year old protestor Neda Agha-Soltan on tape in the violent aftermath of the Islamic Republic's contested elections of June 2009.
Although an investigative piece on insurance coverage for private contractors in war zones and footage of a woman dying on the streets of Tehran may seem quite different, these two journalistic efforts have something in common - neither of them came from a big, traditional media outlet. They are the product of a non-profit organization in one case and what is assumed to be a bystander in the other one. These two winning entries highlight two growing trends in media and journalism: investigative journalism and user-generated content.
These two trends may not be new, but their recognition through major journalistic awards is a tribute to their growing importance.
Investigative journalism today
From the days of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair, investigative journalism has been around for a while. Its funding; however, had usually come from established newspapers or magazines.
Traditionally, the Selden Ring Award for Investigative reporting has gone to big-name newspapers. Past winners have included The Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, The Washington Post, and The San Francisco Examiner.
This year it was a journalist from ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, that took the top prize. Another of ProPublica's collaborations also made it to top three finalists, as E&P reports. The organization, which was created about a year ago with funds from the Sandler foundation, aims to bridge the gap in the funding of investigative journalism.
While "profit-margin expectations and short-term stock market concerns" are making it increasingly difficult for "nearly all of our nation's news organizations" to afford the "the sort of intensive, extensive, and uncertain efforts that produce great investigative journalism," ProPublica funds 32 investigative journalists through donations and funding from foundations, according to its website.
A whole newspaper might not be entirely funded by these alone, but plenty of non-profit, investigative journalism organizations have flourished recently, like the Bay Area News Project, Oakland Local, and just last month, California Watch.
The fact that ProPublica's work with the Los Angeles Times was recognized with an award that tends to be given to major newspapers shows that high-quality investigative journalism can come from a non-traditional news outlet. It also shows that newspapers are no longer the only ones with the funds or credibility to provide information in the public interest.
Newspapers' revenue is decreasing, as well as the resources they possess to fulfill their civic duties, such funding investigative journalism and pursuing lawsuits that guarantee the Freedom of Information Act. The fact that other news organizations can fulfill this important role once reserved for newspapers is encouraging for non-traditional news organizations and the citizens they benefit, if not for newspaper publishers. In other words, non-profit investigative journalism news organizations can pick up where the newspapers left off.
Citizen journalism and user-generated content
This year, the prestigious George Polk Awards in Journalism also recognized a less-than-traditional piece of work: the graphic video of a young Iranian woman dying at a rally in Iran.
The dramatic footage, seen by millions around the world on video portals like YouTube and major news outlets, like CNN, shows the graphic death of Neda as she arrives at a protest site in the streets of Tehran. Her untimely death became a symbol for the repression of the ruling Iranian regime and for the movement that challenges it.
The people or person responsible for the footage, caught in a cell phone camera, is not known, and his or her video was recognized over other entries from traditional news outlets.
In an interview on NPR's On the Media, John Darnton, the curator of the Polk Awards, said that it was not the violence but "the fact that this one piece of video footage seemed to rise above all other means of getting news out of Iran to the outside world" that grabbed the judges' attention.
Darnton added that the awards received entries from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, but that "in a strange way, they almost all cancelled each other out...none of them rose above the others."
When asked if a bystander, a simple civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, deserves a journalism prize by host Bob Garfield, Darnton admitted the awards had previously focused on honoring professional journalists for the last 60 years, but recognized that citizen journalism has a lot of value in our rapidly changing world.
"We felt that it was time to, in a sense, say we're all in a new world now. Yes, there are professionals out there, but there are also people I call bystanders who are capable of recording important events, in this case, just with a camera on a cell phone, and transmitting it to the outside world."
Darnton believes that citizen journalism can compete with professional journalism.
"There's no reason if what they actually send out there has news value that they should not be considered, I think, for an award."
Even though his or her video was created by chance, with no journalistic intent behind it, the use it served made it worthy of an award.
The recognition of the anonymous bystander who recorded Neda's death underscores the ever-growing importance of citizen journalism in producing and distributing news content. This kind of journalism -- spread widely through platforms like YouTube or CNN's iReport -- is even more important in places where media outlets are not able to operate openly. In addition, with the technology and the platforms we have today, anyone can break a story on anything anywhere if they are equipped with nothing but a smartphone.
The move toward citizen journalism is on the rise. Just recently, the French daily, Le Parisien and its national arm Aujourd'hui created a user-generated section of their site, in conjunction with Citizenside, a citizen photo journalism agency. The Australian public broadcaster, ABC, has started featuring user-generated content on its website too.
These awards, usually granted to professional journalists from established news outlets, were given to a non-traditional, non-profit news organization, and to an anonymous eyewitness from Iran this year. Although these are far from your usual winners, their recognition points to the growing value of non-traditional news outlets and user-generated content in providing news content. Their importance seems only set to grow.