Trust, Accountability and Transparency in Newsrooms and Beyond

October 11, 2018
[The Listening Post Collective cited in this article is a project of Internews]

By Molly de Augiar, Managing Director, News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Why the News Integrity Initiative is supporting MuckRock and DocumentCloud’s merger and expansion

Today the News Integrity Initiative is pleased to announce a $250,000 grant to MuckRock and DocumentCloud, two recently-merged organizations which believe, like NII does, that institutions should be open, transparent and accountable to the people they serve.

MuckRock and DocumentCloud offer a suite of tools and services that help newsrooms generate story ideas, gather and analyze primary documents, and involve their audience in the reporting process through new crowdfunding and crowdsourcing tools. The combined organization offers five services:

  • MuckRock for filing, tracking, and sharing public records requests;
  • DocumentCloud for hosting, analyzing, and publishing primary documents;
  • FOIA Machine for helping users manage requests they’ve filed themselves;
  • oTranscribe for securely and simply transcribing audio and video; and
  • QuackBot is a Slack chatbot that performs tasks useful to reports, editors and news reporters.

A grant from NII will help them seamlessly unite and scale these services more effectively, as well as build new tools for trust and transparency.

But perhaps most importantly, this grant will help them bring their tools to a broad array of people and organizations — community organizers, academics, libraries, archives and others — whose work touches on issues of accountability, transparency and bearing witness.

One of the throughlines of NII (as well as my work at the Dodge Foundation, prior to NII) is supporting an expansive and creative vision for tools and methods that connect and engage people — beyond newsrooms and into the hands of nonprofits, researchers, activists and others who are working in the public interest and building movements for change around issues that communities care about.

GroundSource, for example, is a mobile messaging and voice platform that is core to a number of local news and information projects NII supports — from the Listening Post Collective members, to Outlier Media, to EducationNC’s “Reach NC Voices.” But I’ve also worked with GroundSource to help NY/NJ Baykeeper, pursue its mission to “protect, preserve, and restore the ecological integrity and productivity of the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary.”

That project also included collaborating with Internews, which works with citizens and local media in more than 100 countries, to conduct an “Information Needs Assessment” — traditionally a tool they’ve used for media development in challenging locations around the world. The assessment helped NY/NJ Baykeeper better understand what information their community had about water quality, how they were getting their information, and what gaps still existed. The results were eye-opening for Baykeeper: people didn’t have nearly as much accurate information as Baykeeper assumed they had.

As a result, Baykeeper was able to take what they learned from the assessment, and use GroundSource to encourage community dialogue on water quality issues via text messaging and Facebook messenger. Baykeeper even developed a creative, science-based storytelling project (“A Hundred Million Invaders”) to help people understand the widespread problem of microplastics in our waterways, with a call to action at the end using Facebook messenger.

In other words, we are limited only by our imaginations with these tools that help connect and engage people, shed light in dark corners, and hold powerful people and institutions accountable.

I am excited to see what comes next, now that MuckRock and DocumentCloud have joined forces. How might people everywhere creatively and widely deploy these tools to increase transparency and accountability in their communities on a range of issues? And what stories will come from people who feel powerful because they are participating in community decision-making? I can’t wait to find out.