A field guide to reporting on our country and our world

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Here at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, our craft is celebrated, rejuvenated and enshrined. Down the hallways are displays of antique Royal typewriters that stand like monuments to a time when their keys clattered in the newsrooms of old. Thought leaders and writing coaches like Kelly McBride, Indira Lakshmanan and Roy Peter Clark offer timeless wisdom.

And here in a wood-paneled conference room on the second floor, the traditions of the past meet the opportunities of the future. Our Report for America corps members were here opening up new boxes of Chromebooks and 360 cameras donated by the Google News Lab. For the last three days, these emerging reporters were trained on new tools to locate and visualize data, to verify content that comes in over the digital transom and to immerse audiences in locations where news is happening. They received lessons on ethics in the era of “fake news” by Poynter’s Lakshmanan and they navigated implicit bias through diversity training by the Maynard Institute’s Martin G. Reynolds.

And the 13 Report for America corps members were handed down what we hope might offer them a kind of cannon of street reporting: The GroundTruth Field Guide.  It codifies a simple set of standards and practices for journalists and tries to weave together the strength of old-school journalism with the promise of the digital age to navigate new ways of storytelling. The field guide focuses on one true north that is familiar to those of us who track our work around the world and right here in the United States: “ground truth.”

The term was actually coined by NASA, and it has a very specific technical definition referring to the calibration process used in satellite imagery. NASA states that ground truth is “one part of the calibration process, where a person on the ground makes a measurement of the same thing a satellite is trying to measure at the same time the satellite is measuring it.” The two answers are then compared to help evaluate how well the satellite instrument is performing. Usually, the ground truth is trusted more than the satellite.

We think NASA’s technical definition of ‘ground truth’ serves as an apt metaphor for the goals of Report for America and its parent organization, The GroundTruth Project: to calibrate truth in the digital age by being there to witness events as they are unfolding and to measure their impact on human lives. Amid the overload of information and often confusing data we face every day online, we seek to pursue ‘ground truth’ as a way to calibrate the information that is out there.

Our goal is to support the next generation of journalists through the value of on-the-ground reporting based on a human reading of events. And, like NASA’s definition of ground truth, we trust the human reading more than a technological ordering of pixels via satellite. We believe the human reading from the ground is what we need more of in order to bring complex issues into focus.

It’s a practical guide for working as a reporter in the field that I first wrote 10 years ago as the founding editor of GlobalPost for a network of 70 freelance correspondents in 50 countries. When we incubated The GroundTruth Project out of GlobalPost in 2012 and 2013 and brought it over to WGBH as a non-profit news organization, we redrafted the field guide to serve the needs of the 150 reporting fellowships we’ve funded in the last five years. And now we have a new edition for GroundTruth’s biggest and most ambitious initiative to date: Report for America.

The 2018 Report for America corps are 13 impressive, emerging talents who were selected through a very competitive process to join Report for America and when they finish their 8 days of training here and at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in Orlando, they will deploy to their host newsrooms.

Collectively, our corps members are working in a dozen newsrooms in Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, and West Virginia. The host newsrooms include: The Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News, KRWG, The Incline, Billy Penn, The Telegraph & macon.com, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Mississippi Today, The Victoria Advocate, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

At a time of crisis in journalism, we are setting out to restore the public service role of local reporting, combining the best of national service programs with the training and mentoring strategies successfully deployed over the past five years by The GroundTruth Project.

Despite the revisions through the years, the standards and practices for good, honest reporting in the GroundTruth Field Guide do not change significantly whether they are for reporters working internationally, nationally or locally. The core remains the same. There are tactical differences in approaches in how one carries themselves as an international correspondent or a local reporter in their own country, but the standards and practices for getting it right remain the same. The core concept of being there on the ground to bear witness is what it is all about.

Editor’s Note: The GroundTruth Field Guide is available online to anyone. Please register for the GroundTruth newsletter where we will be posting a link to the newly revised edition and where you can follow the work of our Report for America corps members and reporting fellows around the world.