The Field Guide

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We believe great journalism comes from being there, on the ground, to tell the stories that matter. We call it “ground truth.” It’s an old-school value, but one that is more important than ever in a time of great change in our industry and in the world we cover.

There is exciting disruption and innovation in new media organizations and digital platforms. There is promising opportunity around emerging democracies and freedoms. And, at the same time, there are the growing perils of instability and conflict. Across this tumultuous landscape, journalists need to be on the ground, working in the spirit of a free press. But never has it been more dangerous for journalists to do their jobs. That’s why the GroundTruth Project’s core mission is to train and mentor the next generation of international correspondents and to provide them with the resources needed to produce in-depth reporting on social justice issues in under-covered corners of the world – and to do it safely.

Learning how to report safely across international borders is a paramount concern in a time of rising danger for journalists, particularly for the emerging writers, photographers and videographers who work as independent freelancers. In August 2014, the horrifying murder of our friend and colleague James Foley, an American freelance journalist, drove home this point in a deeply personal and emotional way. Weeks later, the murder of another American freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff, made it all too clear that freedom of expression is under attack by hostile groups around the globe.

Both reporters, gifted practitioners of “ground truth,” were beheaded at the hands of the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The gruesome acts, videotaped and streamed on the Internet by the Islamic State, shocked and outraged the world. That the terrorist group has only kept up its barbaric campaign targeting journalists and aid workers confirms that a new age of peril is upon us. For this reason, the 2015 edition of GroundTruth: A Field Guide for Correspondents begins with a new set of standards for the safety of independent journalists reporting around the world, as well as for the news organizations that work with them. The new standards, titled “A Call for Global Safety Principles and Practices,” were codified through a collaborative process that began last fall in the wake of the Foley and Sotloff killings.

Over several months, The GroundTruth Project joined several other leading news organizations and advocacy groups — including Thomson Reuters, the Associated Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Frontline Freelance Register and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — to draft a set of basic standards and practices that we hope will give rise to a shared culture of safety in journalism. On February 12, 2015, our coalition publicly launched the new standards at an event at Columbia Journalism School, with more than 25 prominent news organizations and advocacy groups signed on.

This field guide has worked toward establishing a culture of safety since 2008, when I wrote the first edition as the co-founder and executive editor of the online international news organization GlobalPost. The principles and lessons it offers reflect the core beliefs I sought to incorporate into the editorial operation at GlobalPost and now at The GroundTruth Project, which officially launched as an independent, nonprofit organization in the summer of 2014. The field guide is a statement of our own standards and practices as well as a place to share important lessons learned in the field through a thoughtful collection of essays by our colleagues.

This revised and updated edition includes a new essay by David Rohde, a veteran foreign correspondent and author, on kidnap for ransom and his advocacy on behalf of the families who have gone through this horrible ordeal, including the Foleys. Rohde, who was kidnapped for ransom himself, may know more about this subject than anyone in journalism. His piece starkly frames a self-effacing essay by James Foley, first published in 2012, in which he writes about what drew him to cover conflict.

There is also a new essay by Gary Knight, the visual editor and co-founder of The GroundTruth Project, who leads our educational programs. An award-winning photographer with more than 25 years of experience as a freelancer, Knight writes passionately in defense of freelancing as an expression of independence and about how the next generation of correspondents can shape careers as journalists.

This edition additionally offers an invaluable list of organizations that provide the specialized training and services freelancers need to do their jobs well on the ground around the world, from the essential first aid training offered by Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) to the insurance policies made available through Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). As a whole, our field guide codifies our core principles at GroundTruth.

We believe in fairness. We believe in accuracy. We believe the best reporting comes from the ground by people who not only report from but also live in and understand the culture and language of where they are reporting. We believe in listening and allowing yourself to be convinced by a point of view you may not have considered before. We believe good reporters do more than merely present two sides of an issue; they unearth facts and then consider all sides in a way that helps foster new understanding. We believe in giving voice to the voiceless. We believe in respecting different faiths, cultures and ways of seeing the world, and we believe there is added power to working with colleagues who are from the places we are covering. We believe in connecting the dots and saying something important without resorting to the kind of opinionated reporting that shapes too much of the new media landscape. We believe in good storytelling.

While we adhere to “ground truth,” we are also mindful that there is never only one truth in any story. Our motivation at The GroundTruth Project is to uncover the many truths in every story through our reporting and fellowships — and to assemble these truths fairly and accurately in a way that enlightens and informs.

— Charles M. Sennott Founder and Executive Director The GroundTruth Project, February 2015