US Social Forum: Investigative Journalism and Its Value to Movements

For many activists and organizers for social justice, the media aspect of organizing has typically meant having a good list of press contacts and aiming to get your action or story into a major local or national news outlet so that your group or organization can achieve its goals. It has typically meant conducting a press conference and expecting the media to show up and hear what has to be said.

How many have considered the prospect of being their own media and conducting their own investigative journalism to bolster their group or organization’s efforts to meet their objectives or create real and lasting change?

Jordan Flaherty, a community organizer and journalist based in New Orleans who is the editor of Left Turn magazine, will be attending and participating in the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit next week. He and other journalists will be coming together to put on a workshop called, “Grassroots Media and Movements for Justice,” and share their insight into how investigative journalism can benefit social movements.

“I’m really interested in how movements for social justice come together and I think it’s really important that we find ways in which we can find unity in our movements for social justice,” says Flaherty.

He elaborates on this idea, “If you look back at the history of this country, here in New Orlerans, where I live, there are a lot of civil rights movement organizers and they talk about during their civil rights movement there was basically just three main organizations everyone on the left in the U.S. was a part of. [They were] part of SNCC, part of CORE, part of SDS and you know this non-profit industrial complex came out and many people said that led to dissolution of our movement.”

Flaherty suggests that “single-issue campaigns” disconnected people. What he hopes will happen with the Forum is that “different movements and different community organizations [will now] come together and build a united movement against the common threats of the world whether that’s militarization or corporatization or people before profits not profits before people.”

Flaherty was the first journalist to bring the Jena 6 struggle to a national audience. He wrote a story for The Indypendent, a newspaper run by Indymedia out of New York. That newspaper and then two African-American newspapers, Louisiana Weekly and Louisiana Data News Weekly, covered the story. It was the work of non-corporate, independent news media that kept this story alive.

“All of us who are concerned about social justice should really realize it was our work, whether we’re media makers or activists or just people that help spread the work, it was our work that freed those six high school students and really burst a movement together,” says Flaherty. “This was a really historic moment. Fifty thousand people from around the country marched in Jena. This is the first time that I ever remember a march like this happening not because it was called by some national organization but it because it was called by the families at the heart of this struggle—the Jena 6 family members who organized for months without training or recognition from national media organizations.”

The Jena 6 struggle happened when six students were facing life in prison for a school fight. The combination of activism and journalism that supported them at the grassroots level helped acquit them and now all six are in college.

Flaherty also followed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina closely. He recounts briefly why it was so valuable to movements for justice to have investigative journalism in the aftermath:

“The corporate media did not want to tell the story of a lot of what happened in the days and weeks and months after Katrina. The clearest example is a criminal justice issue where we look at the police department and [in] the days after Katrina they were given carte blanche to do what they wanted. You have the Danziger Bridge case where Ronald Madison, a mentally handicapped young man, was shot by an officer, another office ran up and kicked him until he was dead. You have Henry Glover, the West Bank of New Orleans. Again, days after Katrina he was shot by one officer and then taken basically kidnapped by other officers. The next people saw his body he’d been burnt up. So, they basically killed him and then burned his body. And nobody wanted to cover that story.”

Flaherty continues, “For months grassroots activists were organizing around it, were documenting the stories of witnesses. And eventually some grassroots activists got the story to Rebecca Solnit” who got the story picked up by ProPublica. The Nation magazine picked it up. And, Flaherty adds, years later, in 2008, Attorney General Eric Holder was willing to look at the cases and acknowledge that this injustice was really happening in the aftermath.

Flaherty finds “the loss of investigative journalism” in society shameful. Through Left Turn magazine and collaboration on blogs like the Louisiana Justice blog, a blog that covers criminal justice, workers’ rights and other issues, he works to keep investigative journalism alive locally in New Orleans and nationally as well.

Overall, Flaherty wants others to understand that independent non-corporate media should be a part of any social justice organizing. What activists and journalists did together to free the Jena 6 shows why it should be a part of organizing. It’s through that collaboration that more victories can be achieved.