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Investigative Research and Writing

Progressive Citizen Journalism Project

As the idea of Citizen Journalism spreads, we at Political Research Associates are being asked more often about how we train our researchers and writers. The core of our training is derived from a course, "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting" taught at the Z Media Institute. In addition a number of researchers and journalists have given us advice and tips on how to make our research and investigative reporting better. To find out more, read the credits page.


There is no such thing as objective journalism.
But in the process of democracy
journalists play a special role
by providing fair and accurate reporting
to assist the development of informed consent

The Home Page for the Citizen Journalism Project: Researching Tea Party Populism is Here

The Muckraking Tradition

by Chip Berlet - Z Media Institute

Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, and Seymour Hersh. If you haven't heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research.

In progressive circles look for the contemporary work of Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Esther Kaplan, Bill Berkowitz, Christian Parenti, Trudy Lieberman, Max Blumenthal, Roberto Lovato, and Michelle Goldberg.

Investigative reporters working as part of the movement for social and economic justice can play an important role in providing the information needed for activists to make effective tactical and strategic decisions. Given the trends we are facing, all of us who want to defend democracy have to fight on four fronts. We must organize against:

  • The rise of reactionary populism, nativism, & fascism with roots in white supremacy, antisemitism, subversion myths, and the many mutating offspring of the Freemason/Jewish banker conspiracy theories.
  • Theocracy and other anti–democratic forms of religious fundamentalism, around the world, which in the US is based in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with its subtexts of elitist hierarchy, patriarchy and heterosexual privilege.
  • Authoritarian state actions in the form of militarism and interventionism abroad and government repression and erosion of civil liberties at home.
  • The antidemocratic neocorporatism of multinational capital with its attack on the standard of living of working people around the globe. 

As we promote progressive solutions, we must also join with all persons across the political spectrum to defend the basic ideas of mass democracy, even as we argue that it is an idea that has never been real for many here in our country. The principles of the Enlightenment are not our goal, but resisting attempts to push political discourse back to pre–enlightenment principles is nonetheless a worthy effort.

Citizen Journalists

Traditionally, working journalists have been given special access to govenment meetings, courtrooms, and scenes of police or emergency activity such as public eents, crime sites, fires, etc.

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights are journalists given any special rights to collect the news. There are special "Shield Laws" that give reporters extra procedural protections allowing them in some cases to protect the identity of their sources.

With the rise of the "Underground Press" and "Alternative Press" in the United States in the 1960s, the privileges and perogatives traditianlly granted journalists in the commercial press were demanded by alternative journalists. The police, who usually granted special "Press Cards," were not amused. Over time--and a few lawsuits--Press Cards were issued to many working reporters in the alternative media, including radio, and (with the development of the 30-pound recording backpack "porta-pak" video units with their 10-pound cameras) television reporters and videographers.

Internet journalism created the conditions for the development of a significant number of Citizen Journalists. Citizens performing journalism is nothing new, however. It was citizens of colonial Boston who reported what happened at the Boston Massacre commemorated by the famous engraving by Paul Revere. During the 1979 Stonewall uprising of gay people angry at being harassed by police, citizen journalists phoned in live reports (called "actualities") to Pacifica radio station WBAI in New York. The person who videoed the police beating of Rodney King was a citizen journalist.

But You Can't Wear Two Hats!

Why Not?

Here's the scenario. Sally Sleuth, a Citizen Journalist, gains special access to a public meeting where Joe Slick, a Tea Party leader is holding a press conference. After moving close to the podium, Sally pulls out a bag of coffee beans and begins pelting Joe Slick with them while denouncing the Tea Parties as unwitting tools of the corporate elites. Sally is dragged out of the event by security, then records herself for a You Tube video in which she claims a victory for the progressive movement. So...why not?

It's unethical!

Based on traditional journalistic ethics, you cannot abuse special access and privileges by being a participant in the events you cover. This remains true even if you dismiss the concept of "objective" journalism.

If you are a participant observer in an event and agree with the general principles of unity of the event, then there is no ethical dilemma. The ethical breach occurs when you gain access under false pretenses and then pop up as an adversarial participant.

It screws it up for the rest of us!

You get to be the hero for one day on the internet, while for many months scores of other citizen journalists are banned from the access they need to report the story. Congratulations...how can we tell the difference between you and a paid agent provacateur. We can't. Don't do it. Don't wear two hats.

We will ban you from further reporting and denounce you in public!

No, seriously, we will. If you cannot abide by this "No Two Hats" rule, click here.

Journalistic Ethics

  • Don't lie.
  • Don't fabricate information.
  • Don't "cook" quotes.
  • Don't plagiarize from other writers.
  • Ethical journalists and writers strive for fairness and accuracy.
  • When possible, “double source”: i.e. confirm what someone tells you through another source.
  • Never assume that the collection of facts and assumptions, and the point of view that you have arrived at, is the “truth.”
  • Never assume that you know everything there is to know about a story. Don’t hesitate to quote from sources that conflict with your viewpoint if they offer a valid point of view or provide context.
  • Don’t make fun of people in a personally malicious or vicious way, it makes you look cheap and the person being attacked look like the underdog. It’s also just wrong. Satire and humor are fine--character assassination is foul.
  • If you make a mistake, apologize profusely and put a correction in print or on the air as soon as possible.

The Learning Curve

Basics of Responsible Journalism

Tools of the Craft

Covering the Political Right

Civil Liberties & Repression

Progressive Strategies and Tactics

About this Training Resource

Many of the journalism training pages here are adapted from a course, "Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting," developed by Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, and Abby Scher for the Z Media Institute hosted by Z Magazine in Woods Hole Massachusetts.

  • Chip Berlet is the senior analyst at Political Research Associates.
  • Holly Sklar is an author and oped columnist.
  • Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist.

They will happily bore you with more detailed biographical information.

In addition, many useful suggestions and ideas have been incorporated from Adele Stan of AlterNet and Esther Kaplan of The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Please do not copy or distribute material from the Z Media Institute
without permission from one of the authors.
All Z Media Institute material © 1997-2010 Chip Berlet, Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher

Democracy is a process, not a specific set of institutions

Democracy is a process that assumes
the majority of people,
over time,
given enough accurate information,
and the ability to participate
in a free and open public debate,
reach the right decisions to
preserve liberty,
extend equality, and
defend democracy.










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