Molly Bingham, NF ’05, has worked as a photojournalist since 1994. She also is a documentary filmmaker, and is launching ORBmedia, a project that uses data and professional reporting to provide a single daily multimedia story with a global perspective. During the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, she was arrested in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein’s security forces and held in Abu Ghraib prison for eight days. In the following two years, she co-directed the documentary film “Meeting Resistance,” which features interviews with members of the resistance to the occupation of the country. Third in a series of Q. and A’s with former Nieman Fellows about watchdog reporting.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 Molly Bingham returned to Abu Ghraib prison, where she had been held for eight days. Photo courtesy Molly Bingham
What is your biggest frustration about watchdog journalism? How can it be addressed?
This frustration isn’t just about watchdog journalism, but about the industry more widely. Good journalism takes time—and time on the ground. That’s an expensive proposition, but if cut or rushed leads to a lesser product. The sand is shifting under our feet when it comes to the revenue models that supported that spending in the past. I understand that. But I feel it is important to recognize that cutting doesn’t necessarily deliver a good product at a reasonable price.
Additionally, I find that many nonprofit organizations are making an effort to cover the stories and ground that were historically covered by the legacy media. Yet, securing funding for these nonprofit journalism teams is incredibly difficult and often specifically restricted to a certain topic, which makes seizing an opportunity to do an important story that emerges, but is out of that funding topic, incredibly difficult.
You have embarked on a new venture. What need do you think it fills?
The need to understand our complex, interconnected world in a holistic way.
Technology has given us global reach and instantaneous information. Anyone who is digitally connected receives a blizzard of breaking news and a deluge of information every day—each delivering a discrete fragment of a larger story. How do we piece that information together? How do we do so in a way that we have confidence represents something like what is really happening?
ORBmedia pulls the lens back, telling the wider story, providing context and information, around eight major topics that affect human beings, no matter who they are or where they live.
Our audience will be anyone in the world with a mobile device. Accessible in the most widely used languages, on the most widely used devices, and in the medium of choice for the consumer (text, audio only, or multimedia), ORBmedia will deliver a single daily story to a diverse, digitally connected global audience about significant issues that directly affect them, their family, their social community, and/or their geographic community.
ORBmedia will help us see the world we live in—give us the framework to assemble those information fragments we’re bombarded with—so that we can more readily see the bigger stories and make sense of almost everything else. I guess you could say that ORBmedia will meet the need for good public journalism that is global in scope and audience.
What are the most important lessons you have learned during the course of your career that might be helpful to other journalists pursuing watchdog journalism?
If what you have to say, or what you have found through your reporting, is unpopular or inconvenient to the general narrative of the people who comprise your audience, quadruple check your facts, and then stick to your guns. Obviously the support of an editor or publisher makes a huge difference here. If you are a freelancer or blogger, it can be difficult to find that support and the right place for your story. But keep at it. It’s worth it.
What are some of your favorite sources for information and inspiration in this area?
As a journalist who has covered mostly international stories in my career, I’m still a believer in the serendipity of reading widely. I read the print versions of four newspapers daily, often dipping online to check comments and updates on various stories. I do it this way because I do not have the discipline yet to read that widely online. The moment I’m in front of my computer I feel I need to be getting to other things and would almost never read The New York Times’s Science section (a beloved favorite) or get to the Financial Times at all. Flipping through the physical paper seems to more readily ensure that I don’t miss something that would interest me, or that fits tangentially or indirectly into one of the many stories I track in my head (and in my files).
I also still read the long-form pieces in a wide range of magazines: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. Again, I find the serendipity of discovery in print encourages me to read and find things I likely would not in my digital diet.
Please discuss one or two of your favorite recent examples of successful watchdog journalism. What made each stand out to you?
I am on the board of the Center for Public Integrity, and I have found their 2012 Consider the Source project to be a well of meaningful and powerful information regarding how the funding of our elections on both a state and federal level has been affected by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
This collection of long-form stories, shorter pieces, backgrounders and daily updates is a significant resource for anyone who is seeking to understand how our elections are being funded and how that funding is affecting their outcome—or not.
It is critically important for our democracy to fully grasp the impact money is having on our political process and who is contributing that money and to what end. While the Center for Public Integrity published this content (254 reports and 50 profiles) on its website, it has reached a much wider audience through republication by other news organizations. The way the reporting and the website is organized, it is possible to check on funding and spending in your state as well as on a federal level.
This comprehensive reporting, to me, addresses one of the United States’ most important issues—the funding of elections—and lays out information and conclusions in an accessible and usable way, both for lay readers and other journalists.
What’s the timetable for ORBmedia?
ORBmedia was founded in late 2011 and we are now in our project development stage. The work underway includes developing the technology to support both the data component and the journalism, as well as designing a global operations and staffing plan.
What kinds of stories should we expect?
When ORBmedia is generating content, each story will squarely address one of our eight topics—food, water, energy, health, education, environment, trade, and governance—while bringing in other topics that play a role. For example, in a food story, we might track the global proliferation of a certain type of genetically modified rice, the communities where it has been grown, and the issues related to increased water usage and governance that surround it for those communities (and for the ones that don’t permit it).
For our water track, we might look at areas around the world that utilize their rivers for the transportation of goods—and how, when the water levels in those rivers drop, those communities continue to navigate the rivers and how it affects trade. That’s an example of how a water story would also have elements of the trade and governance tracks.
For our environment track, we might look at a handful of cities around the world that are dealing with significant air pollution—Salt Lake City and Beijing immediately come to mind—tracking the air pollution from the source and following it as it travels. Folding in a component on health issues commonly associated with air quality and how regulators are working to mitigate the pollution itself would wrap in our health and governance tracks.
Dan Froomkin writes about accountability journalism for Nieman Reports.
Previous Watchdog Interviews:
Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times
Jenifer B. McKim, The Boston Globe