Combining journalism and advocacy to effect change

by Rachel Glickhouse (@riogringa)

Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms spoke to our class this week about his experience with journalism, advocacy, and film-making.

He explained that he became involved with the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives in the 1990s, and began videotaping bike rides he took with friends. Later, he ran a cable access show about biking in New York, and then created a video about a car-free Central Park in 2004. After screening the film before a crowd of nearly 700, results came just weeks later, with seven park entrances closed and speed limits reduced in the park.

In 2005, Eckerson founded Streetfilms, and for the past decade he’s been making videos about bike and pedestrian advocacy, Vision Zero, and other transportation issues in New York and around the world. Eckerson noted that by putting his work on Youtube, it lets people use the videos as they see fit, sharing it with elected officials and with different advocacy groups.

Eckerson considers himself a filmmaker, an advocate, and a journalist all in one. “As long as we tell the truth and try to correct what the media gets wrong all the time, there’s nothing wrong with being an advocate,” he said. “There’s a big responsibility to make sure you get it right.”

However, funding is a challenge, Eckerson acknowledged. He depends on a primary funder as well as donations, but due to cut-backs, he lost his two co-workers. He also gets grants to do international projects.

Eckerson noted that a key to his success is creating evergreen films, which have value for years on end. He explained that transportation-related videos can often be technical and full of jargon, so his goal is always to make videos that put concepts in simple terms that are accessible to all. Ultimately, the goal is to figure out ways to make people’s lives better or to give them tools to make their lives better, he said. He also stressed the importance of keeping videos short and sweet–under 4 minutes.

While Eckerson considers himself a journalist, his first measure of success comes from changes in the community. He cited a pedestrianized Times Square and pedestrian plazas in Queens as positive results of his work. “Success is seeing your message get out there easier,” he said. Pageviews and comments are important, but are secondary to actual change in the community.

When it comes to distribution, Streetfilms uses a Creative Commons license that prohibits derivatives or selling the videos, but it allows people to make copies and distribute the content to reuse and repurpose it. “I just want to get the word out,” he said. He also prefers for media outlets to ask for permission to use his footage, since one time it was used without any credit or attribution.

“In my heart, I’m always going to be an advocate,” concluded Eckerson. “I can only do my best to throw stuff out there and hope people use it.” But at the same time, he holds himself to a strict journalistic standard. “I can’t put something out there that’s not true.”

During the rest of class, we discussed everything we’ve explored so far this semester, from design thinking to business models to qualitative research. We talked about externally focused vs. internally focused journalism, and whether we will use one or both to work with our communities. In other words, are we telling the world about our community, or are we focusing on communicating only within the community itself?

We also touched on dealing with telling people what they don’t want to hear. We talked about how in traditional journalism, objectivity protects and distances you from a community, while collaboration–critical to social journalism–is key to building a relationship with your public, though it also makes you vulnerable.

Here’s my question for the week: Do you think externally focused or internally focused journalism will work best for your community? Or is it both? In your work, will you need to tell your community things it doesn’t want to hear? If so, how will you handle that challenge?