Photo courtesy of Joanie Tobin / Wikimedia

The GroundTruth Project: Charles Sennott Works to Restore Truth in Journalism

Award-winning foreign correspondent, Charles Sennott, visited Boston College last Wednesday to deliver a talk titled “GroundTruth in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era,” as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.

For decades, Sennott has reported on the front lines of war-consumed countries, covering issues such as Afghanistan and the Arab Springs. Sennott began as a Boston Globe reporter, and later became the publication’s bureau chief in the Middle East from 1997 to 2001, and in Europe from 2001 to 2005.

Through The GroundTruth Project—a nonprofit news organization he began funding five years ago—Sennott uses his years of experience as a reporter to influence a new generation of journalists around the world, training and inspiring them to report on the most important issues of our time.

At the heart of the project is the idea that the best way to obtain truth is to be on the ground. The term originated from NASA, and refers to a calibration process used in satellite imagery. When a satellite measures a location, an employee on the ground makes the same measurement, called “groundtruth.” This idea calibrates technology with the truth that journalists witness on the ground.

“At The GroundTruth Project, we believe that journalism should be thought of as a public service,” said Sennott. “We need this new generation especially to stand up and challenge the assaults on the cornerstone of our democracy, a free press, and to be advocates for the truth, to be practitioners of groundtruth.”

According to Sennott, truth is a concept that is fading.

“The questioning of truth permeates our civil discourse. We can no longer even agree on the facts,” he stated. “We live in a time when it feels as if doubt has become weaponized. Truth itself is under attack.”

According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 32% of Americans said they have a fair amount of trust in the media, compared to 72% in 1976. Trust in the media is plummeting, shifting the perception of journalists from “defenders of democracy” to “enemies of the people.”

“We have to recognize that the crisis of journalism has become a crisis to our democracy” said Sennott.

He also stated that the attacks on journalism are not only political, but also physical. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,321 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2018.

In addition, Sennott expressed his concern for the rise in harassments and attacks on women in  journalism. Statistics from the International Women’s Media Foundation reveal that more than two-thirds of emerging female journalists have been harassed, and one in ten have been directly attacked. As a result, one in three are considering leaving the profession.

“I am really worried about that,” said Sennott. “We are starting to make gains in the profession and we are going to have to fight like hell to be sure we keep them inspired.”

He stated that these factors have contributed to a decline in newspaper jobs and to the formation of bigger “news deserts.” According to the Columbia Journalism Review, there are nine hundred communities in America who have lost their newspapers since 2004.

This is an important issue because with the absence of local reporting, we grow divided as a country. Our understanding of news is becoming more politicized and polarized, pulling the country apart.

“Local news is a binding agent for our country,” he said. “If we look at the bigger issues that are right in front of us, such as inadequate health care, justice in the courts, and access to drinking water, we will come together as a country.”

Sennott said that journalists have to work harder than ever to restore the trust in journalism and inject truth back into national discourse. This is why The GroundTruth Project launched Report for America.

“This is about bringing public service to journalism” said Sennott. “This is a call to go out and serve local communities, to go out and listen to people who feel they are not heard. To go out and Report for America.”

Report for America is a call to service at a time of crisis for the profession. It is a means of getting more local reporting into the field.

“I really truly think that journalism is at the heart and soul of who we are as a country”, Sennott said. “A free press, where we have someone who can challenge authority and do it the right way—that is the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Director of the Lowell Humanities Series James Smith said that Sennott was the third speaker to receive a standing ovation in the four years that he has been directing the series.

“The best days of journalism are in the future,” Sennott said. “Do not despair, get into it, be resourceful, and make it happen.”