Media Activism in Philadelphia

Lobby at Annenberg School for Comminications

Lobby at Annenberg School for Comminications

By Kenneth Lipp

Last night I spoke on a panel on media activism along with 4 activist media representatives – including Bryan Mercer of the Media Mobilizing Project, Rochelle Keyhan of Feminist Public Works, Gretjen Clausing from PhillyCAM, Sanjay Jolly of the Prometheus Radio Project, and moderated by Rutgers professor and Media Mobilizing Project founder Todd Wolfson.

Panelists were asked to give a 5 minute introduction of their work. I’ll have more to write about what I learned last night, but I decided to publish my prepared remarks as an Editorial, a somewhat belated long-form statement of purpose for the Declaration:

I’ll begin with sort of a disclaimer: I am not an activist in a generic sense – I’m a journalist – and the Declaration does not represent or advocate on behalf of any cause or organization. That said, we could be described as ‘activist’ in the way that people who disagree with the judiciary’s interpretations of the law often describe the jurists who interpret it as activist judges.

As within any industry, vocation, and community, every member participating in providing news media must learn and adapt their role in the journalistic ecosystem, and part of that is making editorial decisions that aggressively expose what we feel is under-covered, and by policing ourselves and our colleagues for faithful effective reporting.

I went from being a researcher, living in Alabama in the Spring of 2011, led by that research to activism related to internet surveillance, foreign policy, and high-tech political sabotage, to meeting Joanne – with whom I traveled for about a year before settling in Center City Philadelphia in December of 2012. In that year we traveled the country reporting on protests, including Occupy Wall Street in New York City, where we met Declaration co-editor and co-founder Dustin Slaughter on September 17 2011 at Zuccotti Park.

The 3 of us, Dustin, Joanne, and I (we found a house to share in the city), named the Declaration and chose our tagline at once in one night, January 2013: “Born of necessity,” – as in created to provide coverage needed by but denied the public.

We went to City Hall the next day to request press passes, and were told they no longer issued them. “We encourage editors to issue press passes for their own organizations,” we were told. So we made press passes (we’ve actually gone through several iterations, and I personally use a few different versions now).

They are *official* press passes. I generally avoid using the term press pass in favor of ‘credential’ or ‘ID,’ because my visual indication that I am press is no more a pass like a “VIP pass” than a Red Cross emblem is for a medic. It’s my commitment (or the commitment of an editor) and positive declaration that I am present to do my job of observing, verifying, and reporting facts to the public.

We cover all sorts of stories at the Declaration, but certainly have specialties. We make a point of covering demonstrations for social and economic causes. We cover trials. Dustin as well as contributor Austin Nolen have done extensive and successful work with Freedom of Information and Right To Know requests, on subjects such as Delco’s Bearcat assault vehicle, PA State Police “Stingray,” and other surveillance technology. Data-journalism and internet research is of particular interest to me.

We have made a featured project of in-depth reporting on the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, DVIC, the Philly PD’s $30 million DHS fusion center (in South Philly, Oregon and 20th). After we exposed its absence as required by federal grant guidelines, the commander of the fusion center hand-delivered a copy of the center’s privacy policy to our front door.

Joanne has since left the Declaration to pursue her passions, which are more international, and we now have four additional contributors. Joshua Albert joined us this summer as reporter and staff photographer, and we were lucky to also gain the Right-to-Know law skills of Austin Nolen. The four of us have been saved from our oblivion as the White Guy Squad with the more recent additions of Bri Dinan and George Bryant.

We started with $25 of our own money for the PhillyDeclaration.org domain on WordPress. We still operate without any outside funding (excluding spontaneous gifts) and we generate no income via the website. While we have found this pecuniary state occasionally limiting, the editorial control it allows Dustin and I has been well worth doing without a helicopter (though we have been formulating specific plans for an alternative).

We’ve added a video interview show with Scrapple.tv, a media Pirate Ship helmed out of Northern Liberties, called Philly Disclosure, which has welcomed the Executive Director of the Police Advisory Commission and the Chief of SEPTA’s Transit Police to discuss modern policing, civil-liberties, and public safety in general.

Our coverage has been reported by local and national mainstream media outlets, including NBC, Truth-Out, and Vice.com.

The best thing journalists can do for activists is our jobs – that is, to report with veracity the relevant activity of social movements. We are to be the sling in which David lays his stone when he is confronted with Goliath, and we also must be prepared to report when he has lain with Bathsheba. If the public does not know we will present facts even if they may hinder a cause we personally or editorially support, we can be of no use to activists when we wish the public to believe and rejoice in stories of their victories.

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About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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