Cross-field collaboration: How and why journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together

New research analyzes 155 journalism-civil society collaborations

By now the idea of collaborative journalism has become widely known and, for the most part, widely accepted. The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University has logged more than 600 collaborative journalism projects in a database that we’ve been keeping for the last few years. The projects we’ve studied thus far are largely journalist-to-journalist or journalist-to-community collaborations.

In late 2019, we were approached to study a different type of collaboration: that between journalism and civil society organizations. Excited by the opportunity to lean in to our growing collaborative journalism program, we submitted a proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the research, and were thrilled when we were given a grant to do so.

After almost two years, I am happy to share the final product of that work, “Cross-field collaboration: How and why journalists and civil society organizations around the world are working together,” co-authored by myself and Hanna Siemaszko.

DECORATION ONLY: The cover page of the full report on cross-field collaboration. Click the image to download the report.
Click the image or click here to download the report.

We define cross-field collaboration as a partnership involving at least one journalism organization and one civil society organization (usually an advocacy organization but not always) in which they work together to produce content in the service of an explicit ideal or outcome. Civil society organizations include NGOs, universities, civic tech and arts organizations, among others.

We analyzed 155 cross-field collaborations, involving 1,010 organizations, based in or working in 125 countries. Increasingly impatient with a lack of impact from investigative projects, journalists have become more willing to partner with civil society organizations, which often work toward effecting change. With this drive for impact comes complicated ethical questions that the journalists wrestle with, but have found ways to negotiate.

White and red text across a black background reads: “What is cross-field collaboration? A partnership involving at least one journalism and one civil society organization, in which they work together to produce content in the service of an explicit ideal or outcome.”

Likewise for civil-society actors, partnering with journalism organizations brings added benefits such as the ability to circulate their findings more widely and in a greater variety of formats; i.e. important findings are now translated into narratives and visual applications in addition to the traditional white paper.

The most common topics of the collaborations we studied were corruption and governance, climate and environment, and human rights.

Cross-field collaboration is not distributed evenly across countries; we found that countries with higher gross national income and lower perceived corruption (e.g. France, Germany, Kenya, Canada, United States, England) were more likely to be exporters of cross-field collaboration, meaning their organizations worked on projects that are outside of those countries’ borders. The countries in which cross-field collaborations are based but have no local entities working on the project (e.g. Azerbaijan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Afghanistan) tend to have lower gross national incomes and higher perceived corruption; these we called subject countries.

In short, the collaborations we studied were generally investigative in nature and looked at complicated and difficult problems. Countries with more established and robust journalism and civil society fields tend to have more entities involved in these projects, and are often looking not only at problems at home but at countries abroad as well.

A black background with white and red text in the foreground that reads: “25% of the 155 collaborations we studied focused on a topic related to democracy‎, transparency‎, governance‎, or corruption.”

Over the course of 52 interviews with people from both journalism and civil society organizations, we unpacked the types of impact most commonly recorded from cross-field collaborations and how the journalists — especially those schooled in the tradition of objectivity — negotiate the tension between neutrality and advocacy. Despite myriad difficulties in tracking impact from collaborative projects, we identified the most common (or commonly recorded) impacts: those on organizations such as businesses, and those on the political realm. In addition, we categorized impact as both accordant and discordant with the goals of the project.

Accordant impact is aligned with the type of change (either explicit or implicit) that a project sets out to achieve. Discordant impact runs counter to the type of change that a project seeks, or is a negative impact on a person or entity involved in the project. The paper includes a matrix with examples of the various types of impact that result from cross-field collaboration. Alongside the research itself, we will also be sharing a public-facing database of all the projects studied in the paper.

We conclude the paper by identifying factors common to successful cross-field collaborations, and discussing common points of tension.

We will be presenting our research and findings during a session at the upcoming Collaborative Journalism Summit in Chicago, IL on May 19–20, 2022.

A black button with white text that reads: “DOWNLOAD THE REPORT.”

👋 Want to learn more about collaborative journalism?

You can subscribe to our collaborative journalism newsletter for more updates and information. And of course, we invite you to visit collaborativejournalism.org to learn more about the topic of collaborative journalism — including our growing database of collaborative journalism projects, which is currently being updated.

Sarah Stonbely is the director of research at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Contact her at stonbelys@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

The aforementioned report is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

An initiative of the School of Communication at Montclair State University

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Sarah Stonbely

Sarah Stonbely

Sarah Stonbely, PhD is the Research Director of the Center for Cooperative Media, in Montclair, NJ.

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