When multimedia journalist Tim Matsui began covering sex trafficking more than 15 years ago, he considered hosting a gallery exhibition to showcase his portraits of survivors. It’s the kind of project that might win awards and acclaim. But Matsui decided not do it.
“It would make me feel good, but what would it actually do for the [survivors],” Matsui said at Filmmaker and Journalist: Embracing the Genius of the ‘And,’ a discussion hosted last month by the UO School of Journalism and Communication in Portland. “I didn’t think it would do enough for them. For me, that was a tipping point.”
Since that moment, Matsui has embraced approaches to storytelling that many journalists might (disapprovingly) label “advocacy” or “activism.” Most recently, Matsui launched a sex trafficking “impact campaign” called Leaving the Life, which attempts to spark change through facilitated screenings and dialogues with policy makers, police officers and social workers.
“People ask me a lot, ‘Are you an activist?’” he said. “The answer I’ve come up with is, ‘No, I’m still a journalist.’ Because what I’m doing is giving content to the right people, who can then make a decision based off the story I helped tell.”
Skeptics would argue that pushing out content to specific public officials, especially with the goal of influencing public policy, is inherently a form of activism. But Matsui disagrees.
“Call me a grassroots distribution firm,” he said. “I’m not printing papers and paying some kid to deliver them. I’m hand-walking them into the office of somebody who can actually make a difference. But they make that difference, not me. That’s how I walk that line.”
Regina Lawrence, executive director of the SOJC’s George S. Turnbull Portland Center and Agora Journalism Center, says the event last month was inspired in part by the Center for Media & Social Impact’s report Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk When Telling Truth to Power, which identified a professional gulf between staid journalists and their often more activist counterparts, documentary filmmakers.
“If filmmakers and journalists were in closer dialogue, they might develop language about the similarities of long-form, point-of-view work to feature articles, op-eds and other forms of essay journalism,” the report stated. “But such conversations have yet to begin.”
By hosting a discussion with two award-winning storytellers — Matsui and Bob Sacha — who have effectively bridged the divide between journalism and documentary film, the SOJC aimed to get that conversation started, Lawrence said. “We took [the report] as our cue.”
Journalism as a vehicle for change
In Portland, Matsui and Sacha discussed the blurred line between journalism and advocacy, often challenging the prevailing notion that journalism’s goal is strictly to inform the public rather than to facilitate change.
“It used to be very simple, like ‘journalist good, advocate bad,’” Sacha said. “Those words have become more fluid.”
In reality, the word “journalism” has always encompassed a wide range of formats, from opinion essays and editorial cartoons to narrative nonfiction and hard news. But in all of these traditions, the journalist’s work ends when their content gets published. That’s where Sacha and Matsui are pushing boundaries. At the World Press Photo awards event last year, Matsui told the award-winning journalists that it’s not enough to simply release their work and hope it creates change. “‘What the hell are you doing about it?’” Matsui asked the crowd. “That was my challenge to them.”
Matsui acknowledges that campaigns like Leaving the Life can push journalists — including himself — outside their comfort zones. In a recent post on Medium, Matsui asked whether he should “feel dirty” for working with policy makers.
“During the past two years, I have sat in government meetings experiencing new, distinctly different — even odd — emotions,” he wrote. “I made introductions, negotiated touchy politics and even found myself helping write a statement on commercial sexual exploitation for the County Executive. That’s not very journalistic.”
So where does Matsui draw the line? The key, he says, is to avoid advocating for any single solution or policy outcome. Instead, the goal should be to strengthen dialogue by adding honest, compelling storytelling to the mix.
“I don’t want to be a PR agency,” he said. “I want to be the best vehicle to get that story to the right audience.”
Taking the side of truth
Sacha’s award-winning journalism career has included several notable forays into the world of advocacy. In 2011, for example, he partnered with the Open Society Foundation on a campaign called Stop Torture in Healthcare, which aimed to end acts of cruelty or violence carried out in the name of health care.
“At the end of the day, my idea of being a journalist is that I want something to change,” he said. “I want to do stories so that things get fixed.”
As part of his collaboration with the Open Society Foundation, Sacha helped direct and shoot a film titled “50 Milligrams Is Not Enough,” which demonstrated the human costs of Ukraine’s draconian painkiller restrictions. Sacha’s video became the centerpiece of OSF’s campaign to change the law in Ukraine and strengthen patients’ rights.
“The idea was to get the film in front of the right people … the people who could make a difference,” Sacha said. “That was the challenge of the project.”
When stories feature a clear injustice, Sacha says journalists should have the freedom to help their audiences catalyze policy change, much like RYOT Media and “Last Week Tonight” have done in recent years.
“If you feel moved to action, I don’t see a problem with actually offering you a way to get there,” Sacha said. “Journalism doesn’t do that, but maybe it should.”
He added that journalism’s ironclad commitment to “balance” can sometimes give credibility to untenable positions, like denial of climate science. The takeaway: Journalistic fairness doesn’t necessarily equal neutrality.
“If I had to take a side,” Sacha said, “I would want to take the side of truth.”
Story by Ben DeJarnette, MA ’15