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Cause-Related News: Going Outside the Mainstream Media

In a previous life, I was an editor and reporter for a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper in the Bronx. In retrospect, a decade in community journalism at a newspaper where the best stories literally walked in off the street and demanded the editor’s ear was appropriate experience for the following years spent reporting stories online and then urging people to take up causes. Community journalism was activist journalism; we adhered to strict standards of reporting but we also demonstrated a definitive point of view – a purpose beyond selling newspapers. And that experience showed just how clearly compelling stories with real human beings could bring about change – whether fighting city hall over zoning or exposing corruption. As reporters, we didn’t call ourselves social activists but we were clearly part of a a culture of social activism, a key factor in the formula for protest and change. In short, the stories we wrote helped to drive the causes we wrote about.

Those were the days before a commercial Internet shortened the distance between information and action. These days, social media networks can break stories and secure support for causes that the mainstream media ignores.

In late September, 2008 Cyclone Ivan hit slashed across the African island of Madagascar with winds of more than 125 miles per hour, bringing heavy rains and massive across the island. Government officials reported that the cyclone left about 190,000 people homeless and caused heavy damage to crops, roads and public buildings. More than 80 people died. The storm hit Madagascar during an unusually heavy rainy season, to the ground was already saturated and flood damage has been sustained from previous storms. The Republic of Madagascar, formerly the Malagasy Republic, comprises the world’s fourth largest island, a poor nation in the Indian Ocean that nonetheless enjoys vital importance as a center of somewhat fragile biodiversity.

Media coverage of the cyclone, a storm roughly the size and strength of Hurricane Katrina, was minimal – a few wire service stories, and postings on sites like AllAfrica.com. In the United States, there was little coverage and no video on the cable news stations. Indeed, I learned about Cyclone Ivan by reading Beth Kanter’s blog. Beth is a self-described “Web Technology Evangelist” and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of social media on nonprofit organizations. She’s a prolific blogger with a vast network of online correspondents, and I’m always surprised by what turns up in her feed; her curious mind and extraordinary linking powers always bring in some fascinating stories. And it was Beth who told me about the work of blogger Joan Razafimharo and by extension, the social venture known as Foko Madagascar.

Foko Madagascar was formed quickly after the gathering of the exclusive TED conference’s regional expansion into Africa in 2007. The conference’s theme was “Africa the next Chapter” and several social entrepreneurs and bloggers pooled their activism to start the Foko project, to help support Madagascar’s development. That work took several forms: a biodiversity initiative (Madagascar has some of the highest biodiversity in the world and is home to as many 12,000 plant species but struggles with the use of fire as an gricultural tool by poor farmers on the island), a women’s craft skills program aimed at helping poor women to make additional income from embroidery, sewing, and weaving, and a blogging project. In partnership with the Rising Voices initiative, the Foko Blog Club is teaching young people in Madagascar blogging skills. Rising Voices is a project of Global Voices, the “non-profit global citizens’ media project” founded at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research think-tank focused on the Internet’s impact on society and it aims to “spread the tools and techniques of citizen media to communities that are under-represented on the conversational web.”

Lova Rakotomalala, Foko’s project manager for health, described the goals of the blogging project on Foko’s blog:

We all know too well how actively participating in the global conversation through digital media can have a major impact in our way of thinking and approach towards development and global awareness. Joining the global conversation is critical on many levels. Firstly, it fosters the exchange of ideas with projects with similar goals such as the former and current rising voices grantees. Many creative ideas have been tested in different settings all over the world; learning from the rest of the world’s experiences can only help our project be more efficient in achieving our goals. Secondly, it allows Malagasy people to illustrate and directly share with the rest of the world their perspectives on issues that they’d know best. Thirdly, joining the global conversation will expand the network of people with similar interests nationally and internationally, connecting them and promoting positive collaborations.

In February, 2008 the effort to connect developing regions like Madagasgar to the wired world came into sharp focus. Joan Razafimharo covered the cyclone on her own blog and sent out calls for help to her network of digital friends. The Foko blog group kept track of YouTube video coverage and posted many links to blogs worldwide. One particular post from author and blogger Chris Mooney on his blog The Intersection stood out:

“When Britney shaves her head, everybody hears about it.When Ana Nicole Smith dies, everybody hears about it.But when Madagascar gets struck by a record six tropical cyclones in one season, killing hundreds and displacing perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, not to mention jeopardizing food supplies for many more, does it garner major and sustained U.S. press coverage?”

Yes, the hundreds of people who read Beth Kanter’s blog daily or subcribe to her RSS feed or follow her on Twitter heard about the Madagasgar disaster. The bloggers at Foko (whose motto is “It takes a village to raise an idea”) had fullfilled – at least in a small way – one of the main goals of the new organization, to join the worldwide dialogue by blogging their way into the flow of news. And links directed aid through the United Nations World Food Programme. It wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it did show the power of one blogger telling a compelling story to a larger audience – a blogger with a real point of view not content to sit on the sidelines.

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Cause Creation: Teen Dies in Transplant Outrage, and a Movement Begins

When 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan died on Dec. 20th while awaiting a liver transplant her insurance company refused to pay for until it was too late, her case moved beyond one family’s desperate struggle to save a young life and become a cause for thousands of people who discovered her case on the Internet – on blogs, in Facebook, on YouTube, in their Twitter feeds. I found out about Nataline from Jason Calacanis, an old friend from our Silicon Alley days in the 90s. Jason posted on his blog and into his Twitter stream (I don’t remember which I saw first) and like many others, I was immediately struck by the story.

A leukemia patient, Nataline needed a new liver after her treatment for the blood disorder caused series complications. Her insurer, Cigna, derided the operation as “too experimental.” The family hired a lawyer and organized friends to pressure Cigna to change its mind. Cigna appears to have reversed its decision to deny the transplant after about 150 teenagers and nurses protested outside its Glendale office Thursday, according to ABC News. But it was too late. After the teen’s death, family attorney Mark Geragos said that Cigna “maliciously killed her” and asked for murder or manslaughter charges against Cigna HealthCare.

I’d read nothing of this until this headline showed up in my feeds – CIGNA kills Nataline Sarkisyan. Wow, Jason’s headline certainly got my attention and as it did for thousands of others, the full story pulled at the heartstrings and stoked a sense of anger and outrage. Now, Jason Calacanis is more than your average blogger – the man’s a brilliant promoter and created a series of successful Internet properties during a decade-long career that began when he crossed the river from Brooklyn as a young lad with a certain, shall we say, attitude toward those who might get in his way. “15 Billion dollar market cap… almost 20B in revenue… you can’t afford a transplant?!” he ranted. Then he posted the names and titles of Cigna’s top executives, asking his considerable readership to go after them directly. And as the CEO of the startup Mahalo, a socially-wired search engine with results created by human editors instead of algorithms, he directed the creation of a section dedicated to the case. The page is filled with links to mainstream media stories and blog posts about Nataline, but it leads with a moving video that was created and post on YouTube by Nataline’s brother – after she was denied by Cigna, but before her death.

Nataline Sarkisyan was already a cause before her death became a national headline. An hour or so after I read Jason’s post, I checked in on Facebook to deal with the usual requests to test my movie knowledge, poke somebody back, or rate a new band. And there was an invitation to join a new group – CIGNA is Sicko – with 80 new members. Meanwhile, the YouTube video has been seen more than 15,000 times. The memorial service was yesterday in California, but the cause is still growing. Who’s willing to be the death of Nataline Sarkisyan becomes an issue in the 2008 Presidential campaign? Especially given the importance of the health insurance debate. The progressive group blog DailyKos has already made it a top story. We’ll stay tuned.