Is it really investigative reporting’s golden age?

Child workers at glass factory in Indiana, 1908. American muckrakers in early 20th Century helped bring about labor reforms. (Photo by Louis HInes/Library of Congress)

Child workers at glass factory in Indiana, 1908. American muckrakers in early 20th Century helped bring about labor reforms. (Photo by Louis Hines/Library of Congress)

There’s been much talk lately about the possibilities offered by new technologies in opening up restrictive regimes and democratizing the production of journalism. So last week, at a conference marking the launch of Anya Schiffrin’s anthology Global Muckraking, I posed this question to a panel of journalists from South Africa, Latin America and China.

Are we living in a Golden Age of Global Muckraking?

The answer I got was not a resounding yes. It was more like, it depends. Investigative journalism certainly survives, and even thrives, sometimes in the most difficult of conditions. But technology, often cited as a superweapon in the arsenal of modern muckrakers, is perhaps less a factor than something much more old-fashioned: tradition. In some countries, a proud history of watchdog journalism matters more in terms of sustaining such reporting, as do political junctures and ­– choose your metaphor – an infrastructure or ecosystem that supports accountability reporting.

In South Africa, said Anton Harber, investigative reporting is robust, with full-fledged investigative teams based in dailies and weeklies and staffed by reporters aiming their sights at both high-level political corruption and the dismal state of public services. Even during the earlier decades of the apartheid era, the smaller, feistier South African newspapers provided space for exposure journalism, and through they years, they have invested in getting the big stories and building their brands.

Now a journalism professor, Harber was editor of the muckraking Mail and Guardian in the late 1980s, at the height of the struggle against the apartheid regime. He was prosecuted numerous times and the paper itself was banned for a month by the government. The current crop of South African investigative journalists builds on this tradition, and newspapers like the Mail and Guardian have created a following because of their ability to deliver high-impact, high-profile exposés.

Apartheid-era sign, South Africa. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Apartheid-era sign, South Africa. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Other countries don’t have that tradition. Harber cited the example of Rwanda: Despite the recent opening up of the country, journalists there are still wary about exposing wrongdoing. The legitimacy of watchdog journalism is not backed by history or practice and there are few examples of success to draw on. Unlike South Africa where exposés are taken up by civil society and opposition parties, a watchdog culture does not yet exist.

Tradition was very much a topic at last Friday’s conference. Global Muckraking, the book around which the conference was built, looks back at a hundred years of investigative reporting around the world and explores questions like how and what kind of journalism brings about social change.

Difficult questions, for sure, although the panels throughout the day did tease out some common themes. The impact of exposés tend to be individualistic, not systemic; that is, individual officials may be booted out of office but the underlying causes of the problems are not addressed. Long-term reforms, like those banning child or slave labor take years, sometimes decades, and are the result not just of the work of journalists but also that of activists, reformers in public office and other citizens.

Corruption exposés may make immediate, dramatic impact but they seldom change the system. Most of them show proof of wrongdoing and name names, but often, corrupt practices continue or take other forms even after the crooked officials have been booted out.

These exposés are like the tango, said Silvio Waisbord, who has written about investigative reporting in Latin America. There is much drama and movement, with the dancers swirling around in a circle, only to end up where they began.

Latin America saw a wave of investigative reporting in the 1990s after the fall of authoritarian regimes and the consolidation of democracy. There is still tremendous investigative energy in the media there, although the situation differs from country to country. While newspapers have been the traditional torchbearers for muckraking journalism, new online only sites are making waves by experimenting with new ways of storytelling and engaging audiences.

El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacia and Verdad Abierta in Colombia, Animal Politico in Mexico and Plaza Publica in Guatemala are producing innovative, in-depth investigations that incorporate data, narrative and interactivity. There are also what Waisbord calls “hybrid” sites run by NGOs and journalists and that employ crowdsourcing and cross-border collaboration. Infoamazonia, which tracks deforestation in the Amazon region, is a good example.

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Satellite images as proof

In the past week, three stories on three very different issues showed once again how satellite images, until recently confined to the weather report, are now the stuff of front-page news.  All three are important stories with wide-ranging implications on public policy. But they also raise questions about the reliability of satellite imagery as proof and the ability of journalists – and their audiences – to make sense of them. Just like photographs, satellite images without context can distort the truth. And like photography, interpreting satellite imagery is as much art as it is science.

In recent years, there have been a number of journalistic projects that made good use of the wealth of satellite imagery, which is increasingly freely available. The 2006 project Vanishing Wetlands by the St. Petersburg Times, is a good, early example. Comparing  satellite photos  taken in the late 1980s and in 2003, the report showed how 84,000 acres of wetlands in Florida had vanished in the previous 15 years right under the noses of regulators tasked with  protecting them. But the learning curve for using satellite images is steep, and for the most part, journalists have lagged behind other users, including NGOs, in making full use of them.

On Thursday, NATO released five  satellite photos from an independent company called Digital Globe that purport to show Russian combat troops and artillery crossing into the Ukrainian border, contradicting Russian and Ukrainian separatist claims that no such incursions had taken place. The images are dated August 21, 2014, and they appear authentic, but most news reports published the photographs from the NATO press release without independently verifying their provenance or the reliability of the NATO interpretation.  The best roundup was from the Washington Post, which pieced the images together with reports, videos and photos from the field in a story that asks a question without giving a definitive answer, “Has Russia invaded Ukraine? Here’s what we know.”

natoOn the same day, August 28,  the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pro Publica and the New Orleans nonprofit news site The Lens unveiled “Losing Ground,” an interactive map using satellite imagery that showed how nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal land in southeastern Louisiana had disappeared in the past 80 years as levees, canals and oil wells and pipelines were built. Given the current rate that the sea is rising and land sinking, the story said, most of southeastern Louisiana would be under water in 50 years. Read the rest of this entry »


Leak investigations and the right to report

silencedLast night, I moderated a discussion that followed the screening of Silenced, a new documentary that tells the stories of three whistleblowers who exposed torture, mass surveillance and government waste. Directed by Jamies Spione, funded partly by a $40,000-Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and executive-produced by Susan Sarandon, it’s a powerful film that shows how these insiders in the national-security establishment were intimidated and penalized for exposing the abuse of government power.

Their stories are not new. What Spione brought to the screen was the humanity of the whistleblowers and the patriotic idealism that compelled them to work in government agencies like the NSA and the CIA and then to speak out against the excesses they saw there. If anything, Silenced dramatizes how the landscape of government secrecy has changed dramatically since 9/11 and the war on terror. It makes the argument that whistleblowers play an essential role: Leaks are a necessary prophylactic, especially when they reveal the abuse of public authority and the harm done to the rights of citizens.

Investigative journalism is all about uncovering secrets, but no journalist will dispute that governments have the right to keep things under wraps. Secrecy, however, is also prone to abuse. Not all secrecy is justified, and it can be argued that whistleblowers and leakers deserve protection if they disclose important, if secret, information that is in the public interest.

These questions have come to the fore as technology has made leaking easier — the estimated 1.7 million documents that NSA contractor Edward Snowden supposedly has in some hard drives is a good example. At the same time, more advanced tools of email and phone surveillance have enhanced the ability of governments to track the sources of leaks.

Until this month, I thought that the U.S. government’s aggressive pursuit of media leaks was confined to state secrets and national security. But as it turns out, it’s not just the CIA, the National Security Agency or the Justice Department that has gone after unauthorized information disclosures.

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Investigating with drones, stone tablets and the web (yes, LinkedIn, too)

This video was taken by a drone and then posted on a popular web portal in China. It provides an aerial view of the luxurious home of the son of Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief. There’s not much commentary here, just tracking shots of a white, two-story mansion built in the traditional style.

But the real evidence showing corruption in the Zhou family wasn’t dug up by drones.

Instead, it was names etched on tombstones in a village in China’s Jiangsu Province that allowed reporters to find the corruption trail. In China, names of family members, living and dead, are recorded on stone tablets in family burial plots. As Michael Forsythe and his team of New York Times reporters recounted recently, that’s how they found the names of Zhou’s first and second wives, his two sons, his brothers and in-laws.

Despite all the wonders of the digital era, a lot of information that journalists need is (still) not online, but in reams of paper gathering dust in government offices – or even in stone tablets in forgotten burial plots. Some of it is not even recorded at all, but resides in people’s heads.

The eureka moment often comes when information from humans or from paper (or stone, as the case may be) is matched with what’s available in digital format. In the case of Zhou, what the Times found was a trail of illicit wealth, none of it in the official’s name. That discovery was made by matching the names on the stone tablets with those on corporate records found on the website of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the government agency that keeps track of companies. They got paper records from the agency as well.

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What kind of reporting makes an impact? Some answers from Pakistan

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The website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue in Pakistan released on Saturday the tax payments made by Members of Parliament.

On February 15, Pakistan became one of only four countries in the world that make tax records public. The other three are Norway, Finland and Sweden. A year ago, no one would have thought this was possible. Pakistan, after all, is a cesspool of corruption and a paragon of opacity. But check the website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue and you’ll find prominently displayed there a link to the Parliamentarians’ Tax Directory.  Click on the link and you’ll get a PDF that lists how much income tax each and every member of Parliament paid in 2013. On March 31, a similar listing will be made publicly available for the tax payments of all citizens.

How in the world could this happen in Pakistan?

A large part of the credit should go to the intrepid Umar Cheema, founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP), which in the past year published two well-documented reports that showed tax evasion on an epic scale. The success of this project inspired me to take up this blog again after several months of inactivity. It’s not always that investigative reporting makes such clear and dramatic impact. So it’s a good time to revisit a question that’s often asked: What  kind of reporting makes an impact? What stars must align for reforms to follow in the wake of an exposé?

In the past two weeks, I have been lecturing my students about the importance of crafting the investigative narrative and engaging readers. Good narratives make impact, I said. Yet the two reports that the CIRP has published are densely written, numbers-packed pamphlets, each about 70 pages long. There are no sexy graphics, no stunning multimedia, no gripping and polished stories. The prose is dry – they could well have been written by the World Bank. Moreover, the reports confirmed what people in many developing countries already know: The rich don’t pay taxes. And yet they captured the popular imagination and forced the government to do the unthinkable. Why?

Pakistan is a basket case in terms of tax collection. It has one of the worst tax-to-GDP ratios in the world – just nine percent, worse even than Afghanistan’s 11 percent. Three years ago, the finance minister told parliament that Pakistan’s ratio was second to the bottom among 154 countries. Yet nothing was done.

In December 2012, the newly formed CIRP released its first report, which showed that two-thirds of Pakistani MPs  did not pay taxes. Neither, it said, did the high-living, polo-playing, playboy President Asif Ali Zardari and more than half his Cabinet. The findings got wide play in Pakistan’s free-wheeling press. Perhaps it was the specificity of the details, the fact that it named and shamed and put precise numbers that showed the extent of the tax evasion – the report caught fire and stoked the public anger. (I wrote how that project was researched in an earlier post.)

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The nonprofit news model is fragile

Nonprofits have been touted as a possible alternative to the collapsing business models of for-profit news. But a study released this week by the the Pew Research Center points to the fragility of that model and also to the need for a more concerted effort to shore it up.

The study identified 172 nonprofit news outlets throughout the U.S. – two-thirds of these were launched only since the 2008 financial crisis. While the recession has accelerated the closure of newspapers and the downsizing of news staffs throughout the country, it has given rise to a boom in nonprofit news.  Today 41 states have at least one nonprofit news organization.

Nonprofits have attracted a lot of attention partly because of the innovative and high-impact reporting some of them have done. Pro Publica celebrated its fifth birthday this month, with two Pulitzers under its belt and an impressive track record of trailblazing investigative journalism. The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, meanwhile, have been making waves worldwide with the release of a series of stories on offshore secrecy. And last month, the little-known Inside Climate News, a Brooklyn startup with an eight-person staff, was awarded the Pulitzer for its investigation of an oil spill.

So can bad (financial) times be good times for news? Read the rest of this entry »


Are wealth disclosures dangerous?

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. A week later, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required Congress and other officials to post their disclosures online.

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. On the same day, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required officials to post their disclosures online.

About a third of all countries in the world now require officials to publicly disclose their assets. Institutions like the World Bank and the OECD see this as a good thing. Asset declarations, they say, are crucial tools for fighting corruption and holding officials accountable. As an investigative journalist in the Philippines, I found asset statements vital to digging into conflicts of interest and the illegal accumulation of wealth by those in public office. Asset statements are mother lodes of information – and journalists in Russia, South Africa, Bosnia and Thailand, to name only a few, have found them crucial to their investigations of official wrongdoing.

There is as yet no global consensus on the merits of asset transparency. Last week, Chinese authorities detained six anticorruption activists who had been demanding that senior Communist Party officials declare their wealth. The demands come in the wake of exposés in the U.S. press, including a report that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, on the billions – yes, billions – illegally amassed by the so-called Red Nobility.

But the pushback on official disclosures comes from an unlikely quarter as well. Last Monday On April 15, President Obama signed a law that reversed a provision in The STOCK Act of 2012, which required members of Congress, legislative staff and senior officials of the executive branch to post their financial disclosures online. As my former student Sasha Chavkin pointed out in an informative piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, the 2012 law also came on the heels of scandal – a 60 Minutes exposé on insider trading by congressmen.

For some time now, critics of asset transparency have been saying that wealth disclosures are unnecessary violations of privacy. Rather than disincentivizing corruption, they say, disclosures only provide fodder for “asset porn.” More importantly, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in Washington, DC said in a recent study that these disclosures, if posted in online databases, pose dangers to law enforcement and national security. NAPA also asserted that asset disclosures have “limited value” in terms of detecting conflicts of interest or insider trading.

On April 15, for the first time ever, French government ministers were required to publicly declare what they own, in what has been called a historic Great Revelation or Le Grand Déballage. Like elsewhere, the demand for wealth disclosure was stoked by scandal.

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