A golden moment for global muckrakingPosted: March 15, 2012
It sometimes feels that I inhabit parallel universes.
In the United States, where I teach nine months of every year, there’s much agonizing about the future of investigative reporting. Especially since Watergate, American newspapers have been the keepers of the investigative flame. With many papers in their death throes, there’s a great deal of worry that flame would be snuffed out.
But elsewhere, it’s a different story. In Southeast Asia where I come from and go back to regularly, as well as other places beyond North America and Western Europe, democracy and technology are prying open previously closed societies and providing citizens with information previously unavailable to them.
From Bahrain to Burma, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, savvy muckrakers are using blogs, mobile phones, Google maps and social media to expose the excesses the powerful. In places like El Salvador, Colombia and even Angola, watchdog news sites have taken advantage of the Internet to report about corruption and organized crime. Moreover, journalists overseas are mining information from online public records and databases to uncover stories that would previously have been buried in secrecy.
In most of the world, there has not been much watchdog reporting until recently, so the worry in these places is not (or at least not yet) about revenue models that will keep an investigative tradition alive. It’s far more basic: can those who expose wrongdoing stay safe — or alive?
In my own country, the Philippines, rogue cops and soldiers linked to local bosses have gunned down investigative journalists. In Mexico, reporters have been murdered by drug cartels. In Russia, journalists have been assassinated in their homes or on busy city streets.
Yet, even in these challenging environments, a return to the Dark Ages no longer seems possible. The information landscape has changed dramatically — while it may be possible to shut down the Internet and cut off mobile phones like Mubarak did a year ago in Egypt, the truth is that no nation can function for long without being linked to global telecommunications. It’s true that countries like China are developing increasingly more sophisticated ways to control access to online content, but access cannot be suspended completely, except for brief periods.
Thus, most everywhere, new spaces for accountability reporting and for informing the public about the excesses of power have opened up, providing us a glimpse of a possible future for watchdog journalism around the world. We are at a golden moment for global muckraking. We won’t know how long this moment will last. It many ways it depends on how well watchdog reporters and organizations take advantage of the new openings and win public support for their work.
This is how I think the global landscape for watchdog reporting would look:
In an increasingly global and networked world, big, industrial-scale media will not be the sole — or even main provider– of watchdog reporting. The field will be wide open not only to nonprofit investigative reporting centers but also to crusading websites and bloggers, research and advocacy groups, grass-roots communities, and a whole slew of Web-based entities for which a category and a name have yet to be invented.
More and more, we will see foundations and the public, and perhaps, even taxpayers, subsidizing high-quality watchdog reporting. Already several dozen nonprofit investigative reporting centers in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia (and the U.S., too) are doing groundbreaking reporting. Even today they are producing increasingly complex investigations using large amounts of data and presented in amazing new ways.
The future of investigative news will be collaborative. Technological tools (email, Skype, collaborative software, etc.) already make collaboration across borders and across media platforms possible. Resource scarcity makes such partnerships mperative. It will soon be apparent that ambitious global stories can only be done if they involve joint investigations by several news organizations, for-profit and nonprofit entities, professionals and amateurs, across media platforms and across borders. In addition, crowd-sourcing will be widely used, with audiences initiating and taking part in investigations.
The future of investigative news will be local: community-based watchdogs will set up small newsrooms specializing in accountability reporting and funded by a mix of commercial revenues and community support.
But the future will also be global. There will be much more transnational reporting on such issues as crime, corruption, the environment, and the flow of goods, money and people across borders. Journalists and citizens will be collaborating across borders like never before, using the tools of the networked information age. Such collaborations are already taking place. For example, an international consortium of investigative journalists has created reporting teams to probe issues like tobacco smuggling and illegal fishing.
Watchdog reporting will also likely take on new, unorthodox forms. In China, journalists are resorting to microblogs, posting sentence fragments, photos or videos online, often through mobile phones, in order to break controversial stories and evade censorship. In the U.S., nonprofit watchdogs are developing mobile phone apps that enable users to have easy access to data, such as maps showing the safety of schools or communities’ exposure to pollutants. Various ways of providing information will likely emerge, sometimes in unexpected forms, like video games or music videos. Innovation and experimentation will characterize this new era.
What gives me reason to hope is this: I’ve seen it even in the most dangerous places, and yet, I never cease to be amazed — wherever power is abused, the compulsion to expose wrongdoing remains strong despite the penalties that away those who dare speak out. For sure, watchdogs will be subjected to violence and legal bullying, or blackmail and reputational smears, as in the case of Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismailova. In March, personal and intimate video about Ismailova was released online after she refused to be cowed by anonymous threats that the video would be publicly released if she didn’t stop reporting.
The Internet is the new battleground. On one hand, it’s provided fertile ground for muckraking. But it’s also created new threats. There’s libel tourism, the practice of suing journalists in overseas jurisdictions where laws are more onerous, on the ground that what’s published locally has a global audience online. Muckraking websites have been subjected to denial of service attacks; and from El Salvador to Nigeria, crusading journalists have found themselves the target of false and salacious stories published online and distributed through social media.
The threats are not just in the digital realm. Nearly half of the 179 journalists who were in jail in 2011 worked for online media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Russia, blogger Oleg Kashin was beaten nearly to death two years ago by unknown men near his home
Like all journalism, the landscape of investigative reporting is being radically transformed. It’s a contested and uneven landscape – threats abound, but so do opportunities. Powerful governments and individuals will try to muzzle watchdogs. Vested interests may fund pseudo-watchdogs to counter those who would hold them accountable. Some places will have a thriving community of muckrakers; others will be bereft. Some watchdogs will have impact, becoming influential voices in their communities; others will be voices howling in the wilderness.