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.

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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 »


Is investigative reporting dominated by men?

The question was posed to me earlier this week by Philip Chamberlain, a journalism lecturer in the UK. His students, he said, seem to have this perception. His own informal survey showed that only about a third of the staff members of investigative outfits in his country are female.  And yet, in his classroom, as in classrooms of journalism schools elsewhere in the world, including my own, women outnumber men (in the Columbia Journalism School, the student body is two-thirds women).

For sure, journalism has come a long way since 1970, when the women on the Newsweek staff sued the magazine for discrimination. Newsweek at that time employed women as fact-checkers and researchers but not as writers or reporters, which were positions reserved for men. That’s thankfully no longer the case and women have since taken on high-profile media jobs. Still, in 2012, women made up just 37 percent of the staff of newspapers and account for only about a third of supervisory jobs, the Women’s Media Center reported last month. While a woman is now chief editor of The New York Times, the ratio of women in leadership positions in U.S. newsrooms has remained unchanged at about 30 percent since 1999.

So where have all the women journalism students gone? In recent years, more of them got jobs than men, said the Women’s Media Center report, which cited figures from the Cox Center at the University of Georgia. But women are more likely to end up in public relations and online news sites. Male graduates are more likely to pursue jobs at weekly and daily newspapers, wire services, television, radio and cable.

Source: Women's Media Center, The Status of Women in U.S. Media in 2013

Source: Women’s Media Center, The Status of Women in U.S. Media in 2013

Are the numbers rosier in investigative reporting? Alas no. What data is available indicates that the composition of investigative staffs reflects the overall media picture. For sure, we’ve seen the proliferation of independent, nonprofit watchdogs, some of them founded by women. But even there, men – especially white men – dominate. The world of watchdogs is hardly reflective of the diversity of the real world.

The Women’s Media Center monitored the bylines in six online news sites in the second half of 2012. It found that women’s bylines outnumbered men’s in California Watch and Pro Publica. But in four of the others, as you’ll see in the graph, the ratio is reversed. The top executives of all four of the investigative nonprofits included in the study are male.

The same is true of the vast majority of members of the Investigative News Network, which is composed of nonprofit news organizations focused on accountability and public-interest reporting. For sure, INN’s membership is diverse as it counts both big and small newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada doing local, state, national and even international reporting. But only 25, about a third, of the 73 member organizations listed on the INN website have founders, executive directors or chief editors who are women. These nonprofits have been the sites of innovation and entrepreneurship. But they are far from being poster children for diversity.

[CORRECTION: A recount of members listed on INN’s website shows 28 out of 73  INN-affiliated organizations led by women; that is, their names are at the top of the masthead.  I missed three. Kevin Davis, CEO of INN, says that as of March 12, INN will have 78 members, of which 33 or 42% are, by my definition, led by women. Kevin, however, says a more accurate count should include groups where women are managing directors or in other very senior positions. In this case, the number would be 37 of 78, about 47%.]   Read the rest of this entry »


Is investigative reporting in ICU?

Deadspin stunned the sports and media worlds when it exposed football star Manti Te'o's  fictional girlfriend.

Deadspin stunned the sports and media worlds when it exposed football star Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend.

Two weeks ago, Jon Stewart at The Daily Show “investigated” investigative reporting and discovered it no longer existed, having been “disappeared” by cost-conscious media executives. The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver found that if some shadow of investigative journalism still walked the earth, it was only in the fictional newsroom of HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

The episode was achingly funny because it rang so true. But is it really so? It’s true that in the last five years, we’ve seen a drastic decline in the investigative capacity of American newsrooms. Hit by the twin blows of economic crisis and collapsing business models, newspapers and TV stations eliminated or downsized their investigative units. Yet at the same time, the muckraking spirit remains alive. In the past few months, for example, The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal have published groundbreaking investigations on the wealth of China’s Communist Party leaders. For sure, these are the guys in the big league, but amazing digging is also being done by smaller news organizations, including the new investigative reporting nonprofits, some of which are collaborating with public broadcasters.

We expect nonprofits and public broadcasters to do watchdog work. What’s surprising is that in the last couple of weeks, the Gawker affiliate Deadspin stunned the sports world with its revelatory report on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend. The report, as its authors explained in a Pro Publica podcast, was the product of good-old-fashioned digging in the new digital realms of Twitter and Facebook.

I know that a few swallows do not a summer make and that outstanding work notwithstanding, the anxiety even in the big newsrooms is palpable. The question in both for-profit and nonprofit investigative units is: How long can this be sustained?

It’s a question that’s not possible to answer. We are in the midst of a media revolution. Clarity is rare in revolutionary times. Outcomes are not certain, and predictions are cheap precisely because of the uncertainty.

I’ve lived through a revolution – sort of one, when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in the Philippines in 1986. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that we knew or should have known that the democratic transition was going to be tumultuous and difficult. The truth is we didn’t  and couldn’t have known. And the choices that our leaders and our people made in the early years of the the transition laid the ground for where the country is in now. Read the rest of this entry »


A hundred muckraking centers bloom

Table from the CIMA Research Report, Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support

Table from the CIMA Research Report, Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support

Five years ago, there were 39 nonprofit investigative reporting organizations in the world. Today there are 106 of them in 47 countries. According to David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and author of a new study that maps this space, this number includes reporting centers, training institutes, professional associations, grant-making groups and online networks dedicated to investigative journalism.

These nonprofit groups range from lean, one-person operations to multimillion-dollar newsrooms like the Center for Public Integrity in Washington DC,  the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco and  Pro Publica in downtown New York. They are everywhere – from Bosnia to Brazil, and from Iowa to Iraq. The newest centers – in Italy and Pakistan – have been formed only in the past month. But most most of these, says Kaplan, have budgets of less than $50,000 and five or fewer  people on staff. Yet, many of them wield clout that is disproportionate to their size, producing or enabling high-quality, high-impact journalism that holds wrongdoers to account.

Most of these organizations have been formed only in the last decade. In the U.S., the growth has been spurred in part by the demise of newspapers and the downsizing of investigative staffs in traditional newsrooms. Elsewhere, the formation of investigative reporting groups has less to do with collapsing business models than with the emergence of new democracies and the dysfunctional media systems that have taken root during the democratic transition. Kaplan attributes the phenomenal expansion of the nonprofit model in part to donor support. He calculates that annually, some $12.5 million in donor funds go to investigative reporting organizations outside the U.S. That’s just two percent of the nearly $500 million that donors spend every year on media assistance.

I ran a nonprofit investigative reporting center in the Philippines for 17 years, and so have intimate knowledge of the challenges faced by these investigative reporting organizations. For sure, physical threats and legal harassment are difficult to deal with, but more routine problems – like training and keeping talented staff, managing partnerships with mainstream news organizations, and perhaps most formidable of all, ensuring a stable revenue stream – can be even more challenging. I’ll wager that for the most part, directors of investigative nonprofits stay awake at night thinking about next year’s payroll rather than contemplating jail time because of a controversial story. Read the rest of this entry »


How to do investigative reporting in Pakistan

When journalist Umar Cheema launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP) last week, he did so with a bang: A blockbuster story that hit the headlines around the world. Two-thirds of Pakistani MPs, his report said, do not pay their taxes. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari – famous for his spending sprees, polo games and luxurious country estates – and more than half the Cabinet.

One would think that given his history, Cheema would be more cautious about exposing wrongdoing. Two years ago, while driving home from a dinner, he was seized from his car by men in black commando garb. He was brought to a house where he was stripped naked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Unlike victims of similar abductions, Cheema spoke out and said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible for the attack.

When I called him in Islamabad over the weekend, Cheema was still dealing with the furor raised by his tax story. He expected this. After all, he named names. In a 70-page booklet called, Representation without Taxation, which was released online and in a press conference last week, he listed all the members of Parliament who who didn’t pay any tax at all. He also published the names of those who had paid taxes in 2011 and the amounts they remitted to the government.

how toMPs roundly denied the charges and accused Cheema of being on the payroll of their rivals and of timing the report for the elections, which will likely be held in the spring. “The opposition and the administration have joined hands to wage attacks on me and malign me,” he said. But he could document each and every charge, including the last rupee of tax paid. It took six months, he said, to gather the information, verify and then verify again. He knew that he would pay dearly for any mistake. “We were doing naming and shaming,” he said, “and we had to be extra careful.”

As investigative reporter for The News, Cheema had taken on the military and the intelligence services and exposed Zardari’s corruption. Now he is on his biggest story yet.

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