Does investigative reporting deter corruption?

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, David Kaplan, the director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, argued that we can make a more effective case for investigative reporting if we explained more forcefully the good that it does. After all, investigative reporting is costly and risky, and as the resources for it dry up, we need to show it’s worth the investment of time and money. The evidence is there, he said in a recent post, citing a recent Transparency International survey of 3,000 businessmen in 30 countries, the majority of whom ranked investigative reporting as the most effective anti-corruption deterrent.

Businessmen are supposed to be realists. So it’s quite astonishing that, as the TI survey showed, they’re putting more faith in journalism’s power to counter corruption than in national anti-bribery laws and international conventions. Is there in fact empirical evidence for such faith? Or are the businessmen not so much impressed by the power of reporting as they are cynical about the effectiveness of anti-corruption laws?

Since the 1990s, academics as well as organizations like the World Bank Institute and the UNDP have run regression analyses using TI’s Corruption Perception Index and Freedom House’s freedom of the press ratings. The data have consistently shown that for the most part, countries with a freer press have less corrupt governments or, to be more precise, governments perceived to be less corrupt. Thus, Daniel Kaufman, the World Bank Institute’s director former director for governance, stresses the importance of  a free press and of investigative reporting in particular:

Basically, the capacity of some countries of engaging in a freer way in full disclosure through the media, coupled with the capacity of undertaking investigative journalism, can make a huge difference. That raises enormously the reputational risk and, therefore, the reputational cost for the corporate sector of engaging in these practices. Similarly, it raises the costs for the public sector and the politicians.

The Institute’s conclusions, however. are based mainly on survey data; that is, on the perception of, rather than actual, corruption, which is difficult to measure. Moreover, it’s hard to isolate the impact of a free press or watchdog reporting from other factors that may be linked to the control of corruption, such as independent judiciaries, respect for civil liberties, and the strength of civil societies and political parties. Academic  studies have found that countries with independent courts and responsive bureaucracies also tend to be less corrupt.

This is hardly a surprising insight. We know that watchdog reporting can be most effective in countries where there are independent courts, responsive governments and empowered citizens. Without them, the work that journalists do is unlikely to lead to reforms. Russian journalists, for example, can publicize corruption at the highest levels, and they have, but that has not improved governance under Vladimir Putin. The same can be said of countries like Azerbaijan, or perhaps even Malaysia or Thailand. Individual stories may cause a policy reversal or drive a corrupt official out of office, but it’s generally hard to hold political or bureaucratic elites accountable if they enjoy impunity. How many times have I heard journalists complain that their exposés founder on the shoals of public and state indifference? That the politicians whom they’ve proven guilty of malfeasance are elected to office again and again?
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Changing paradigms: FOIA or leaks?

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

Indian journalist Shylamlal Yadav filed 59 FOI requests to report this story on excessive foreign travel by Indian ministers.

I was in Rio de Janeiro earlier this week to take part in a discussion on freedom of information hosted by the Columbia Journalism School. During the meeting, which was part of the launch of the Columbia Global Center in Rio, journalists, activists and academics debated Brazil’s freshly minted Access to Information Law. Signed by President Dilma Rousseff in 2011, it’s a pretty robust law. “Brazil is a patrimonial society where giving out information is not part of the exercise of power,” said Paulo Sotero, a former journalist who is now director of the Brazil Institute in Washington, DC. “The law changes this paradigm.”

Brazil was the 89th country in the world to have FOI legislation. These laws have been hailed as potentially revolutionary: When officials no longer have monopoly over government information, transparency can tilt the balance of power in favor of citizens. But can they change journalistic practice as well?

In Brazil, as in other places where the rule of law is weak and politics is factionalized, there is an entrenched culture of journalistic leaks. Competing political factions routinely use the press to launch damaging exposés on the corruption or other wrongdoing of their rivals. The publication of well-timed leaks from politicians are a long-established political ritual and part of the arsenal of politics. As conduits for leaks, journalists benefit from a culture of selective secrecy. Unsurprisingly, except for the likes of Abraji, the investigative reporting association, and a couple of leading Sao Paolo papers, Brazilian journalists were not the prime campaigners for an FOI law.

Brazil is not unique. Journalists are not always torchbearers for freedom of information laws. Accustomed to having privileged access to information because of their press passes, they are not always enthusiastic supporters of laws that would democratize access.

But, said said Fernando Rodrigues, a leading investigative journalist and former Abraji head, that culture may be changing. The new law, he said, has already powered a number of journalistic exposés. “Tons of documents” have been released because of FOI requests from news organizations, he added, and many publications have made those documents available on their websites. Many of those stories, featured on the website of the Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information, have to do with public spending, including reports on the outsize salaries of civil servants and police and military attachés. Read the rest of this entry »


Ensuring a place for women

Last week’s post on the shortage of women in investigative reporting set off an animated online conversation, including a lively #sheparty Twitter chat organized a few days ago by the Women’s Media Center. On Twitter and blog posts, a number of women journalists pointed out the difficulties they face on the job, including the skepticism or protective instincts of editors who doubt their ability to tough it out. As Lyra Mckee recounted, a woman she was writing about, herself a feminist, wondered whether she had the what it took to go out drinking in bars to talk to sources. Others cited harassment or sexist remarks from male sources and male-dominated newsrooms where women find it difficult to speak out and be heard.

To be fair, while the world of investigative reporting is largely male, so are the media more broadly. The media also reflect the imbalance in the world outside the newsroom. Corporate boardrooms are even more skewed in favor of men – just 14% of executive positions in US companies are held by women. The academy is a bit better but it’s not a paradise of gender equality either. In 2005-06, women accounted for about 40% of fulll-time faculty in US universities, but only 25% of full professorships, according to a study by the National Educational Association.

Though more women than men now graduate from college, there are disproportionately fewer of them in the upper reaches of the professions, whether it’s law, medicine, engineering, business or government. What Esther Kaplan, editor of The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, wrote this week  –  “investigative reporting has somehow become a field like cooking, where many of the cooks are women, yet the top chefs are almost always men”  – is true of other endeavors as well.

There are historical, cultural and social structural reasons for such disparities. But the more interesting reasons have to do with the limits women have put on themselves and the self-perception that they are not as enterprising, as tough or as persistent as men. This is what Esther Kaplan said in her blog post: 

When I first joined The Investigative Fund more than five years ago, almost every single one of our unsolicited queries came from men. Even very young men, straight out of college, had the chutzpah to propose ambitious investigative projects — never mind that they sometimes didn’t have any idea how to develop an actual reporting plan. Women, it seemed, didn’t have the same faith that they might be trusted to take on expensive, time-consuming reporting. It’s still not unusual for me to hear, when I reach out to a talented woman reporter with a potential assignment, “But I’m not really an investigative reporter.”

And here’s what Lyra McKee, an investigative journalist in Northern Ireland, wrote:

We aren’t entirely blameless in this debate. We don’t have enough female reporters considering investigative journalism as a career option in the first place. The traits associated with being an investigative reporter – aggression, pushiness, persistence – are seen as “male”. Consequently, like the science and tech industries, investigative reporting is not on the radar of female journalism trainees.

Are women journalists jettisoning their own careers by opting out of more challenging reporting? And if so, what can be done to challenge their perceptions of themselves and their abilities? 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 »


Disclosing tax data

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes. they paid.

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes they paid.

In 2008, Italy’s deputy finance minister published online the declared incomes and corresponding taxes paid by everyone in the country. Vincenzo Visco had led the government’s campaign against tax evasion and believed that Italy’s debt had reached disastrous levels. He said the publication of tax data was “an exercise of transparency, of democracy.” That exercise, however, quickly ended as Italy’s data protection agency ordered the information taken down after a day, saying that its publication violated privacy.

Taxes most everywhere are a controversial issue – just ask Gerard Depardieu, who fled the high taxes of his native France and accepted the offer of Russian citizenship last week. Around the world, many governments are proposing painful solutions to the problem of public debt and imposing heavier tax burdens on citizens. As government services are cut because public coffers are bare, public attention is shifting to the taxes paid – or not paid – by the wealthy and the privileged.

The problem with investigating the taxes paid by individuals is that this information is confidential. And since Visco’s exercise in pique, no country has followed Italy’s example. The exception is Scandinavia, where tax information has been public for over a century (more on how to access this information below). In some countries, too, it’s customary, though not mandatory, for candidates for the highest office to disclose their tax returns. Even in secretive Ukraine, candidates in the last election made public their tax ID numbers and their properties.

There’s been a lot of progress in the last two decades in legislating the disclosure of the assets of officials. The World Bank says that 78 percent of 176 countries it surveyed recently had financial disclosure systems, although only 42 percent made the disclosures public. Asset disclosures, says the Bank, are essential to fighting corruption, illicit enrichment and tax crimes. A public-interest argument can be made that tax disclosures are also a crucial anticorruption tool, yet only a few countries – and no international financial institution – have proposed making such data open.

But if officials are already required to declare their income and assets, why shouldn’t they be required to make public their tax payments as well? It’s hard to argue that revealing information on private taxpayers is in the public interest. But government officials are supposed to set the example for tax compliance because they are the custodians of the public purse. Because they decide how the burden of tax payments is shared, then citizens should be told whether those they elect to office are carrying their fair share of that burden. There can be persuasive arguments as to why heads of state, Cabinet ministers and members of national legislatures should declare their taxes. 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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Muckraking in digital – and democratic – Indonesia

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia's muckraker par excellence.

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia’s muckraker par excellence.

Last week, on a visit to the modest Jakarta office of the feisty Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, I was told about one of the magazine’s proudest moments.

Now Tempo has a lot of proud moments. Founded in 1971 in the glory days of the Suharto dictatorship, it has always been an independent and credible voice. In 1994, in what would be later remembered as marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto era, the Indonesian information ministry shut down Tempo and two other publications for reporting on a government purchase of overpriced warships. Banned Tempo journalists helped set up underground newspapers, an independent journalist’s association to counter the government-sponsored one, and because the regime hadn’t yet figured out the internet, a site called Tempo Online.

Reopened in 1999, shortly after Suharto’s fall, Tempo remains the most influential and respected newsmagazine in Indonesia. But the country has changed. Indonesia is now a democracy with competitive elections and a rambunctious and free-wheeling press. It’s also in the midst of a digital revolution. The country is one of the fastest-growing mobile and tablet markets in Asia. Mobile-phone subscriptions are cheap here, with basic monthly data plans starting at $5, giving rise to what Tempo executive Bambang Harymurti calls “Facebook phones” – inexpensive handsets used mainly for getting access to the social networking site. It’s estimated that Indonesia will have 150 million people online by 2014, making it the 11th largest internet user in the world. Most of them will likely be accessing the internet through mobile devices. Read the rest of this entry »


Leaner, meaner watchdogs

ICIJ’s global, multiyear investigation is an example of the collaborations that will help watchdog reporting survive current challenges.

I work in a journalism school, where exposure to the sound and fury of debates on the future of journalism is an occupational hazard. There can be lots of noxious fumes in some of those discussions, and so the essentials are often lost in the smoke. This was why going through the Columbia Tow Center’s Post-Industrial Journalism – a newly released and eminently readable manifesto on the future of the profession – was like breathing fresh air. To begin with, it restates what’s often taken for granted when these exchanges heat up: Why, in the first place, does journalism matter?

C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky make clear from the start: Journalists are not mere purveyors of facts. They are truth-tellers, sense-makers, explainers. The journalism that really matters is the reporting that can change society and hold the powerful to account. “Now and for the foreseeable future,” they say, “we need a cadre of full-time workers who report the things someone somewhere doesn’t want reported.”

There will, however. be fundamental changes in how this cadre will work and where, how their journalism is going to be distributed and how it will be funded. The report maps those changes, and its 126 pages are well worth a read. Suffice it to say that the authors envision a preeminent place for watchdog reporting and the institutions that do it.

That place, however, is not guaranteed. It requires not just reporters who can produce high-quality accountability journalism but also institutions that can sustain them. For sure, the newsrooms of the future will be smaller, with far leaner budgets than they do now. They will therefore have to do more with less. The report makes clear that the ones that will flourish in the changed media landscape will be those that harness the power of the crowd, of computers and of collaboration.

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