Beacons of Hope: Investigative Journalism Centers
Training and support for investigative journalists are increasing, and collaborative projects are happening worldwide.
In the United States, journalists are raising legitimate concerns about how investigative reporting will be done given financial constraints being imposed in many newspaper newsrooms, where the bulk of this reporting gets done. At the same time, we should be heartened by reporters overseas creating nonprofit investigative journalism centers and associations to deliver the necessary training and support to those doing this work.
Now, on every continent, we find examples of journalists exposing corrupt practices by those who serve in government and run businesses. Reporters also probe environmental and health issues and programs, investigate organized crime, and are alerting the public to the international trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons.
These independent centers and associations help journalists develop and distribute their stories by providing training for reporters and establishing vital online networks. Since 2000, the number of such investigative centers and associations has more than doubled—going from 15 to nearly 40, according to a recent report for the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). And more will be established soon by journalists in Africa, South America, and Asia.
What is most surprising about this global effort to strengthen investigative reporting is its vibrancy despite the many threats and challenges investigative journalists face in so many countries. Censorship, criminal trials, imprisonment, physical assaults, and sometimes death are not uncommon risks for many investigative journalists. A less perilous hurdle, but certainly a more pervasive one, is the lack of access (and even absence of the right to have access) that journalists endure when it comes to securing government documents or even being able to speak with government officials.
Yet journalists persist, and they regard these new efforts at supporting what they do as a way to encourage them—and others—to circumvent what are often timid, badly financed, or corrupt mainstream media in their country. For example, organizers of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism know that what enterprising journalists are doing can and must be improved. As they explain on their Web site “… Romanian investigative journalism hardly has 10 years of existence. Due to the lack of experience in this domain, the Romanian investigative journalism very often means sensationalist stories with no core and no impact. In fact, the investigative journalism in Romania has a very low credibility.” Now, through the efforts of this center, journalists who sit at 10 news desks in Romania have been trained in how to do this kind of reporting and are producing solid reporting about government corruption—stories that are having an impact.
At training seminars being held in many countries, journalists are gaining knowledge about Web-based investigative tools. In Nigeria, journalists attending a recent workshop soon realized they could obtain information from the Securities and Exchange Commission Web site about alleged bribes paid to Nigerian officials by multinational companies such as Halliburton. They could also find out on the Foreign Agents Registration Act Web site the identity of lobbyists—for example, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young—working on behalf of Nigeria in the United States.
As much as anything else, the Web has been responsible for the rapid growth of these investigative journalism centers. With little funding, journalists operating these centers use new media technology to connect reporters with resources, including information and technological tools, and also post their stories. This enables reporters to avoid the all-too-common shutdown by authorities that traditional newsrooms face and also circumvent government censorship. Through e-mail, listservs and blogs, journalists are able to be in touch with other investigative reporters. This allows for the kind of close collaboration on projects that wasn’t practical a short while ago. Linked via the Internet, reporters share ideas, information and strategy.
At Farmsubsidy.org, for example, a small group of journalists has aggressively pursued the acquisition of databases and information pertaining to how farm subsidies are handled by the European Union in its multibillion Euro Common Agricultural Policy program. Displayed on the project’s Web site, the assembled data are being used by journalists associated with this project—and others—to inform their reporting on this ongoing story.
One of the three coordinators of the farm subsidy project is Danish journalist Nils Mulvad, who took a strong interest in computer-assisted reporting and databases in the mid-90’s and became a leader in using open records laws for getting data for investigative stories from European governments. In 2006, with funding that included a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, he and his colleagues, Jack Thurston and Brigitte Alfter, began to collect the information.
To launch their investigation, they submitted requests for the subsidy data to each country in the Union. The countries greeted the requests with varying degrees of cooperation. In an ingenious move, the project’s organizers posted these responses on their Web site, noting which ones were good, partial or denied. Journalists and the public could readily see the level of transparency shown by officials of each government.
Using this Web site’s information, journalists in several countries have reported on some questionable subsidies received by wealthy corporations and by politicians. Their articles have also illuminated how subsidies can enable European agricultural corporations to sell products well under their market value in developing countries, thus undercutting those countries’ economies, not to mention the farmers who produce these same products closer to home. In a surprising finding, project reporters came across “pony clubs”—land on which horses can graze—that had qualified for agricultural subsidies. It turned out that recipients do not have to do any farming to receive a payment; the only requirement is the ownership of eligible land.
Investigative centers in the Balkans have initiated similar projects, with issues ranging from corruption that resulted in skyrocketing utility rates to human trafficking. The story about utility rates, which was recognized with the Shining Light Award at the Global Investigative Journalism Network conference last year in Toronto, involved reporting from journalists from several countries and was coordinated by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which was created by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., also has brought together investigative journalists who have worked on investigations into war profiteering, water rights, and tobacco smuggling.
Associations for Training and Networking
Person-to-person interaction at conferences still holds great value in the age of the Web, and professional associations of investigative journalists serve this purpose—and more. In 2002 in Brazil, journalists formed Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (ABRAJI) after a renowned broadcast reporter was killed while investigating child prostitution. With financial support from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, ABRAJI initially created a listserv to communicate with its members and offered online training; more recently, ABRAJI has convened conferences for its more than 1,000 members.
Often, as in the case of ABRAJI, investigative journalism centers and associations are primarily funded by foundations or governments. Indeed, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which started in 1989 and is now regarded as a model for other investigative centers, has at times received nearly a third of its annual budget from the Ford Foundation. Donors in the United States (the Open Society Institute, The Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation) and agencies of the U.S. government (USAID) also play strong roles, such as funding of such centers and associations in Africa. (The Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany has also been a major donor on the African continent.) Another key funder has been the governmental entity, SCOOP, in Denmark; it provides extensive Danish funding for efforts in Eastern Europe and Russia. SCOOP funds also helped support the cross-border work on the utility rates investigation.
Other international investigative journalism training groups include Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in the United States, the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, and the Institute for Advanced Reporting at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Global Investigative Journalism Network bolsters efforts taking place in individual countries. It was founded in 2000 as a way of connecting investigative journalists to one another; this network of journalists held its first conference in Copenhagen in spring 2001 that was attended by more than 400 journalists from 40 countries. The four-day conference—structured in much the same way IRE conducts theirs—provides a valued platform from which veteran journalists share knowledge and techniques in a practical and readily useful way. Out of this gathering e-mail lists were created and eventually a Web site. Despite difficulties posed by international travel after 9/11, these conferences have continued to take place every two years; in 2007, 600 participants from 40 countries gathered in Toronto, Canada.
Even with the remarkable progress these various efforts represent during the past eight years, many hurdles remain. Without more in-country financial and political support, some of these burgeoning centers will struggle as underfunded mavericks, while their members risk intensified censorship and government crackdowns. Some have already folded even before they gained much of a foothold. Also, without securing local and regional support, these centers carry the burden of being perceived by some as envoys of external governments or ideological foundations. When this happens, they can face the kind of criticism—and actions against them—that the Russian government has brought against nongovernmental human rights organizations operating in that country.
It goes almost without saying that these centers—and those affiliated with them, by dint of what they do—will undoubtedly continue, in varying degrees, to be closely watched by those in power and in some cases harassed. Investigative journalism is seldom popular with those whom it is the responsibility of the press to hold accountable.
Brant Houston, a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, is the Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois.