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The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism

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Posted on Aug 28, 2014

Photo by ankarino (CC BY 2.0)

By Anya Schiffrin, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Nick Turse’s introduction here.

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking, folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffs are down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol—she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

Woodward and Bernstein may be a fading memory in this country, but journalists with names largely unknown in the U.S. like Khadija Ismayilova, Rafael Marques, and Gianina Segnina are breaking one blockbuster story after another, exposing corrupt government officials and their crony corporate pals in Azerbaijan, Angola, and Costa Rica. As I travel the world, I’m energized by the journalists I meet who are taking great risks to shine much needed light on shadowy wrongdoing.

And I’m not the only one to notice.  “We are in a golden age of investigative journalism,” says Sheila Coronel.  And she should know.  Now the academic dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Coronel was the director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, whose coverage of the real estate holdings of former President Joseph Estrada—including identical houses built for his mistresses—contributed to his removal from office in 2001.

These are, to take another example, the halcyon days for watchdog journalism in Brazil.  Last October, I went to a conference of investigative journalists there organized by the Global Journalism Investigative Network.  There were 1,350 attendees. In July, I was back for another conference, this time organized by the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists and attended by close to 450 reporters.  Thanks in part to Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act and the “open budget” movement that seeks to shed light on the government’s finances (and let people have a say in how their tax dollars are spent), journalists there have been busy exposing widespread corruption in local government as well as a cash-for-votes scheme that resulted in the arrest of nine senior politicians.

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Cross-border news networks funded by foundations and philanthropists are carrying out similar investigations all over the world.  Based in New York and edited by a Nigerian, Omoyele Sowore, Sahara Reporters uses leaked stories and documents to expose corruption in Africa’s richest country. Its funders include the Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, and its stated goal is nothing less than “seeking the truth and publishing it without fear or favor.”

A group of students and I studied Sahara Reporters earlier this year.  In our report, we described one typical story that outlet broke which detailed how then-Minister of Aviation Stella Oduah purchased two bulletproof BMWs—at nearly double the normal price—with funds from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).  Sahara Reporters posted receipts of the purchases and documents linking Oduah to the scheme.  It also located sources who testified that the whereabouts of the cars were unknown and that they were suspected of being employed for Oduah’s private use.  Meanwhile, Sahara Reporters exposed the budgetary constraints the NCAA was operating under and linked these to several air mishaps, including two crashes resulting in the deaths of 140 people. 

Oduah, who was already under fire for the NCAA’s poor performance, initially denied the accusations. Within days, however, numerous news outlets had picked up the story and run with it. The reports triggered a series of reactions from the government, opposing political parties, civil society organizations, and the Nigerian public. Earlier this year, Oduah was fired.

Honorable Mentions

In recent years, I’ve been a judge for the human rights reporting awards given out by the Overseas Press Club in New York. You should see the staggering pile of entries.  It takes days to read through them all. Our major “problem”: an overabundance of top-notch reporting we’re unable to acknowledge with prizes. (Happily, some of them received prizes anyway, just not from us).

Among the remarkable pieces we read but didn’t give the human rights prize to was an Associated Press series on the effects of narco-violence on ordinary people in Honduras.  It laid out the way they have been forced to flee their villages or vacate neighborhoods block by block as drug dealers moved in and took over their homes. The series described how some homeowners stopped painting their houses or mowing their lawns lest they appeal to drug lords who might seize them. People were even being shaken down by gangs that left notes demanding payments if they wanted to be allowed to stay in their houses.

At the same time, the government was sowing misery of its own.  As part of the series, Alberto Arce wrote about a 15-year-old boy—the son of a college professor—who went out one night to meet a girl he had friended on Facebook only to be killed at a government roadblock by trigger-happy soldiers.


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