Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to Institutionalize Investigative Reporting in the Future

The Kojo Nnamdi Show on public radio had an interesting show on the future of investigative journalism, and links to the video shown above. Both raise the question of how muckraking journalism is to be institutionalized (and paid for) in the future. As newspapers are facing more and more competition from other media they are laying off reporters, and investigative journalism is expensive in reporter time as well as money.

The progressive movement in the United States a century ago was fueled by muckraking reporters and public interest in their articles exposing corruption in government and for profit organizations. It seems to me that we need very much to continue the tradition of investigative reporting, and I hope that all the existing ways that it is conducted continue in operation. But clearly, we need new approaches as well.

It is also important that we push for legislation requiring transparency in government, corporations and civil society. That would include required audits to assure that the information that is made available is credible. Making sure that credible information is readily available should help investigative reporters in their work of compiling and interpreting the data and communicating it to the public including to those in responsible positions who can resolve the problems that are uncovered and disclosed.

I suggest that the problem is different in poor nations than in affluent ones. The poor countries often have more need for investigative reporting to expose problems and make them known to the public, while they have less developed news outlets, and of course poverty.

The Center for Public Integrity and The Center for Investigative Reporting are doing investigative reporting, and represent new institutional models providing that function. These organizations are financed by foundations and by donations from the public. (I encourage such donations.) Perhaps we could see similar civil society organizations  I rather like the idea of stand alone investigative reporting centers, at least for some kinds of investigation.

Newspapers and magazines have been supported by subscriptions, and advertising. Commercial radio and television (including the news networks) have been supported by advertising, and public radio and television (which have very good news services in the United States) have government and foundation support as well as donations from the public. The USIA has government support for its international news services, as do public networks from many other countries. Internet news sources have been supported by advertising and by donated services. Reuters, Agence France Press, and United Press International are examples of news services which play the role of intermediary distributers as well as reporting services.

These illustrate the range of possible financial sources -- sale of news to other outlets, subscriptions, advertising, government and foundation grants, and donations from the public of funds and/or services. I would suggest that Wikileaks is another approach which makes information available to both the public and to reporters.

I rather like partnerships with schools of journalism, accounting, management, public administration (etc.) what would involve university students in investigative journalism under the guidance and supervision of experienced journalists. So too, internships might have an important role. Students make great interns, and learning skills of investigative reporting should be of value to students in many disciplines.

I would also note that crowd sourcing might be useful. In recent reporting exposing conflict of interests in Congressmen and the legislation that they sponsor, David Fallis of the Washington Post faced a daunting task of reviewing huge numbers of Congressional earmarks to determine which if any resulted in benefits for their proponents. This seems a great illustration of something that would be possible to achieve at low cost to the investigating organization through crowd sourcing.

I suspect that developing countries could use more help in developing and institutionalizing investigative reporting. UNESCO provides some assistance, with its very limited funding, training reporters, and UNESCO protests harm to reporters. Reporters Without Borders provides some help, such as fighting censorship and advocating the protection of reporters. Donor assistance in this area would have to be provided very carefully, since many governments would see outside governmental support for investigative reporting as a dangerous and improper intrusion into their sovereignty. Still, making funds available to organizations such schools of journalism, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting to enable them to meet with, cooperate with and assist colleagues in developing countries might be useful and appropriate.

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