“What is emerging is collaboration. How can we work together to do the journalism that matters? Journalists and citizens are exploring ways in which that can happen.”

Sheila Coronel is Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism and Director, Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York.

Investigative journalism:Opportunities and obstacles

sheila coronel credit LILEN UY

Investigative reporting at its best is regarded as the pinnacle of journalism—deploying the profession’s highest-order skills and noblest principles in order to hold institutions to account and thus effect positive social change. Sheila Coronel’s 30-year career has been dedicated to this enterprise, first as a journalist in the Philippines and now as an educator in the United States. In 1989, she co-founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the leading institution of its kind in Asia. She received a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2003, after the PCIJ’s investigative reporting helped bring down President Joseph Estrada. In 2006, she was recruited by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to be the director of its new Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, where she is now based. In an interview with Media Asia editor Cherian George, Coronel shared her perspectives on trends in Asian investigative journalism, how to build professional capacity, the benefits and limits of citizen reporting, and the kinds of tough questions that researchers could ask when investigating investigative journalism.

Cherian George:

What is the state of investigative journalism in Asia?

Sheila Coronel:

The situation in Asia is very different from that in the United States, where there is a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of investigative reporting brought about by the collapse of the business model for news. US newspapers and TV networks have diminished investigative capacity. In Asia, it’s very different; in many places there never really has been any investigative reporting to begin with.

Certainly, since the late 1980s, there has been more investigative reporting in countries that have made a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. The Philippines and Indonesia are examples of this. After the collapse of authoritarian rulers, there are many more voices and far more freedom. In many cases, new laws that guarantee public access to information are enacted. They may not necessarily be freedom of information laws. For example, in the Philippines, there are laws that say financial disclosures of public officials must be made public. Plus, after democracy you see the emergence of demand for more information and openness, meaning there is public demand for investigative reporting.

CG:

What about countries that still have relatively closed systems?

SC:

Even in countries where there have been no such changes, technology has provided a sort of a wedge that has opened up spaces for doing more accountability reporting. So you have bloggers and independent news sites like Malaysiakini. In China, there is Weibo, where journalists publish before they are censored. So the Internet has been the liberaliser for many things, including accountability reporting and a rising trend of citizen journalists.

And in many places, rising prosperity and the growth of a middle class like in China has helped investigative reporting. Caijing magazine, for example, is a financial magazine made possible by the growth of advertising revenues to support this kind of publication, as well as the demand from the public. In the case of these two financial magazines of China, Caijing and Caixin, there is demand from the business community for independent information.

CG:

What are the gaps in training and institutional support for investigative journalism?

SC:

I think there is never enough support for investigative reporting, whether it’s for training or editorial support. In Asia, where the media markets are not as mature as they are, say, in the West, the infrastructural support for journalism is not robust. I mean journalism schools, press associations, professional training. And this goes not just for investigative reporting but for all kinds of reporting.

Across the board, there is actually a training gap, whether it is in free press systems or more controlled press systems. So the whole media community that needs support. But, in particular, yes, there is not enough support for investigative reporting in general, from both newsrooms and media companies as well as from journalism training institutions, whether they are universities or press associations or NGOs. There is constant demand. The available resources we have cannot fill that demand for investigative reporting.

CG:

What does a curriculum for investigative journalism look like, on top of standard or basic journalism training?

SC:

Investigative reporting gives emphasis on the use of public records and databases. The training should include the basics of what public records exist in the first place, how you find them, how you make sense of them, how you do information requests, whether or not you have a freedom-of-information law, how you use them in your reporting, how reliable they are.

A lot of investigative reporting in Asia is still source-based— interviewing people—rather than document-based. I think investigative journalists have not been able to make full use of a lot of information, generated especially by government but also by other institutions.

CG:

And you are saying that this is the case even in societies without freedom-of-information legislation?

SC:

Oh, yes, governments collect a lot of information in digital form right now, most of which is not publicly available, but some of it is publicly available. Even traffic data and police data, for example, which is not politically sensitive data for the most part, or data on private companies, on real estate ownership, on public school enrolment or public health. Most Asian journalists do not have the capacity and the resources to make maximum use of even that for investigative reporting.

CG:

You mentioned how technology has been giving investigative journalism a boost. Many societies now have great deal of faith in amateur citizen reporting and perhaps as a result invest less than they should in professional capacity. Do you think that citizen reporting can pick up the slack?

SC:

What is happening in the US is not so much citizens taking up the slack. It’s the rise of non-profit investigative journalism: investigative reporting done by professional journalists, most of whom have done investigative work in traditional media, moving on to establish non-profit and largely web-based, Internet-based journalism. Some of them do work with citizens, as do traditional media. But a lot of the hard work has actually been done more by professional people rather than by citizens.

Most of the successes in citizen journalism have not been in investigative reporting. They have been more in crowd-sourced daily news reporting such as the Oklahoma hurricane or the Boston bombing. For most part, the big exposés have been done by professional journalists using the old ways, such as using information laws to get massive amounts of data, which requires a little bit more of a professional effort and cannot be as easily crowd-sourced.

What has usually been crowd-sourced are the simpler tasks, such as, help us sort these documents like what the Guardian did with the MPs’ expenses [in Britain], tell us which documents are interesting , help us do the first sifting and then we’ll dig deeper. Or letting them get pieces of information or mining their experience and using that to get sources, for example, if we are looking for people who have, say, suffered from hospital errors. In the old way, you would go around asking people. Now, you can actually use Facebook or Twitter to ask for that.

CG:

I sometimes hear people say: “Who cares if professional journalists are free or independent, because we can trust technology to save us.” But you are saying that we still need to make sure that there continues to be strong professional capacity.

SC:

Yes exactly. Because investigative reporting still requires sustained reportorial efforts. Citizens can help in some parts of that effort but you need people who do this full-time, basically to be able to do it in a sustained way. I don’t see it as an either/or. What is emerging is collaboration. How can we work together to do the journalism that matters? Journalists—and citizens—are exploring ways in which that can happen.

And that means starting from the funding of journalism. Many independent investigative projects are funded by Kickstarter, for example. (Kickstarter is an online platform for sourcing funds for creative projects.) ProPublica has been experimenting with asking readers to tell us what you care about, what we should investigate—which is an editorial function; some of that is being shared with citizens—and then, of course, citizens as sources, as providing some of the reporting manpower or womanpower. Obviously, you can’t ask them to interview. It is too complicated—how do you check? But you can say, “Get this document for us, make a request or find out if a Congressman is attending the Superbowl or something.”

CG:

Or to keep track of how a new policy is being rolled out on the ground, and so on.

SC:

Right, but the editorial direction is still coming from the newsroom.

CG:

You have been talking about non-profit journalism. You were a pioneer of it through the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. What are the lessons to be learnt from PCIJ’s experience in terms of how to do it properly and in a sustained way?

SC:

I don’t know that there is one way to do non-profit journalism. The most important thing is you have to prove your independence. Second, you have to do stories that make an impact. Third, you should do the work that is not already being done by commercial or other media; you shouldn’t duplicate the work others are already doing. You need to figure out what you can do better.

The advantage of non-profit media is that they are not saddled with legacy news organisations. They don’t have to put out a newspaper or magazine every day. They have far more flexibility, especially in an age where technological changes are happening so fast and require far more agility from journalists. But also you cannot do it alone. PCIJ’s success owes in part to mainstream media because they publish and disseminate our work. Other journalists follow up on the stories that we do. You need the support of other media. It is a question of finding your role in that eco-system, and I think that varies from place to place.

CG:

One thing we haven’t talked about is the dark side of investigative journalism, which includes invasions of privacy, in particular. Could you talk about that?

SC:

I think the use of certain investigative techniques like undercover reporting has been abused in many parts of the world, especially by television. And that has led to accusations of sensationalism and pandering to the audience, and also questions about if this is really the journalism that matters. If you take an undercover photo of a motorist paying a small bribe to a policeman, okay, that’s interesting; that gets you audiences. But is this the kind of corruption people should be concerned about or are you just providing titillation—rather than showing systemically what is wrong and what things can be done—and ignoring larger issues of accountability? So there are always questions about techniques, not just in terms of invasion of privacy but also in terms of “Is this the reporting that really matters?”.

And sometimes the prosecutorial aspects of investigative reporting can be counter-productive.

CG:

Treating the target as guilty before he’s proven guilty?

SC:

Yes. Trial by publicity, or failing to understand the complexity of the problem. When things go wrong, it is usually not just the failure of an individual. But often the reporting focuses on the wrongs done by the individual because that’s easier to show and prove and easier for audiences to grasp. It is often much more complicated than that. Individuals fail because institutions fail. But it is much more difficult in journalism to show institutional failure, to make people understand, to make compelling stories out of institutional failures. So the focus is often on individual failures.

CG:

A final question, for our readers who are researchers. If you had a wish list of what PhD students or scholars might productively look at as far as investigative journalism in Asia is concerned, what would that include?

SC:

Firstly, what impact does investigative reporting make? What is its impact on society, democracy and governance, and how do you measure such an impact? Are there certain metrics that we can use? Especially journalists who operate in the non-profit model need to justify their existence. Why should citizens and foundations fund them? What impact do they make?

Secondly, we need to look at what sort of institutions or environment makes it possible to do investigative reporting that really matters. Is it just press freedom or is it much more than that? Do you need a pluralistic media environment, for example. Do you need an audience that demands investigative reporting or one that reacts to investigative reporting? Or what you need is public agencies that respond to journalistic inquiry regardless of whether citizens demand it.

The question really is if there is an audience for investigative reporting. We sort of assume that there is. But is there really? Or is that audience fleeting? Can the success of investigative reporting be institutionalised or is it by nature episodic—meaning journalists will do it when there is political ferment—and when public interest dies, journalists go back to business as usual?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MEDIA ASIA AS

George, Cherian (2013). “Investigative journalism: Opportunities and obstacles”, Interview with Sheila Coronel, Media Asia 40 (2): pp. 105-110

PHOTO BY LILEN UY