The Unequal State of America examines the government’s role in rising income inequality and allows viewers to explore what’s happening in their own states through interactive graphics. The Reuters project also appeared at The Atlantic.
What’s a hard-nosed reporter to do when her financially ailing newspaper is taken over by the people she likes to investigate? Inga Springe quit her job and set about raising money for creation of the Baltic region’s first nonprofit investigative reporting center. UPDATE: The center opened this fall with an exposé on money laundering.(Image courtesy of guigo.eu)View full post
The masses once had to rely on a shrinking pool of foreign correspondents to carry their message to the world. Investigative reporter Ken Silverstein talks about how Twitter has changed all that.View full post
China’s most famous investigative journalist works in obscurity out of a cluttered, closet-sized room on the second floor of a small office building on the outskirts of Beijing. That Wang Keqin works at all is a wonder. He is one in a scarce breed of devoted watchdog journalists who are managing to keep the craft alive amidst stepped up censorship by China’s government. (Image courtesy of owally)View full post
My first foray into animal cruelty. The article details deaths, illness and injury within Ringling Bros.’ famed herd of performing elephants. I spent a year examining corporate and government records that surfaced over a decade through FOIA requests and lawsuits against Feld Entertainment, the parent of America’s most popular circus. Along the way, I really fell for the elephants…
Read the full story here:The Cruelest Show on Earth
The USDA announced the settlement Nov. 28. Feld released a statement noting it was not admitting anything but would “enhance” its animal care.
The historic penalty ended decades of USDA inaction on abuse allegations against Ringling documented in inspections, investigations and through long-standing efforts by animal welfare groups — such as PETA, ASPCA and the Animal Protection Institute.
The announcement came on the heels of legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia that would restrict use of exotic animals in traveling circuses.
Image by David Cook Wildlife Photography
I asked my 18-year old recently where she gets her news. To my surprise, she said from Twitter. And not by following the Washington Post or New York Times, but through Tweets from friends in her Twitter community. I asked how she could be sure the news was true. She explained that it’s vetted aggressively by the crowd.
But where do they go to check out rumors? What sources do they consider credible? Andy Carvin, NPR online community organizer, shows how journalistic social media communities — communities that use reporting skills and values to collect and disseminate information — can play a crucial role. His tick-tock (or Tweet-tock) of a fact-check collaboration by him and his followers provides a playbook for how to do it right:
What’s a hard-nosed reporter to do when her financially ailing newspaper is taken over by the people she likes to investigate?
Inga Springe emptied her desk in 2009 and joined an exodus of colleagues from Diena, Latvia’s most influential newspaper. Before long, they had launched their own investigative news magazine, ir, which exposed Diena‘s hidden ties to oligarchs — the super-wealthy businessmen who wield tremendous political power in the tiny country.
Now Springe is in the United States stumping for another project to bolster watchdog journalism in Latvia. She hopes to raise interest and money for creation of the first nonprofit investigative reporting center in the Baltic States.
She envisions a fortress for fearless reporting on government.
Modeled after successful nonprofit ventures in the United States, the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism would pursue the kinds of stories that the mainstream media no longer have interest in or resources to do, she says. A small staff would conduct original investigations and provide grants and training in computer-assisted reporting.
Investigative journalism is a relatively young tradition in the Baltic States.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are former Soviet states that declared independence in early 1990s. The countries since have developed a free press, albeit one subject to political influence, occasional violent attacks and, as throughout the world, failing fortunes. Springe came of age during the post-Soviet years and developed an early interest in reporting. She worked at the small television station in her hometown in high school, helping to produce a local news show. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and landed a plum job at Diena (which means “Day”), writing features for the weekend magazine. She wrote her share of light pieces on celebrities, homes, and real estate. But she says she found herself drawn more to stories on prominent government officials and businessmen – and unable to stop digging into their dealings once she started.
It was this compulsion that led her, and her editors, to recognize a special talent. She was assigned to organized crime, smuggling and official corruption. She caught the chief of Riga’s Public Utilities Commission on camera gambling during work hours and reported that she had racked up huge debts. Springe documented a lucrative land deal and suspicious interventions in smuggling cases by a top customs official who was subsequently arrested on bribery charges. (Click here for a story she wrote about the case in English.)
After Diena was sold by its Swedish owners, Springe continued her reporting for ir (Latvian for “is”), which has survived nearly a year on subscriptions and donations, especially from Latvian-Americans.
Last year, she was selected for a yearlong Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship to study a topic of her choosing in the United States. Springe decided to pursue a former colleague’s suggestion that she create an investigative reporting center.
Based at Philip Merrill College of Journalism on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, she has visited some of the leading U.S. investigative reporting nonprofits: Mother Jones, a bi-monthly magazine based in San Francisco and one of the oldest nonprofit journalism ventures in the country; the Center for Public Integrity, a booming Washington-based organization known for its innovative database analysis; ProPublica, based in New York — the first online-only media outlet to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Their revenue models represent a mix of large, private donations, foundation grants and subscriptions. Springe says there’s little tradition of charitable giving in Latvia, the poorest country in the European Union.
Relying on a wealthy private funder in Latvia poses another problem: There are only a handful, and their influence makes them likely subjects of investigations.
By broadening the center’s mission to encompass Estonia and Lithuania, she hopes to generate interest among international foundations. But the diminutive region’s relative stability and safely ensconced democracies make it less interesting to funders, she is finding.
Yet corruption is on the rise, according to watchdog organization Freedom House.
While in the United States, Springe took advantage of public records and databases to check up on her government’s activities in Washington.
She discovered millions of dollars spent on lobbying here.
The story received big play in a prominent magazine back home. But when she makes her impassioned pitch here for a center that will “shine the light on private and government institutions” in the Baltic states, she finds she often has to start with a geography lesson.
“People even don’t know the difference between Baltics and Balkans.”
Some funders lose interest as soon as they realize she is not talking about the better-known “B” region, which boasts 52 million people to the Baltic’s seven million and whose recent history of ethnic conflict has made it a favorite target of media grants.
So far, Springe has raised more awareness than money. But she says she isn’t discouraged. A seasoned investigative journalist, she knows the next call might be the one that changes her luck.
Even the new generation of independent, mobile journalists needs a home base.
That’s what Patrick Roanhouse discovered when he got serious about podcasting. He is founder and host of Plan8.TV, a two-year-old startup based in Baltimore that features his coverage of tech confabs and interviews with digital glitterati.
He said he enjoyed the freedom of doing his own thing but realized its limits when he reached a point in his business’s development where he needed to upgrade his video equipment.
Roanhouse envisioned a community meeting space that not only would allow sharing of equipment and stories but also would offer a supportive, even galvanizing environment for new media entrepreneurs and citizen journalists.
His center is just an idea right now. He is out recruiting a board of directors and finishing work on a mission statement that he hopes will help raise money for the nonprofit venture. His efforts could get a boost if Google selects Baltimore as one of its trial locations for an ultra-high speed broadband network. The mayor and a citizens’ group, Bmore Fiber, have been rallying support for the city. But more than 1,100 towns are vying for the investment, which is expected to deliver Internet speeds up to 100 times faster than current broadband and spur digital innovation and access. Google was to have announced its selection by the end of 2010 but pushed it into 2011.
While there are many virtual communities in existence, Roanhouse said he thinks the time has come for a physical place where mobile journalists and new media entrepreneurs can gather around a water cooler to trade tips, debate journalism ethics and promote independent voices.
Roanhouse’s background is in I.T. but he now he finds himself speaking of First Amendment ideals with a journalist’s zeal.
CARACAS, Venezuela — The rich hate him, saying he has stirred up class warfare. The privately owned media, closely aligned with his political opponents, pillory him daily as an enemy of democracy. And the Bush administration, which supported those who briefly overthrew him in 2002, describes him as a dangerous leftist.
But in the shantytowns here in the capital, President Hugo Chavez is revered as a national savior.
“Our hope is with Chavez,” said Carlos Contreras, who urged residents to support the president in Sunday’s recall vote. “All of our other presidents promised to help the poor, but he’s the first one who has kept his word.”
So opened a story in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 16, 2004, as votes were being counted on whether to recall Chavez. Written by Ken Silverstein, the piece helped explain what would soon become become apparent: That Chavez’s ardent and mobilized support among the country’s poor would keep him in office.
Whatever you think of Chavez (and who doesn’t have a strong opinion?), it was both important and challenging to report the political situation accurately. Ken was on my investigative team in Washington at the time. One day during the lead-up to the recall, he came into my office to make a case for sending him to Venezuela.
He had worked for AP in Brazil from 1989-1993 as a young reporter, and he knew South American politics better than most Washington journalists. In his view, the coverage had been skewed toward those with greatest access to the foreign press: U.S. diplomats and the business class in Venezuela.
I had to agree. But we still had to convince the foreign desk, which already had an experienced correspondent covering the story, thank you very much. Making the case for Ken to join her took some negotiating. But Ken’s a persuasive (and persistent) fellow. He arrived in Caracus just days before the vote.
Over drinks this week, he recalled his motivation and approach to the assignment.
Getting the story entailed persuading editors that there were significant voices out there that weren’t being heard – like proving a negative — and then tracking them down. This was pre-Twitter, which launched in 2006. Five years later, social media have changed the dynamic. I asked Ken about the transformation:
Ken recently left Harper’s Magazine, where he was Washington correspondent, to practice his craft for Global Witness, an economic justice advocacy organization. He still sees an important role for journalists.
Photo credit: Sandy Chase
“By nature, true investigative journalists don’t work for anybody. They work for the story.”
I think I first made that observation in Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press. It’s a fascinating documentary by filmmaker Cal Skaggs that features journalists from around the world who have found ways to dig up and disseminate stories in the toughest political and economic circumstances. They truly work for their stories and do so through an impressive, sometimes hair-raising mix of courage, invention and stubborn single-mindedness.
One of the memorable segments came to mind during a confluence of classroom discussion last week on mobile technology and entrepreneurial journalism. The story focused on the determination of Andrew Kromah, an investigative reporter and independent radio entrepreneur in Sierra Leone, to report on the country’s elections. Kromah first made a name reporting on government corruption under the name “Mr. Owl.” He started his own radio station in the capital of Freetown in 1993 and established another one three years later in Bo, the second largest city. The first was burned down twice. The other came under gunfire during the presidential election in 1996 as the station urged people to vote and warned them away from outbreaks of violence.
“The commandants came up to the station just about 100 yards away and the man who was standing beside me as the security was killed–I mean, this was like two feet away from me–and bullets kept coming up,” he told Terry Gross in a 2001 radio interview for Fresh Air. “So we had to tape the microphone over the speaker of the VHF radio. We ran into the bush and we were still broadcasting from the bush while guns were being shot, were fired. But the message at that time was to tell the people that go out and vote, because our broadcast was getting to the villages where voting was taking place.”
The documentary picked up in 2002, when Kromah was formulating a plan for covering the first post-war election with ridiculously scarce staff and equipment . Kromah joined forces with fellow journalist Hannah Foullah to recruit a network of stations to pool their meager resources. They dispatched reporters to polling places with basic (non-smart) cell phones. The reporters called into the station’s landline, where employees held the hearing piece up to the microphone to broadcast live reports to listeners. The voices and views of voters were transmitted in like manner. The audio wasn’t high quality but I can’t imagine high-end equipment doing a better job of capturing the excitement and import of the moment.
I checked in on Kromah’s recent activities. He continues to operate his radio stations. He also has a new venture that makes the most of another low-cost communications technology: He’s promoting community radio with programming largely produced by children and delivered to areas without electricity via solar-powered radios.
Money and power have never been so concentrated in the nation’s capital. Yet the ranks of journalists are at a modern low. The Washington bureau has been replaced by the Washington beat at many major news organizations. Some have retreated altogether, saying they’ll rely on the AP. Really? Isn’t that like posting a single guard to keep watch over Fort Knox?
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a pine or whine for the good old days. This is an appeal for recognition that we’ve lost something critically important to democracy. And it’s a call to action for the sort of creativity and ingenuity at work in Iran in 2009, Haiti in 2010 and Egypt today. If they can find technologically innovative ways to keep the information flowing in much more dire circumstances, shouldn’t we be able to do the same?
“Abandoned Agencies” AJR June/July 2010
China’s leading watchdog reporter is a rare breed
China’s most famous investigative journalist works in obscurity out of a cluttered, closet-sized room on the second floor of a small office building on the outskirts of Beijing.
That Wang Keqin works at all is a wonder. He is one in a scarce breed of devoted watchdog journalists who are managing to keep the craft alive amidst stepped up censorship by China’s government.
They are succeeding in no small part by using social media to communicate directly with their readers. Unlike their Western counterparts, who might Tweet as an afterthought to an investigative project, social media sometimes are the only means for Chinese reporters to publish the truth about sensitive stories.
“In a country where the media is controlled by the government, the Internet has become an important, unprecedented, and huge platform to break censorship and pass the truth to the public,” Wang said through a translator in a recent interview in his office at the China Economic Times, where he is the chief reporter on a six-person investigative team.
The China Economic Times is a national, full-coverage newspaper with a special focus on the economy. As with all Chinese media, the publication is owned by the government.
Officially, the Chinese Communist Party authorizes, even encourages investigative reporting under a policy known as “yulun jiandu,” which refers to the press’s role as societal watchdog — and explains why a paper like Wang’s is allowed to set up an I-Team. The policy emerged in the 1980s as a way to keep corruption and social ills in check during China’s transformation to a free-market economy.
But after a brief experiment with semi-independent investigative reporting, officials clamped down after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which they blamed in part on media-fanned unrest. The government further tightened its grip in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Party leaders wanted to present a positive image of China to the world, and investigative reporting by definition exposes problems. The Olympics came and went, but the restrictions remain.
Today, Chinese journalists estimate that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of investigative stories are killed, usually via a phone call to the editor just before deadline. The target of the story might use connections to get provincial officials or the central government’s propaganda department to quash the story. Or Communist leaders might order the piece be withheld to preserve “social harmony” – a justification used so often that “harmonized” is a euphemism for censored in newsrooms.
Along the wall to the right of Wang’s desk are teetering columns of mustard-yellow envelopes, each one stuffed with documents, photos and interview notes – the evidence of traditional shoe-leather reporting, some for stories that made it past the censors and others that didn’t. (Another Chinese investigative reporter described the unpublished pieces as “stones in my heart.”)
Wang has managed to publish stories that revealed a high incidence of HIV in Hebei Province, widespread corruption in taxi licensing in Beijing, and shoddy construction that led to collapse of buildings in the 2008 earthquake.
The impact of the earthquake investigation took officials by surprise, and the Central Propaganda Department recalled all copies of the China Economic Times. Last summer, his editor was fired in the wake of an investigation that linked the deaths of four children to unrefrigerated vaccines.
Government retaliation has had a chilling effect in newsrooms across China, making it harder to get potentially controversial stories into print or on air.
But Wang finds hope in the white-blue flicker of the screen of his desktop computer and the beep of his cell phone. On this morning, both have yielded tips on the latest in a wave of attacks on citizens who refuse to yield their property to government officials for development.
“In recent years, China has undergone rapid urbanization. Many cities are pulling down old buildings to construct new ones. But in this process, problems occur: Old houses are pulled down brutally or by violence. Many people have been injured or even killed in attacks.
One of the tips came in on his micro-blog. Twitter is not available in China, so Wang uses a different but similar service.
The tipster reported that “a person was killed in a brutal house demolition in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province,” Wang said, adding that “my blog and micro-blog are sources of information that provide me with the latest news in an incredible amount. I often get tips on the Internet,” he said, noting that his followers post details, photos and other evidence of wrongdoing
But social media also serve another important role: They carry stories to the public that he can’t get in the paper . By the time the censors have blocked his website, the long tail of the Web has ensured that the information is disseminated on many other URLs – so many that trying to block them becomes an impossible game of whack-a-mole.
“Blogs and mini-blogs are truly revolutionizing the way we work. It has become an important tool in our work,” Wang said, before dispatching a reporter to the latest scene of an assault. “In China, news is censored. The newspaper I work for is also censored. But the Internet has created an unprecedented space for Chinese people to voice their opinions and exchange information, including what the press cannot cover. It is hard to censor the Internet as strictly as traditional media. So when we cannot report certain delicate issues in traditional media, we are still able to tell that story on blogs, micro-blogs and online forums.”
Wang Keqin discusses investigative reporting
Reporter’s exposes are all over the map
View Cases Reported by Wang Keqin in a larger map
Watchdog journalism’s short history in China
Li-Fung Cho, “The Emergence of china’s Watchdog Reporting,” Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press 2010). Tong, Jingrong and Sparks, Colin, “Investigative Journalism in China Today,” Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, 337-352. “China Bars All Reporting on Deadly Explosion in Xinjian, Aug. 20, 2010, International Federation of Journalists. Branigan, Tania, “Wang Keqin and China’s revolution in investigative journalism,” guardian.co.uk, May 23, 2010.