Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Changes in Journalism Can Affect Larger World
Many subjects are simply impossible to understand today if reported from the perspective of one country.
by Stephen Handelman
WASHINGTON - The phrase "investigative journalist" once held special glamour for journalists of my generation. There seemed no higher calling in the trade: Every newsroom had its investigative staff, every journalism school offered courses, even Hollywood thought it was romantic.
The days of such warrior-journalism are supposed to be over. Investigative reporters are no longer role models. (Nor, for that matter, are journalists in general.) The trimming of newsroom budgets, and the combination of sloppy reporting and lack of career incentives have supposedly killed the romance for most journalists - not to mention readers.
Well, it's not quite true. Investigative reporting didn't fade away with the arrival of cable news and dot-com glitz. In fact, in some places it's healthier than ever - even though you may not have heard of it.
Exhibit A: Since 1998, about 80 investigative reporters from around the world have been gathering together regularly to swap notes and pick up new tricks of the trade. The group, called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), gets larger every year. There are dozens of other professional journalists' groups - including investigative ones.
What's special about this one? Here's one reason: Today's globally integrated world is not well-served by most investigative journalism as it's practised today. Traditional investigative reporting is largely focused along local or national lines. But some of today's most glaring examples of malfeasance transcend international borders, and getting the facts requires unprecedented co-operation between journalists from a wide range of countries.
A team of ICIJ members from Canada, the U.K., Australia, Hong Kong and Colombia discovered this last year when they began jointly investigating multinational tobacco companies. The story they uncovered, which linked the companies to cigarette smuggling and in turn to organized crime and money laundering, led, among other things, to a British government inquiry and corporate resignations.
What they were doing is called "cross-border" investigative journalism and it's still in the pioneer stage. You may not have heard much about it. But you will.
This year's ICIJ gathering, emboldened by the success of the tobacco investigation, discussed a tantalizing agenda of new investigative-worthy subjects ranging from the global activities of private mercenaries to the global trend toward privatizing water resources.
The meeting was held last weekend, appropriately, in a rooftop conference room in Washington that overlooked the old Watergate apartment complex, symbol of the investigative journalism of an earlier era. Also appropriately, the conference was addressed by Bob Woodward, whose Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein, for The Washington Post in the 1970s, brought down Richard Nixon.
Woodward said he felt "humbled" by his audience, many of whom have risked jail terms and death threats in their own countries to ply their craft. But the really humbling thing was to discover what journalists from developing countries can teach their often smug and richer counterparts about the possibilities of good investigative journalism.
This isn't meant to be an advertisement for unsung colleagues. (Full disclosure: I've been a member of the ICIJ since its founding three years ago by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit public policy group.)
It's meant to point out how changes in the small world of journalism can affect the larger world beyond. And vice versa. In the so-called Third World, journalists have always had to rely on street smarts and information-swapping to counter slender budgets and hostile regimes. Some of today's most courageous reporting is being done today in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Journalists in the prosperous "north" now need some of the same diplomatic skills. The good stories are getting tougher, more complicated and more expensive - at a time when news budgets are dwindling. Law enforcement authorities have faced a similar challenge with the growth of transnational crime networks. Few governments have the resources or the data bases to tackle this on their own, so there is growing - if halting - co-operation among police agencies.
It's just as important for the public interest to periodically bring newsrooms of different countries together. The concerns of readers and listeners extend beyond crime to things like environmental change and multinational trade, but many subjects are simply impossible to understand today if reported from the perspective of just one country.
The ICIJ model, which partners reporters from developed and developing countries to tackle selected issues, represents a tentative beginning. There may be other models, as well.
Still, it offers hope to readers everywhere by pointing the way to a more accurate reflection of today's global realities.
If journalists and media outlets can find a way to overcome the trade's territorial jealousies, this kind of investigative reporting could be coming regularly some day to a newspaper, magazine, TV station or Internet site near you.
And that would be news.
Stephen Handelman's column appears in The Star every second Tuesday.
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