Journalism has never been as easy as it looks. One day in 1940s, Los Angeles newspaper reporters were riveted by a report that came crackling over the police radio. A headless torso had just been found outside the city, in a gravel pit! Competing reporters from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald Express both raced to the scene of the crime, each trying to overtake the other’s car on the back roads. Once each had gotten a photo and grabbed a few details from the police, they jumped back in their cars and raced the nearest farmhouse—the only place for miles that might have a telephone. The Herald got there first. He persuaded the farmer to let him use the phone, and called in all the lurid details to his city desk—while the Times man furiously waited his turn. The Herald man finally wrapped up the call and handed his rival the telephone receiver—after grabbing a pair of kitchen scissors and deftly cutting the cord.
Thus the Herald would have its special edition on the streets well before the Times, grabbing that day’s audience and therefore, more money from street sales. Advertisers would be happy to have more eyeballs for their wares.
The story may be apocryphal—it was told to me when I was working the night shift at the Los Angeles Times in the 1970s. But it certainly illustrates how competitive journalists have always been with each other. Dedicated to that tradition myself, I confess that I carried a special lock in my purse to lock up the rotary dial on the pay phone outside the Sheriff’s office, so I could scoop my colleagues during the sensational Chowchilla kidnapping case in 1976.
Those days are long gone, not just because there are cell phones now. The business model for journalism is famously broken because everyone can be a journalist, using the Internet and mobile apps to broadcast their stories. How many people notice who publishes the story first? What matters now is who gets to attach advertising to it, and how popular it is with viewers who might be halfway across the world.
FIRST: THE BAD NEWS
New models are emerging. Huffington Post was built by taking other people’s content, repackaging it as a news feed, and selling ads for itself on that package of freeloaded content. (Facebook and Google do this better than any news organization; tailoring ads to each user with automated data gathering and pairing software.) It’s a miracle now if anyone is ever held accountable for whether a story’s content is true or not. A story that is passed around on social media is unmoored from its origins, its time and place. You can’t go down to the Internet’s headquarters and demand a correction. Have we reached the point yet, with the Comet Ping Pong Pizza shooting, that we are finally ready to instill media literacy at all levels of our educational curriculum?
The problem is that fake news is almost always more interesting than real news. Jim Rutenberg of the NYT calls for “some sort of hyperfactual counterinsurgency that treats every false meme as a baby Hitler to be killed in its crib with irrefutable facts.”
Facebook is working with fact checking organizations like PolitiFact to make it easy to mark articles as “suspect” before they are reposted, after a study showed that more fake news than real news was shared among Facebook users. Google says it is going to cut off known purveyors of fake news (like The Angry Patriot) from using their advertising network tools.
This could help, since Google and Facebook are the biggest publishing platforms today. They get 85% of every online advertising dollar, and most of the fake new producers are spreading it as clickbait for money.
To be absolutely clear: Fake news is not the same as biased or sloppy journalism, it is something entirely different. It is propaganda that wants to sell you something, without regard to whether it is true. Journalism is something quite different.
Media analyst Tom Rosenstiel asserts that we have reached a new level with the elevation of Breitbart’s Bannon and the Russian propaganda of the 2016 election. Rosenstiel says: “The goal of fake news is not to make people believe the lie. It is to make them doubt all news.”
How can we get back to having facts matter? We all know journalists in a democracy actually have a serious job to do– in between the body-in-gravel-pit stories.
Someone needs to hold the powerful accountable, and while citizen journalism has become very important, our news flow needs to be less random than the videos people take with their cellphones when something happens nearby.
When the digital revolution hit, journalists were already losing their mojo. The Kennedy School’s Tom Patterson has mapped for years how the negativity of journalism norms has turned off voters. What journalists have done to destroy their own credibility is a whole separate blog for another day. I have been writing for the past 25 years about this.
ATTACKS ON “THE MEDIA”
The enabling environment for journalism– to speak truth to power–has been disappearing. The elite media have been weakened by their own arrogance, insularity and imperfections. But do not underestimate the power of anti-media campaigns by Nixon’s clever media consigliore Roger Ailes, who reinvented propaganda as “news” on Fox, along with Reagan’s Mike Deaver and Pat Buchanan, and George W. Bush’s Karl Rove. And now President Trump and his minions declare that the news media are the “enemies of the American people.”
Alas, too many Americans believe them. Part of this is a lack of understanding of who the “media” are—from the New York Times to the gutter lies of Breitbart. There is almost universal public cynicism now about the motives of journalists, without an understanding of how real journalists work, and why. For every “Spotlight” there has been an “Absence of Malice” portraying journalists as immoral hacks.
It hasn’t just been the Republicans who have found it convenient to undermine the critical press. There were also constant attacks from the left by Noam Chomsky and others, who made careers out of denigrating journalism as capitalist propaganda. Chomsky has no idea of how journalists actually do their work—I doubt he has ever spent any time watching what happens in an American newsroom. But he has a global following for his critique, fitting into preconceived prejudices just like the Alt-Right.
Traditional journalism culture dictated that journalists weren’t supposed to be the story. So there has been no journalism p.r. campaign to counteract these negative narratives, as they gained traction from Nixon to Chomsky and Trump. Ever since the 1980s, it has been fashionable to blame “the media” for virtually everything.
What should journalists do now? How can they present serious news about climate change, and other contentious issues, when they’re competing with comedians and Macedonian fake news bloggers and a combative, tweeting President who holds them captive with every single news cycle?
The Internet may have ruined journalism’s business model and empowered fake news, but is also making possible some exciting new watchdog capacities. I am not arguing that this will solve all of the media’s problems–but I do think there is hope.
Let’s talk about the most important, expensive, controversial and difficult form of journalism. investigative journalism. Real investigative journalism isn’t about listening to police radios and racing to the gravel pit. If you saw Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s hidden sex scandal, you know how time consuming, expensive and difficult it can be.
Investigative journalists are the special forces of journalism. They are detectives, doing systematic, in-depth, original research and reporting, relying largely on primary sources, including public records and eyewitnesses. They are focused on social justice, corruption and accountability. Usually what they are unearthing has been kept secret.
To be clear: Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are not journalists. But leaks from people like them are the raw material, one of the things an investigative journalist might start with. Everything has to be checked out, especially if it’s coming from Assange.
AND FINALLY: THE GOOD NEWS
Today’s investigative journalists are using sophisticated data analysis tools and drones to document things like the destruction and capture of public lands in the rain forests of South America. Increasingly, these journalists must be skilled in data crunching and forensic Internet exploration. Not only do we have these massive leaks–made possible by digital technologies–but we now have crowd-sourcing, which invites the public to join the hunt.
David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provides a great example of how this works. His investigative journalism coup was possible only because of the new collaborative journalism in place today.
Farenthold got a tip at 10 a.m. one morning that there was a portrait of then GOP candidate Donald Trump, paid for by the Trump Foundation, hanging in one of Trump’s luxury resorts. He used Google to figure out what the portrait looked like, and then asked his Twitter followers if they knew where the picture might be. By 8 p.m., one of Fahrenthold’s Miami followers found the portrait among 385 guest photos posted on the TripAdvisor page for Trump’s Doral Country Club in Miami.
But Fahrentold needed to confirm the portrait, which the Trump Foundation had bought for $10,000, was still there. He asked his Twitter followers to help. Enrique Acevedo, a Univision anchor in Miami, booked into a room at the Doral club after finishing work at midnight. He wandered the grounds, asking housekeeping and maintenance crews if they had seen it. They led him into the club’s Champions Bar and Grill, where Acevedo found the portrait, took a picture and tweeted it to Fahrenthold.
Farenthold told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “Unless the Champions Bar and Grill was used as a soup kitchen in its off hours” the Trump Foundation and Trump’s Doral Club had violated the law.
While President Trump hasn’t paid a political price yet for Fahrenthold’s expose, The Washington Post reporter’s work is only a small part of what is happening out there with investigative journalism.
Until recently, there were essentially three models of investigative journalism:
- investigative reporters at established news organizations, like Fahrentold at the Post, and the Globe’s Spotlight team.
- independently-funded strike teams who partner with mainstream media to get their investigations published, like ProPublica’s relationship with the New York Times.
- an increasing number of independent nonprofit organizations that publish entirely on their own, like Direkt36 in Hungary.
- This brings us to the fourth and newest model of investigative journalism—which is the centerpiece of my research. Over 145 nonprofit investigative journalism groups from every region in the world have banded together as a uniquely powerful, worldwide network of investigative journalists. What is amazing is when journalists like this work together on the same story as part of the same story.
- Here is how the network model works:
The Panama Papers was the biggest leak in history, far larger than the top-secret Edward Snowden files or the Wikileaks State Department cables. This was a leak of 11.5 million documents, 2.6 terabytes of information. The offer was sent by email in April 2015 to a single Munich newspaper reporter named Bastian Obermayer. The anonymous source wanted to expose criminal wrongdoing. Obermayer and the source set up an encrypted transfer system. The data sent to Suddeutsche Zeitung included confidential materials, covering 40 years of work by one Panama law firm, Mossack Fonseca.
Obermayer realized he couldn’t even begin go through all these documents himself. It included the records of 214,000 offshore companies, the names of real owners, and passport scans. There were bank statements and email chains.
The illegal activities hidden in these documents seemed to involve powerful people in many countries. So Obermayer contacted the International Center for Investigative Journalism in Washington. They assembled a global team that eventually swelled to 400 investigative journalists from 70 countries, all working secretly on the Panama Papers data, with an agreed simultaneous publication date a year later–in April 2016.
In addition to being a team of sometime rivals, this journalism network was remarkable because it was decentralized, rather than controlled in a single place by a single news organization. (Alas, ISIS also seems to work this way.) With Panama Papers, everyone published their own stories in their own publications, using their own resources and editing practices, but with the same Panama Papers logo, and at the same time.
A NEW COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
What this kind of networked undertaking requires was a new journalism culture, a collaborative model. It is the opposite of that 1940s race to the farmhouse, where a rival cut the phone cord to weaken his colleague. Collaboration—not competition– might be the key to the future of journalism in the Trump era.
To do the Panama Papers project, the International Center for Investigative Journalism developed new digital tools. They created their own private Facebook-like social network platform called iHub where participating journalists could all look at the data, discuss it and share new information in a protected, encrypted, members-only space. They adapted the dating app Tinder…to help journalists select which reporting partners they were willing to work with.
Third, they used library software, so the reporters could easily search for names, countries, etc. To access the material, they had security measures like phone authenticators that generated a new code every 30 seconds.
The human social factors in this project were as important—maybe more important—than the technical tools. ICIJ was able to find reporters from far-flung places, who decided to trust each other, because they met at annual face-to-face training conferences in places like Rio de Janeiro, Kathmandu and Lillehammer.
During Watergate, The Washington Post languished alone its reporting for weeks before other media picked it up and amplified it at the national level. And that was during the golden age of media power in the US:
Today’s collaborative, network model is more powerful in several ways:
—It creates more security for the reporters, since everyone is reporting the same thing. As one veteran journalist said, with the new networked model, “If you kill one of us, 40 will take our place. If you kill 40 of us, 400 will take our place.” And it also creates local impact! By being published simultaneously all over the world under one big umbrella title, the local Panama Papers exposes couldn’t be ignored as easily at home.
—The Panama Papers project exposed the offshore holdings involving people in 200 countries, including 12 current and former world leaders.
—It revealed how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies. He called the expose “a western spy plot.”
—U.K. leader David Cameron had urged his country’s overseas territories — including the British Virgin Islands — to work with him in 2013 to fight against tax evasion and offshore secrecy. It turned out his late father Ian Cameron, a wealthy stockbroker, was a Mossack Fonseca client who used the law firm to shield his investment fund, from U.K. taxes.
- Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had to resign when documents were presented showing he had lied about his offshore business.
- The files revealed offshore companies linked to the family of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who had vowed to fight “armies of corruption,”
- And there were offshore companies linked to Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, who positioned himself as a reformer in a country shaken by previous corruption scandals
- There were massive demonstrations in Argentina about revelations there.
- In Azerbaijan a small war was initiated which some believed was designed to distract from revelations featuring the president and his daughters.
- Spain’s minister of industry resigned.
As a result of the Panama Papers scandal five European nations have now agreed to share tax and law enforcement data. The agreement includes the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
The Panama Papers documents continue to be used for new stories all the time, and new data dumps are engaging some parts of the team. Perhaps Trump will show up in some of these new documents.
WHAT IT TAKES
The new model is powerful, but it does cost money. So far, these nonprofit investigative journalism ventures are funded by local philanthropies and global foundations like Soros, Ford, Omidyar, Gates and others, along with wealthy individuals like the Sandlers in the USA, who established ProPublica.
Prof. Hamilton estimates that every $1 spent on investigative journalism in the US nets about $100 in public goods. Some of us are working on the idea of an international trust fund, run by journalists and scholars, which would use some of the funds recovered– thanks to the journalists’ corruption investigations–to finance new journalism projects. Such a qui tam fund exists to reward lawyers who recover money for the US government under the Federal Foreign Tort Claims Act. They get a percentage of the proceeds. I won’t dwell on the complications of setting this up to ensure it doesn’t skew and bias the journalism. But it is one of the things we are looking at.
So what lessons can we take from this Panama Papers network model to help the journalists covering the Trump Administration?
- First, Journalists should double down on doing their core job. Continue to offer verified facts, transparently presented.
- But be wary about what battles to pick. Keep things in proportion, in context. The watchdog that barks at everything loses his bite.
- Journalists need to keep their cool. It feels good to liberals when the New York Times says Trump is “lying” but this has to meet a difficult standard of intentionality, as NPR Vice President Mike Oreskes points out. Otherwise it is a falsehood or misstatement. If the media match the hysteria of Trump they will lose their impact, because he can make things up and they can’t.
- How investigative journalism fares in the US in the next few years may depend on people like us to support it financially and take the time to insist, through whatever means we have, that the facts do matter. This enabling environment for journalism will determine whether or not the facts matter on the ground.
And it would help if journalists apply the Panama Papers’ collaborative culture to their work in the United States.
Bastian Obermayer, the German reporter who first got the Panama Papers leak, has this advice for American journalists:
—“A new level of solidarity and cooperation is needed among the fourth estate. American journalists should stop Trump from dividing their ranks, ” he says.
The next time Trump or his surrogates single out any reporter, or don’t answer a question, “the next reporter who’s allowed to speak should simply repeat the question of the journalist that Trump has snubbed,” Obermayer says. If Trump snubs this second reporter, the next one called on should continue to repeat the original question that the Trump Administration has refused to answer.
Obermayer even suggests that a news organization with a scoop should join forces with rival publications to find missing pieces of the puzzle. “It has always been the noblest job of the journalist to check the power of the government, the center of power. This seems even more important as the president acts like one of the oligarchs that journalists, like us, investigate,” he says. Obermayer concludes that since Trump has decided to go down this hostile path, “it is time for us (journalists) to change our path too. That’s no only fair—it is absolutely necessary.”
*This post is adapted from my February 2017 presentation to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and my recent evaluation of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) for the Adessium Foundation. I would like to thank especially David Kaplan, Anya Schiffrin, Ethan Zuckerman, James Hamilton, Tom Rosenstiel, Brant Houston and Bruce Shapiro for educating me about the new world of networked investigative journalism.