Muckrakers of the world unite

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 Updated:

While U.S. news organizations are shutting down investigative teams and laying off their most experienced reporters, something extraordinary is going on overseas — investigative journalism is thriving. Last week, 500 reporters from a record 87 countries gathered in Lillehammer, Norway, for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, the fifth such assembly since 2000. Scandinavian computer experts, armed with spreadsheets and search engines, joined Chinese bloggers, West African beat reporters, and others in sharing tips on everything from investigating war criminals to exposing corruption in sports.

There was plenty of commiseration among the Western reporters present. Buffeted by plummeting ad revenue and shifting technology, newsrooms from Australia to America to Italy are being hit with shrinking budgets and smaller staffs. But elsewhere, the future for muckraking looks brighter — there are now I-teams at major media outlets in Brazil, China, and India, as reporters test the limits of local laws and take on powerful vested interests. Organizers attribute the rapid spread of investigative techniques, in part, to the global gatherings. “These conferences were the ignition switch,” observes Brant Houston, the Knight Chair of investigative reporting at the University of Illinois and a founder of the Global Investigative Journalists Network, which helps organize the conferences. “They’ve encouraged people to think that no matter which country you’re from, you have a chance to do this kind of reporting.”

The conference teemed with talk of new models of investigative reporting, including Internet-driven investigations, multinational networks, and community-driven journalism. Of special interest was the rise of nonprofit news organizations, like our own Center for Public Integrity. Founded back in 1989, the Center is now one of at least 43 nonprofit investigative journalism centers worldwide. More than half of the centers have been founded just since 2000, with new groups in just the last year launched in Chile, Nigeria, and Serbia. Some provide training, like conference host SKUP — Norway’s investigative reporting association. Others are reporting organizations, like the Center for Public Integrity and its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Still others are grant-making organizations, such as the Fund for Investigative Journalism here in Washington and the Denmark-based SCOOP.

Despite the worldwide growth in muckraking, the challenges remain formidable — tough economics, widespread criminal defamation laws, and frequent, violent attacks on journalists who focus on public accountability. But the future looks promising, largely because it is the reporters themselves who have taken the initiative. “This has been a true grassroots journalist movement,” says Houston. “It’s not government motivated, it’s not industry motivated, it’s not foundation motivated. This is not a movement that will end because money runs short.” Let’s hope not — there’s plenty of muck to rake out there.

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