Investigative journalism: 2.0

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

In the age of the Internet, investigative reporting is being revamped. Whereas muckrakers of the past often worked alone, with just a notebook or recorder, many of today’s investigative journalists are working in regional and cross-border networks, aided by technologies and tools that are revolutionizing reporting.

“The image of the investigative journalist as a lone wolf, working in his cubicle in a corner of the world, isn’t so true anymore,” Marina Walker Guevara, of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), told IJNet last week in the group’s D.C. headquarters.

ICIJ’s recent investigation into the illicit global tobacco trade called on 22 reporters in 14 countries, spread across a dozen time zones. With such a far-reaching team, reporters followed the story “from counterfeiters in China and renegade factories in Russia to Indian reservations in New York and warlords in Pakistan and North Africa,” according to ICIJ’s Web site.

During the 13-month investigation, the team used a secure, collaborative online workplace to chat, share documents, photos and videos, and edit each other’s work.

The final product, “Tobacco Underground,” uncovers a multibillion-dollar illicit trafficking business that contributes to crime, corruption, terrorism and ill health around the world. The findings are available in a multimedia package that draws on the public records, human sources and raw footage captured by ICIJ reporters.

Like Tobacco Underground, many of today’s investigative stories require months, even years, of research and large teams of reporters. Many are multinational. And reporters are tackling them better than ever before, according to ICIJ director and Tobacco Underground lead editor David Kaplan.

“Investigative reporting has gone global,” Kaplan says. “Its use is exploding to the far corners of the world, even in places you wouldn’t expect, where people can get killed for reporting the wrong thing.”

As newspapers cut costs, nonprofit investigative centers are largely behind the spread, Kaplan says. The first three nonprofits dedicated to investigative journalism were all American: the Fund for Investigative Journalism (1969), Investigative Reporters and Editors (1975), and the Center for Investigative Reporting (1977).

Now, there are more than 50 worldwide, and more than half of those are since 2000. Global networks such as ICIJ – made up of 100 journalists in 50 countries, and currently looking to expand – are providing the platform for reporters to connect for cross-border investigations. Local and regional centers, such as Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism; the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR), connect journalists for reporting, networking, conferences, trainings and more. FAIR is sponsoring Africa’s first big investigative reporting conference later this month in Johannesburg.

In August, the Latin American Conference on Investigative Journalism awarded two series of reports that exposed public corruption in Brazil and the management of illicit accounts within the Catholic Church in Costa Rica – stories in two countries where a long tradition of investigative journalism does not exist.

“Taking on an entire institution in Costa Rica, a very Catholic country, is not an easy task,” Guevara says.

In some of the world's most repressive media environments, journalists are finding ways to conduct investigative journalism by reporting on less controversial topics, such as financial and consumer issues, health issues and the environment. “In China, you can’t report on the communist party, but you can report on corruption on the local level," Kaplan says.

The Chinese magazine Caijing, for instance, has distinguished itself as a beacon of investigative reporting in the region, by angling their reporting through finance and financial investigations, Kaplan says. In Syria, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism has sponsored consumer reporting on food safety.

“The important thing is that you establish a methodology – you get a generation of reporters trained in how to do this kind of reporting,” Kaplan says. “The rest will come.”

Even in countries with independent media, investigative stories come with their own set of challenges. In ICIJ’s case, during Tobacco Underground, language, cultural and technological barriers proved challenging, as did working across time zones. Plus, reporters in different regions had different levels of training, and varied reporting styles and standards, Kaplan says.

“For example, undercover work is widely regarded to be a last resort in U.S. journalism,” he explains, “which is not true of a lot of our colleagues, working in countries where going undercover might be the only option.”

In China, Pakistan and Russia, the Tobacco Underground team did go undercover, and captured footage that appears in the final multimedia product. In some instances, a button-sized camera was used. In China, ICIJ reporter Te-Ping Chen went undercover posing as a smuggler from Amsterdam. In the tri-border area of South America – where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina intersect – reporters shot from inside cars using polarized lenses.

Such footage adds visual and audio supplements to the print reporting in Tobacco Underground, which gives readers multiple ways to access information. In addition to 18 text stories, Tobacco Underground includes audio and photos of a paraplegic smuggler from El Paso and a former FBI agent who posed as a member of the Italian mafia. Video brings readers into an underground cigarette factory in Russia (below), and behind-the-scenes of the trade in China. An interactive map allows viewers to visualize smuggling routes, contraband cigarette production and key shipping points. And an extensive resources page provides links to outside information.

Because of the nature of the story, with its characters and complexity, multimedia was conceived as a central component of the reporting from the beginning, Chen says.

“It’s always the challenge with investigative journalism: taking masses of information – in this case a black market of $600 billion worth of smuggled cigarettes – and breaking it down and making it something that’s accessible to one person who is sitting at their desk or computer,” Chen says.

Still, readers will find 4,000-5,000 word stories and reports, in the traditional investigative style, on the Tobacco Underground site. Print newspapers across the world have translated and carried the story, and the report is available as an e-book.

“We think technology is great, and we certainly tried to use as much as was available [in Tobacco Underground], but what drove the story was the reporting, and the fact that these ICIJ reporters really know the terrain and the sources, and they can open all these doors,” Guevara says.

Kaplan, who has more than 30-years of investigative reporting experience around the world, says that today’s investigative reporters have to use technology as “the great equalizer” because so many resources are being cut.

ICIJ is currently putting major resources into expanding the UJIMA Project, a collection of databases, documents and other information for journalists, currently only in Africa. Once it goes global, journalists around the world will be able to access foreign agent registrations, weapon sales documents, development contracts, UN data and more with just an online search.

“Newsrooms are smaller, news holes are smaller, and we just don’t have the resources we once did,” he says. “One thing we do have is great tools and techniques that we didn’t have in the past.”

Last month, ICIJ was honored at the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, in Washington, D.C., for Tobacco Underground. The story has also raised the profile of the issue of global tobacco smuggling, including among the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and country delegations.

But even with new ways to report, investigative journalism as a craft remains rooted in the same principles it was founded upon, Kaplan says, and requires the same skills: how to think about stories systematically, how to think about multiple sourcing, how to look up public records, how to interview and how to follow trails – trails to people, trails of money, trails of accountability.

He compares investigative reporters to “good cops and honest prosecutors,” who are “driven by the hope to leave the world a little better than how they found it.”

“We dive deeply into complex subjects, and we look at whether people in a given society who have power are exercising that power in an accountable way,” he says. “That’s how you investigate.”

To visit Tobacco Underground, go to To visit ICIJ on Facebook, click here.