Transcript: Investigative journalism in the new media reality

By Charles Lewis

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IRW’s executive editor, Charles Lewis, was the keynote speaker on Dec. 13 at the 11th annual Ukrainian Investigative Journalism Conference, hosted by the Regional Press Development Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine, from Dec. 13-15.  The theme, “Investigative Journalism in New Media Reality,” drew several hundred reporters from Eastern Europe. They shared their experiences, investigative techniques and the challenges and constraints they face in their daily work. The conference last year was attended by 277 participants and speakers from 19 countries.
In addition to his keynote address, Lewis also served as a panelist in a discussion of “How to teach investigative journalists.” Below is his keynote address.

Good afternoon! It’s great to be with all of you here in Kyiv. The last and only other time I was here was in 2011 at the 7th Global Investigative Journalism conference. My friend Oleg Khomenok was immensely helpful to me back then. Oleg, thank you — then and now — and thanks also to Olga Trufanova, director of the sponsoring organization, the Regional Press Development Institute (RPDI), and to her colleagues Inna Gadzynska and Alexander Voloshyn, for making this conference possible.

The great writer Charles Dickens, in his famous historical novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” penned these memorable words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

In the United States with its 230-year history, we are now living in our “winter of despair.” Since Donald J. Trump, a real estate developer and prime time reality TV celebrity who had never run for elective office, was inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, we have had an inveterate liar in the White House. According to The Washington Post, in his first 1,000 days in office, President Trump has made over 13,435 false or misleading statements. Since becoming president, he has averaged “nearly 14 (false) claims a day.” No contemporary president in U.S. history has ever lied this frequently or this shamelessly, nor had more financial conflicts of interest. He is a national and international embarrassment to tens of millions of Americans and Europeans.

As a journalist and bestselling author or co-author of six books, Trump and his lies are particularly annoying to me personally. Why? Because, with the help of many researchers working with me for 10 years, I tracked and wrote a detailed book about half a century of lying by American presidents from both political parties, as well as by major, multibillion dollar corporations. It was entitled, “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” and unfortunately, it was published in 2014, nearly three years BEFORE Donald J. Trump became president. What the hell!

Now, near the end of the third year of his Presidency, Trump’s latest abuse of power recently was to threaten to withhold $391 million in U.S., congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. Why? Because he wanted the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to publicly announce that he would order an investigation of the frontrunner 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden regarding an alleged but unsubstantiated conflict of interest. As the New Yorker magazine recently noted, astonishingly, “Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden than (about) Ukraine itself.”

As many of you know, it is quite possible that President Donald Trump will be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives (with a Democratic Party majority) in the weeks ahead, and the U.S. Senate (with a Republican Party majority) is unlikely to vote to convict and remove Trump. Stay tuned!

Trump has frequently enjoyed using the phrase “fake news,” and as the Guardian and other respected publications have noted, “by co-opting ‘fake news’ to describe any form of negative media coverage, Trump has helped countries from Venezuela to Syria to Myanmar explain away atrocities and human rights abuses.” Indeed, corrupt, despotic leaders in South Africa and Mozambique, Syria and Myanmar, China, Russia and others have all indulged in using the phrase “fake news.” Facts and fiction thus have become increasingly indistinguishable to citizens around the world, thereby substantially diminishing the clarity and credibility of government and democracy itself.

This is extremely serious — indeed, it’s dangerous. In any legitimate, healthy democracy, facts, truth, trust and public understanding and consensus about reality itself are essential. As the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote over a century and a half ago, “The hero of my tale, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.” There is no more vital role for all of us, as journalists, than for us to serve the public, OUR respective publics, our audiences with correct, reliable, factual information — every single day, week, month, year!!

In the meantime, let’s stand back and acknowledge all that we are able to do today because of the various technological advances in this world. Without the Internet and the World Wide Web, logistically, journalists would not be able to so easily — and securely — collaborate across Planet Earth. Frankly, I would not have attempted to create the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 1997 without those technological advances. Those advances made it possible to establish the first global network of premier investigative reporters to develop and — at the same precise moment throughout the world — to simultaneously publish online multimedia exposés across borders and oceans. For example, in April 2016 when the ICIJ published the Panama Papers globally — at the same, precise millisecond across six continents — it was the largest collaboration in the history of journalism, involving a leaked cache of 11.5 million financial records, analyzed and reported by nearly 400 journalists in 76 countries on six continents and published in over 100 newspapers around the world.

As journalists, we are hunter-gatherers of information, whatever precise form that takes. Open data, is by definition, freely available, without copyright, patent or other limitations. But, of course, not everything is simple or unrestricted. Some information, such as global surveillance data, is either classified or encrypted or both. And if not, its publication and dissemination nonetheless might still violate the privacy rights of individual citizens. As professional journalists, when it comes to access to information and data, knowing what is legal and what is not legal, permissible and not permissible, is absolutely essential. And as mentioned earlier, we also, of course, must know what is true and real, and what is not. For example, during the first months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was forced to shut down the Pentagon’s very controversial “Office of Strategic Influence,” which he had created in part to provide news stories, including fake news stories, to foreign reporters in order to influence public opinion overseas.

More broadly, another profoundly serious situation for our profession in the United States and around the world — that we have all been painfully aware of for years now — has been the evisceration of newsroom staffs in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the United States alone, in 2001, the newspaper industry employed 411,800 people; by September 2016, that number had dropped to 173,709 people. Separately, in the European Union (EU) 28 countries, according to Statistica, “the popularity of the written press among citizens . . . decreased in recent years, with penetration rates of daily printed press consumption dropping from 37 percent in 2012 to 29 percent in 2016.” Why all of this employment carnage? Because of the new media technologies — online advertising is not nearly as lucrative for newspapers as full-page display ads and classified ads once were.

Against this grim backdrop, however, in the United States, we’ve had some good news. During this difficult crisis diminishing the number of employed journalists and newspapers — we lost 600 newspapers — determined, social entrepreneur journalists, philanthropic foundations and individuals stood up for journalism, newsgathering and truth-telling itself. When I started the Center for Public Integrity from my home in 1989, it was only the third nonprofit news organization in the United States; today, there are over 250 nonprofit news organizations in the U.S. and an organizational resource assisting them all, called the Institute for Nonprofit News, INN, which I co-founded in 2009. The last time we checked, there were 27 nonprofit news organizations outside the U.S., around the world. Until nine women courageously created the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989, there were NO nonprofit, non-government funded news organizations outside the U.S. Why so few? Because most countries around the world do not have tax laws that encourage and enable nonprofit “educational,” tax-exempt corporations to flourish, for the betterment of society.

Because of the loss of 600 commercial newspapers that ceased to exist in the U.S., resulting in fewer award applications, for the first time, philanthropically funded nonprofit news organizations became potentially eligible to receive the Pulitzer Prize for their work. And subsequently, for their investigative reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) were each subsequently awarded Pulitzer Prizes, respectively, in 2014 and 2017.

At the nonprofit Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, which I founded in 2008, my three veteran journalist editors/professors and I — cumulatively with more than 100 years of reporting experience — have been teaching and educating the next generation of investigative reporters. Our watchdog work is rooted in the principle that institutional power—residing in corporations, government and non-governmental organizations—be accountable to the public. Our role, indeed the critical role of the free press, is to hold powerful institutions to standards of transparency and responsibility.

We conduct document-based, data-intensive investigations, through broad diverse publication partnerships across print, web, television, film and radio. Since we first began publishing in 2009, we have conducted more than 80 in-depth investigations on issues of government and corporate accountability of vital public concern, published more than 200 stories, and hired and trained more than 160 student researchers. We have unique, substantial publishing partnerships with The Washington Post, having co-published more than two dozen investigative stories, many on Page One, and contributed to dozens of other stories in the past five years. Our 13th co-production with the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE aired this past May. We are the only university in the United States with an investigative, Public Broadcasting System (PBS) FRONTLINE production team on campus, in our building!

Our exposés have prompted national investigations, new Congressional legislative initiatives and federal law, and our staff have won 26 national journalism awards, including Emmy awards for documentaries produced for FRONTLINE and Showtime, an Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting, and multiple awards and nominations from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Writers’ Guild.

More broadly, here at this conference and beyond, in this important, remarkable era of increasing journalistic, academic and non-government organization collaboration, 21st-century primary document research and reporting must rise above traditional geographic boundaries. Indeed, it has already been occurring!!

Stay tuned!

Charles Lewis, an investigative journalist for four decades, is a tenured professor and the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University in Washington, D.C. A former producer for ABC News and CBS News 60 Minutes, he founded two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A best-selling author/co-author of six books, he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1998, received the PEN USA First Amendment Award in 2004, and was awarded the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence in 2018.