The Renaissance of Investigative Journalism: Summer School at the CIJ in London
Are investigative reporters a humanoid creed of zombies on the loose? Well, after having spent three days at a summer school organized by the London-based Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), I don’t think so. The first thing I noticed on my way in, was the very nice, but a bit nervous flock of assisting young interns and the meager quantity of coffee. Do I mention these observations just to let you know that I kept my eyes open on every single detail? No, of course I do not. These details tell us, however, that investigative journalism is not dead.
A new generation of young reporters with mixed ethnic and religious background is keen on learning, reporting and working to serve the cause. This generation comes in punctually. They get their coffee, hop immediately in the classes and presentations. Does this mean that the Summer School is only interesting for students? Most certainly not. A big part of the attendees are more or less experienced or very experienced reporters. It is the mix of attendees and trainers that make this journey one worth to remember.
Optimism, optimism, optimism…go and spread the message
Overall, there was an optimistic mood about the future of investigative journalism. Needless to state, however, that people aren’t aware of the problems that the media and investigative reporting are facing. According to the Centre’s Director Gavin MacFadyen we certainly need to learn from the United States and Denmark. At about thirty projects have started cooperating over the pond. The Centre for Investigative Journalism is trying to push the UK and the rest of Europe in exactly that same direction. Since six years the Centre has been organizing its annual summer school and training sessions for potential Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR)-trainers.
For some people visiting a summer school like this one, it is business as usual, for others it is a one in a lifetime experience. I am talking about the experience of having class and enjoying trainings sitting in a room among die-hard renown investigative reporters and ambitious students. You might get a coffee and discuss for a few minutes with people likeCharles ‘Chuck’ Lewis, a former CBS’ 60 minutes producer and co-founder of the US-based Center for Public Integrity or have an exchange of opinion with the Guardian’s Investigative Editor, David Leigh. Anyway as like almost at every conference in the world, the informal part of the sessions are at least as important as the formal ones. But let us firstly have a deeper look at the formal part.
The Summer School: leitmotifs and classes
The Summer School 2009 – taking place between 17-19 July – was the sixth of its kind. There were at about 130 participants, 40 trainers and several tens of extra visitors present. The number of attendees is growing every year. For these 200 people the choice and the program are overwhelming. During three days five different sessions have been taking place at the same time: the three leitmotifs were Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR), East Meets West and Understanding Company Accounts. Other topics being dealt with included advanced internet research, undercover reporting, new threats in libel and privacy law and several others. I personally attended several CAR-sessions and theEast Meets West Networking Platform organised by SCOOP, a network for investigative journalists in East and Southeastern Europe.
CAR stands for Computer Assisted Reporting. Basically it means, among others (nvdr.), using databases and spreadsheets as sources for investigative story-writing. Most common software used includes MS Excel,Access and MySQL. According to the experienced David Donald, most people are afraid of using MS Access because of its tendency to be as flexible as an 19th-century Prussian drill-sergeant, where as Excel is considered more as a laid-back hippy-program. With both programs, however, one can do deeper research on public expenses, company accounts, corporate fraud, war statistics, etc. In brief: on everything which involves data. Oops, forgot to mention sport! Watch Elena Egawhary, researcher with the BBC Panorama giving some good examples of solid CAR-research.
East meets West was another interesting initiative organized and symbolized in persona by the German-by-birth, but Danish-by-choice investigative reporter Brigitte Alfter. It brought together journalists from Russia, the Ukraine, Croatia, Albania, Poland, Belgium, Sudan, Palestine, Denmark, the United Kingdom and – in case your eyes cannot cope with the country count – several other countries and regions. Hot topics being dealt with included investigating war crimes, fight against corruption and the upcoming UEFA European Football Championship 2012 in Ukraine. An innovative feature was the investigative cooperation speed dating. We were split in three different groups covering the topics mentioned before. All taken together, the dating aspect might have worked and several couples, ‘threesomes’ or bigger action squads have arisen. But the attendees mostly forgot about the speedy angle and got stuck to their respective issue-related teams. Interesting “getting-to-know”-discussions might probably be the reason for this.
You can watch the short movies for two brief discussions between the Croatian investigative reporter Drago Hedl (Vukovar, Glavas) Brigitte Alfter and the Guardian’s Mustafa Khalili(Gaza) discussing cross-border approaches and cooperation.
Libel, legal bullies and other annoyances
Personally, I did not attend the classes on Unterstanding Company Accounts. I will not report on these nor because I think that topic to be irrelevant nor boring. But as pointed out above: every conference has its time and space restrictions. (Add: budget limitation when talking about London) . Further features, however, worth noticing were the unofficial leitmotifs: the Freedom of Information Act and libel and law suits as threats to journalism. The centre invitedIan Hislop (Private Eye), Chuck Lewis, David Leigh and Heather Brooke (Your right to know/MP’s second-home allowances) as guest speakers. Leigh pointed out why law firms pose the biggest threat to British independent reporting. He mentioned a study of Oxford University, according to which legal costs in the UK turn out to be 140 times higher than other European countries. The biggest annoyance is, however, not necessarily a possible law suit itself, but the firms’ threats. People more interested in these topics should google: Tesco, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Schilling’s. There are, however, ways to tackle the law firms’ tactics: use their own tricks and read the Reynolds Letter. British journalism is not dead. One reporter that has proven this basic fact is of course Heather Brooke. Watch my short interview with her. All European journalists that are interested in transparency, accountability and freedom of information might learn from her.
In brief: tough having a British focus, the CIJ- Summer School is actually a must for everyone that cares about the issue of investigative journalism. In November we will be organizing a similar event in the Netherlands. I would say: stay tuned and come to visit us. The Dutch journalist Luuk Sengers gave already a very good foretaste to our British counterparts. His presentation on the investigative reporter’s toolkit was very well received. If more people in the Benelux-countries would follow in his footsteps, investigative reporting is on the rise again. Just as Gavin MacFadyen pointed out: people are sick of their governments’ lies and are keen on doing something about it.