Investigative Journalism Contributes to Society: U.S. Expert

Ms. Fleeson with Zim women journalists
Ms. Fleeson with Zim women journalists

In early June, the United States Embassy Public Affairs Section partnered local media civic organizations to host veteran journalism trainer, Ms. Lucinda Fleeson. The visiting American media expert conducted training for journalists for 33 Zimbabwean journalists working with the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) and the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Center (HIFC). Ms. Fleeson, who has several journalism awards and extensive international training experience in investigative reporting and narrative storytelling, also participated in various meetings aimed at shaping the future of investigative journalism in Zimbabwe. Her experience spans 15 years of reporting with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and authoring hundreds of stories, including investigative reports and magazine stories on labor, cultural affairs and science. Her training experience has seen her teach journalists in Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America and South Asia. She shared her thoughts about investigative journalism during a live radio interview. Below are excerpts:

Ms. Fleeson with Zimbabwean journalist Reyhana Masters
Ms. Fleeson with Zimbabwean journalist Reyhana Masters

What exactly is required for a journalist to attain that capacity that would consider them a fully-fledged investigative journalist?

Ms. Fleeson:  First, they need to get published. They need to do one of these lone projects and convince news organizations to publish it. I do think that it’s almost characteristics of some reporters- they want to do this kind of reporting, they want to dig a little deeper, they want to get behind the obvious answer, and they want to, in essence, do good, reveal wrong, contribute to society, which is kind of romantic. Similarly, broadcasting journalism can also be investigative as well and radio which is so important here and across the continent can do a lot of in-depth stories and really bring light to some of these issues.

Investigative journalism has been called enterprise in-depth or project reporting and very often it is confused with what has been dubbed leak journalism, quick hit scoops gained by the leaking of documents or tips, typically by those in political power. From your experience, how would you characterize investigative journalism?   

Ms. Fleeson: I would say Investigative Journalism is original work, it’s enterprising in that the journalists is connecting the dots to show a story that was not revealed in a press release or in a leaked document so it’s really going beyond the surface and putting together a number of facts to show something. There is nothing wrong with a leaked document if they are true, and they may be useful as only part of the story that’s just being the recipient of news, it’s better than being the recipient of a press release.

How would you describe the journalists that you interacted with during your training sessions?

Ms. Fleeson: I saw enthusiasm, they want to learn. They are sharp and want to improve, they want to learn but also want to do big stories that contribute to the national debate. This is the eleventh country where I have trained journalists and every time I have had a good experience like this which is they really want to learn, they really want to dig deeper.

Is conducting investigative journalism something that is inborne or it’s something that can be acquired with time having this skills, knows for investigative journalism?

Ms. Fleeson: I think a lot of it has to be the person, it’s not for everyone it takes a particular type of slightly aggressive incredibly persistent and willing to annoy and offend people and not everybody wants to do that, investigative journalism is often unpopular, they often cause controversy, they often get a lot of criticism and sometimes can be very lonely but can also be very fulfilling.

Your manual “Ten steps to investigative journalism” has been used for teaching investigative reporting and developing democracies.  From your experience why do developing democracies require different approach to investigative journalism from their counterparts in the developed world?

Ms. Fleeson: First of all I had no way of predicting when I wrote that manual in 1998 that it would reach so many people. But what I would to think that what it does is breakdown what seems like an intimidating subject, investigative reporting, to the elements that make up this kind of reporting ensure reporters how they can do it. A lot of reporters think that “I can never do that,” but if we can show them, that it’s just good reporting but more so they begin to get confident.  What’s different, the main difference is that in the Western world particularly the United States we have free access to a lot of documents and people in Eastern Europe where this manual was written and the African continent and South Asia, there may be some documents but it’s not a matter of going on a government website and being able to download the safety record of every single airplane that has ever flown in America which we can do in the United States. So it takes some certain attitude adjustment to learn to find documentation. And there are lot of places, and Zimbabwe being one of them, where being a reporter is not only difficult, it can be dangerous, that doesn’t happen very often in the United States thank goodness but so there need to be some careful considerations when talking about investigate reporting here and elsewhere.

But in its formative stages in the United States, were there any dangers associated with it?

Ms. Fleeson: Well one of the famous cases was more than thirty years ago when Arizona investigative reporter, Don Dolles was investigating organized crime and he was killed. Something really wonderful happened then. Investigative reporters and editors all over the country travelled to the west to Arizona and said we are going to finish the work of Don and from that they did finish his investigation into organized crime. They published it but they also founded the group Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE.ORG) which still exists today. It has members in the thousands which meet all over the world sometimes and so that is really a proud history of how IRE was established.

Now many see investigative journalism as useful only in exposing social vices and scandals, can it also be used to tell good stories?

Ms. Fleeson: Absolutely in fact if you tell good stories people might read of.  A lot of these long reports you would think, oh! they are good work but who is gonna read them? Investigative reporting- it sounds like almost like police work.  And I would like to think of it and what a lot of my colleagues do is really being more explanatory and often the subjects are not necessarily corruption.  The subject may be “Why don’t we have fresh water?”, “Why can’t we go to the bank and get more cash?” May be the answer is corruption, maybe it’s more complex, “Why can’t we get drugs at the hospital?” In other words it should dig into the kinds of stories that people are talking about at the street corner and that affects their daily lives and that maybe more important than finding one corrupt official.

Now it seems an enabling environment is key for Investigative Journalism to thrive, many hint at Access to Information and Freedom of Information Laws, in your opinion, do governments have a role to play in promoting an enabling environment for investigative journalists?

Ms. Fleeson: Absolutely, but they rarely do it on their own.  This is where journalism associations really come into play.  A lot of the freedoms of Information laws in America were created because journalism organizations lobbied for lawmakers and help them write those laws and press them to write those laws.  In important cases before the Supreme Court, many of the big newspapers and broadcasting companies filed briefs supporting their positions and that really helped freedom laws started to be made in America starting in the 50s, 60s, so our tradition isn’t that old either.

We have seen technological developments and how have these affected the traditional role  of  newspapers and other mainstream media as sources of news especially of the in-depth type provided by the investigative journalism, with revenues sources for these media dwindling my question is whether there is a future for investigative journalism?

Ms. Fleeson: I think so but it’s different, right now in many ways more forms of storytelling, more forms and places where you can find in-depth reporting all over the web but how they are published and the sources and the way it’s done, it’s not done the same for instance in my generation of journalism, if you work for a big newspaper, they spend a lot of money on investigative reporting, that era is kind of gone and so what’s happening is there is still some of these projects but they are often funded in partnership with NGOs or foundations. This project that we are doing right here in Zimbabwe with the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe is a good example of them working with some I believe the Open Society Institute and giving them a grant to help them do stories, that’s a good model.- ZimPAS © June 24, 2016