Have Investigative Journalists, the white knights of journalism, lost their trusty steeds? Or, are they just being given upgraded steeds instead? Google would like you to believe the latter. A few days ago Google held its first ‘Techraking Conference’ at the GooglePlex in Mountain View California. The conference, co-hosted by Google and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), focused on the future of journalism and particularly the future of ‘muckraking’, or investigative journalism. The conference certainly sparked hopes of a future where technologists and journalists could collaborate as advocates for the public interest, fighting corruption with the broad swords of accountability and exposés.
But is it realistic to believe in this future? Most argue that technology has signaled the death knell of journalism, as we once knew it; the architecture of the Internet has created an environment that is thirsty for clicks, speed, and traffic rather than deliberate and thoughtful social activism. Declining revenues and shrinking news staffs have forced newsrooms to cut back, and investigative journalists are more often than not among the first to go. Given the historic role of investigative journalism, especially its role in litigation and passing legislation, like the Pure Food and Drug Act (the reason we know our Tylenol isn’t actually heroin), muckraking is not something that the nation can afford to lose.
Investigative journalism has fulfilled a specific, essential role for all people, regardless of class, citizenship, or background. But some may wonder: If the Internet enables any average person to act as a ‘citizen journalist’, do we still need investigative journalists? Will new projects like pachube which utilize crowdsourcing and mobile technology, work just as effectively as their older human equivalents?
Google’s answer is a bit of yes, and a bit of no. Technology isn’t enough, but it can help. The Techraking conference placed a focus on new online services provided by Google and CIR. The first major announcement was the major launch of a Youtube channel entirely devoted to investigative news. The channel will “feature videos from major broadcasters and independent producers, both national and global, nonprofit and for-profit.” Listed among contributors to the channel are NPR, ABC News, CIR, and the Pulitzer Center for Public Integrity. Another exciting moment of the conference was the introduction of a new version of Fusion Tables, a Google service that allows journalists to collaborate and comb through large amounts of data with relative ease. Traditionally, investigative journalists will look through thousands of pages of government or financial data, records, and information for inconsistencies. Technology can reduce the enormous amount of time and effort required, meaning that stories that once took months may take weeks, and stories that once took years, may only take months to finish. Another technology, “Natural Language Processing” may also help muckrakers, for example, by comparing the language of laws and legislation state by state. Among the other big hits at the conference were immersive experiences (think journalists and video game developers working together), more open government data, and ways to search out plagiarized journalism. “You can use this to find every biblical allusion in Shakespeare in a few minutes” says one presenter, Tom Lee, about the SuperFastMatch service. CIR, one of the hosting organizations, is a wonderful example of ‘techraking’. The organization, a nonprofit, reports on a plethora of ambitious projects that utilize and unify the video and multimedia capabilities of the Internet extremely well.
Yet, even still, with these impressive ideas and even more impressive technology it is still not possible to definitively answer the question “Will technology save investigative journalists?” The American Journalism Review portrays a future of investigative journalism that’s not nearly as bright as the one painted by Google. The particular experience of one muckraker, Joe Demma, paints a picture of the current reality. Demma, a reporter on three Pultizer-winning stories and the supervisor of an investigative team of four reporters was fired from his job at the Sun-Sentinel. For two years, Demma tried to find a job inside and outside the news business, but nobody wanted him – even with the Pulitzers on his resume. Furthermore, the American Journalism Review notes a marked decrease in Pulitzer entries “from 1985 to 2010, entries in the investigative category dropped 21%…in the public service category 43%”, suggesting that papers are largely forsaking the muckraking field. Now major papers like the New York Times, who have enough resources to dedicate, dominate investigative journalism and reporting; even then, the numbers in investigative journalism continue to shrink.
Historically, it was only thanks to senior journalists extremely dedicated to the muckraking cause that we ever saw the end of Standard Oil, the Tweed Corruption Ring, the WaterGate Scandal, and child labor. I, personally, am skeptical whether the influx of data and complicated machines that can look through it faster will be enough to fill the gap. There is the possibility that more aspiring independent journalists may pick up the slack, given the decrease in effort that muckraking would require. But then again, this situation also potentially falls in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s classic critique, ‘slacktivism can’t replace activism’, or basically that easier doesn’t mean better. The problem may not be in the resources of major papers but rather in their motivations, which tend to be market driven. There’s a reason we read more about sex scandals than we do about tax abuses and government oversight; the scandals simply get more traffic, which in the current news industry means another day above water.
For now, organizations like the CIR, California Watch, and ProPublica, non-profits that are funded by generous grants, are doing their best to maintain dedicated and qualified staff to cover and uncover the most pressing of issues. It takes commitment and idealism to make investigative journalism a successful effort. Google itself realizes this: “Good data is nothing without great journalists to analyze it.” Fortunately, Google, a multi-billion dollar corporation who was once an enemy, now seems to be a friend. The introduction of these tools, while neither an immediate revolution nor solution, is a step in the right direction; any effort to arm our muckrakers with better tools is a good one. So, despite the gloomy scene set in place by the messy print-to-digital transition, the Techraking conference shows that an enthusiastic willingness to fight for the journalism we once had still exists, and perhaps the future arrival of the watchdog we’ve always wanted.