Accountability Information, Across Borders

Accountability Information, Across Borders
Global Investigative Journalism Conference
Lillehammer, Norway
October 8 – 11, 2015
Accountability Information, Across Borders
Charles Lewis
American University
Author Note
Charles Lewis, School of Communication, American University, Washington, D.C.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Charles Lewis,
Investigative Reporting Workshop, School of Communication, American University,
4400 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. (McKinley 112), Washington, D.C. 20016. Contact:
This paper explores the efficacy and potential of increased journalistic and academic
data, research and reporting collaboration, in the context of credible, accountability information.
Investigative journalists throughout the world understandably cherish their independent
“watchdog” function. Professional news organizations and individual journalists traditionally
have not been particularly collaborative with scholars in the academic community (beyond
perfunctorily quoting them in their stories), even though their interests, expertise, research and
writing are often about quite similar subject matter. And of course, at the same time, the
university milieu, the “academy,” has seemed distant and disengaged from civic life and current
events issues because, too often, it is.
But of course, holding those in power accountable is necessarily a collaborative
undertaking, especially considering how vital and varied reliable information is to democracy
and to the entire concept of self-governance everywhere. Credible journalistic, academic,
research “think tank” and other investigative, data-gathering institutions and individuals must
increase the extent to which they share their information, knowledge and expertise with each
other. And in the 21st century world of instant communication and hundreds of millions of often
dubious websites, blogs, and other online publishing outlets, the winnowed ranks of serious,
professional journalists in the commercial and nonprofit news media milieus must somehow find
new ways to broaden the spectrum of valid, substantive information and deepen the forensic
quality of public inquiry and analysis. To that end, they must consider – indeed, embrace -- new
synergistic approaches and previously unimaginable collaborations and potential partnerships.
And there is increasing evidence of editorial cross-pollination and collaboration.
This paper will analyze the extent to which the public space for timely, authoritative,
accountability-related information and reporting about those in (government and private sector)
power can be enlarged.
Accountability Information, Across Borders
With the significant deterioration of the traditional news media business model in recent
years, there are noticeably fewer independent reporters and researchers closely watching those in
power. And that has very serious potential ramifications for the state of democracies throughout
the world, for as the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, once
wrote, “The only security of all is in a free press . . . The agitation it produces must be submitted
to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” (Shapiro, 2006)
Unfortunately, only 14 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a “free
press” where “coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state
intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic
pressures.” (Freedom House, 2015) For years, it has been quite apparent that “media freedom is
in retreat” throughout the world. (Reporters Without Borders, 2015)
But in addition to the increasing physical, legal and other threats to reporters, editors and
media owners, there arguably are not enough professional journalists to sustain a sufficiently
scrutinous, watchdog presence, tracking the various uses and abuses of power. For example, in
the United States, the number of journalists covering news is approximately the same as in 1972,
during the time of the Watergate scandal. The problem is that now the U.S. has roughly 100
million more people and the annual federal government budget is 18 times larger. (Waldman, et.
al, 2011) The media’s ability to cover important news issues is no longer commensurate with its
own past reporting coverage standards and practices. Examples of this glaring inadequacy
abound: for example, between 2003 and 2008 alone, the number of journalists covering the 50
state legislatures and government fell by one-third, decidedly reducing the ability to investigate
the thousands of laws passed each year in state capitals, among myriad other potential issues.
(Dorroh, 2009) And newspapers in 27 out of 50 states no longer have reporters based in
Washington covering their members of Congress and other relevant federal-state topics. (Pew
Research Center, 2009) The number of full time U.S. foreign correspondents has also decreased,
precisely at a time they should increase. (Kumar, 2011)
Media operations in Europe also have been and continue to be “severely tested.” For
example, just in the decade that ended in 2007, the number of journalists dropped by 53 percent
in Norway, 41 percent in the Netherlands, 25 percent in Germany, and 11 percent in Sweden.
(Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2009) Overall the current, historic
“rapid transformation,” according to international media economics authority Robert Picard, “is
reducing the scale and scope of many news-gathering and dissemination activities.” And in turn,
“in most developed countries . . . audience time given to traditional news sources is declining.
Overall, the media from which the public traditionally received news and information, in which
public debates were moderated, and in which collective public experiences were generated, are
receiving less attention.” (Picard, 2010)
And while the growing nonprofit journalism ecosystem in the United States and around
the world is auspicious – indeed, increasingly the most important enterprise reporting will
emanate from this important space – it is not a panacea. For one thing, the overall enabling
financial wherewithal and scale are insufficient. As has been noted, “since 2000, the U.S.
newspaper industry has lost an estimated ‘$1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing
capacity…or roughly 30 percent,’ but the new nonprofit money coming into journalism has made
up less than one-tenth that amount.” (Starr, 2012)
It is also generally understood that with heat, there is often light and in the context of
journalism and democracy, more information and public accountability. And conversely, as
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Starr has noted, “corruption flourishes where journalism does
not... The less news coverage, the more entrenched political leaders become and the more likely
they are to abuse power.” (Starr, 2012) Besides outright illegality, there is an increasing public
perception and cynicism about the “legal corruption” of government, the mercenary milieu in
which it is mired and its increasing inaccessibility and un-accountability to ordinary citizens, its
inability to solve societal problems, etc. (Lewis, 2014)
For example, in the United States, in the presidential election alone in 2012,
Americans were subjected to over a million campaign ads, and overall, presidential and
congressional elections were awash in dollars, $6.3 billion, much of that “dark” or
undisclosed money. That is more than double the costs of the 2000 federal election spending –
while inflation only rose 38 percent during that period. (Choma, 2013; Wesleyan Media Project,
Of course, money and power have always been intertwined, and the public senses,
correctly, that over the years, the financial elites and the political elites in the U.S. have
essentially become the same. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data, between
1976 and 2008 (adjusted for inflation in 2008 dollars), the average cost of winning a House of
Representatives seat jumped from $97,477 to $368,842, and the average raised by successful
U.S. Senate candidates increased from $2,407,926 to $8,142,424. (Federal Election Commission,
2009) Very, very few Americans today can or would want to set aside a year or two from their
job to campaign full-time for federal elective office, and either spend money from their savings
or raise that kind of cash from well-heeled special interests seeking favors.
Not surprisingly, as the cost of U.S. campaigns has substantially risen, so too has the net
worth of members of Congress seeking elective office these days. When the Center for Public
Integrity in Washington analyzed the 1997 Senate disclosures for The Buying of the Congress
published the following year, reporters and researchers were surprised to learn that there were “at
least 36 Senators” who were millionaires. But since then, the number of millionaire Senators has
nearly doubled -- 70 out of the 100 U.S. Senators are now millionaires. (Center for Responsive
Politics, 2011) And for the first time in documented U.S. history, more than half of the members
of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives combined, have a financial net worth
of more than $1 million, excluding the substantial value of their homes, data that is not required
in their annual financial disclosure reports. (Choma, 2014) During that same approximate period
of time (1997 – 2011), the median net worth of a U.S. family essentially remained the same,
from $20,600 to $20,500. (University of Michigan, 2011; Whoriskey, 2011) In stark contrast,
only five percent of the American people today are millionaires. (Samuelson, 2014)
Currently, in the U.S., we have unprecedented political gridlock (E.g. government
shutdowns in which the two political parties cannot even agree on the federal government’s
annual operating budget), dysfunction and deepening distrust by the American people. Only 7
percent of the American people have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress as
an institution, “the lowest . . . recorded for any (American) institution” since that question was
first asked in 1973, amidst the Watergate scandal. (Gallup, 2014) Without elaborating here, when
it comes to government oversight and policies, it should be noted that inertia and inaction and
merely maintaining the status quo sometimes is quite beneficial to powerful economic interests
concerned about potentially inconvenient government regulation.
These issues are hardly unique to the United States. Years ago, the Peruvian investigative
journalist Gustavo Gorriti observed, “Although Latin America has made the transition from
military to freely elected regimes, many of these are cosmetic democracies in which critical
features of truly democratic government remain undeveloped or nonexistent. The idea of
accountability, for example, is of little concern to the majority of Latin leaders, some of whom
served dictatorships in the past. Yesterday’s advocate of nationalization is often recycled as
today’s apostle of privatization.” (Gorriti, 1998)
Of course, diminished trust and confidence in government are hardly unique to Western
Hemisphere countries – indeed, that afflicts many of the world’s democracies. Indeed, as one
United Nations report declared, “trust in government and political institutions has been in decline
across advanced industrial democracies since the mid-1960s.” (Clarke and Light, 2006)
And far beyond politics and election issues, the increasing need for meticulously
gathered, analyzed, disseminated and widely accessible and graphically visualized “Big Data”
and other credible, verifiable information is quite obvious, on innumerable specific topics such
as financial transparency and regulation, energy resources and the environment, health, human
rights, national and international security, technology, employment, water scarcity and
management issues, etc.
However, as elucidated earlier, traditional commercial and nonprofit news organizations
at their current capacities are not able to cover these vital, compelling, complex subjects
adequately and expose the frequently inadequate transparency, responsiveness and conduct of
governments and corporations to the public.
Fundamentally, as Princeton University’s Starr put it, “in the established democracies, the
digital revolution has weakened the ability of the press to act as an effective agent of public
accountability by undermining the economic basis of professional reporting and fragmenting the
public. If we take seriously the idea that an independent press serves an essential democratic
function, its institutional distress may weaken democracy itself. And that is the danger that
confronts us: Throughout the postindustrial world, the news media face a serious long-term crisis
that social theory did not anticipate” (Starr, 2012)
And so the question is: to what extent can the public space for timely, authoritative,
accountability information and reporting about those in (government and private sector) power
be enlarged?
In some ways in this Internet age, that public space or coverage vacuum is being
increasingly filled by other hunter-gatherers of information, many of them highly educated,
professionally skilled, with strict research methods and standards and growing public credibility.
Vital, accessible and reliable research based upon primary documents, recorded and transcribed
interviews and secondary sources is increasingly available to the public now, published online by
a growing number of non-government organizations (NGOs) sometimes described as “think
tanks” or “public policy research organizations.” There are more than 6,000 of these
organizations throughout the world in 182 countries, many of their employees “former”
journalists now functioning as researchers, authors, producers, etc. Their work content is released
via their websites and blog posts, newspaper and magazine articles, and radio and television and
web stories or documentaries. The editorial quality, thoroughness, and public credibility of their
published work vary, of course, not unlike traditional news organizations. (Lewis, 2014) And in
some instances, these research organizations have distinguished themselves, by any standard.
For example, consider Human Rights Watch, begun in 1988, now with more than 400
employees, many of them “former” journalists still essentially functioning as such and lawyers
including former prosecutors, offices in 17 cities on four continents, publishing in eight
languages. No commercial news organization in the world covers and writes about “human
rights” issues more extensively than Human Rights Watch. (Human Rights Watch, 2015)
Or in the earlier referenced context of special interest campaign finance money and its
influence on political, public policy decision-making in the United States, journalists covering
these subjects certainly recognize that the most authoritative research derived directly from
primary documents with summarizing reporting, graphics and analysis is published directly
online by two nonprofit organizations funded by philanthropic foundations, the Center for
Responsive Politics and the National Institute for the Study of Money in Politics. These
organizations, founded in 1983 and 1999 and tracking campaign contributions to federal and
statewide candidates and their political parties, respectively, are better known online to the
public and to journalists as “open secrets” and “follow the money.” (Center for Responsive
Politics, 2015; National Institute for the Study of Money in Politics, 2015) There are numerous
other political campaign finance-related research organizations throughout the United States, but
these are the most credible. And besides professional journalists, numerous academic scholars
throughout the U.S. are heavily reliant on this vital information that helps to enable and
embolden their own work. These organizations and their researchers in the overall field of
“money in politics” are scrupulously nonpartisan.
This kind of de facto collaboration appears to exist in a number of accountability-related
fields or subject areas, but is hardly appreciated or understood at all by most working journalists
and the general public. At the same time, while academic scholars have collaborated with each
other for decades on major projects inside and outside their own universities on specific subjects,
and journalists are now necessarily increasingly collaborating with each other inside and outside
of their own news organizations, to date that generally appears to be the current extent of
substantive collaboration. Generally speaking, academics and journalists do not substantially
collaborate on joint investigations, jointly researched, written and published, but instead mostly
function as silos, two separate worlds unto themselves.
For example, in academia in the United States today, there is a growing “Consortium of
Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc.” created in 2001, now with over
100 scholars studying water resource issues nationally and internationally (CUAHSI, 2015).
Most U.S. journalists have never remotely heard of this group of experts, even during one of the
worst droughts in contemporary U.S. history.
And separately, in the context of journalism, the International Consortium of
Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was created in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity
in Washington and now has 190 respected investigative journalists in 65 countries on six
continents. To date, the ICIJ has organized, conducted and to date has published 25 cross border
investigations. (ICIJ, 2015) And according to the Encyclopedia of Journalism, because of the
ICIJ-generated investigative online reporting, the Center for Public Integrity became “the first
global website devoted to international exposés.” (Feldstein, 2014) Now scores of leading news
organizations throughout the world are interested in co-publishing the massive, award-winning
ICIJ data projects, all of which is unprecedented in the annals of journalism history. (Buzenberg,
What if the best, most respected social scientist and journalist investigators could
increasingly collaborate and combine their data, public and private sector documents and jointly
explore the most important, compelling issues of our time?
While cross-pollination of ideas and techniques and information between these milieus is
obviously not new, it has never been overt or systematic or even somewhat formalized.
Traditionally, professional news organizations and individual investigative journalists have not
been particularly collaborative with scholars in the academic community (beyond perfunctorily
quoting them in their stories), even though their interests, expertise, research and writing are
often about quite similar subject matter. Now, in this era of Big Data now amid a new generation
of practitioners, there are exciting, new opportunities for greater collaboration with academia in
the related fields of statistics, mathematics, computer science, forensic accounting,
environmental science, etc.
And of course, at the same time, within the university milieu, the “academy” too often has
seemed distant and disengaged from civic life and current events issues. But now, in this
remarkable Information Age, many new professors and university-based research centers are
interested in exploring and publishing online vital, searchable, topical information replete with
primary documents and other data about important policy-related issues. These are auspicious
developments and indeed, potential cracks in the stereotypical ivory towers of academia. For
example, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University (AU), possibly the
largest university-based reporting center (at or affiliated with a university) in the United States,
recently collaborated for a year on a joint project with an AU public anthropologist and author,
David Vine. “The Lily Pad Strategy” was the result, replete with multimedia maps, all of which
was excerpted from his recently published book tracking the extent and location of every U.S.
military base and installation in the world. (Vine, 2015). To my knowledge, coverage of this
specific subject to this geographically thorough extent is unprecedented in the U.S.
It is increasingly apparent that holding those in public or private power accountable is and
must be a collaborative undertaking, given how fundamental reliable information is to
democracies and to the entire concept of self-governance everywhere. Public interest, academic,
non-government organizations (including public policy-oriented “think tanks”) and other
investigative or data-gathering organizations and individuals increasingly must share their
information, knowledge and expertise. Of course, not all organizations or their personnel are
created equal, in terms of competence, quality controls and standards, and simple, reliable
accuracy. And alternatively, journalists must redefine the possible, and become more welcoming
of substantive input from knowledgeable citizens and the common, shared interest and value in
public accountability and related documents and data.
Years into this extraordinary “here comes everybody” world of the web and globallyaccessible online information, the question is how to attempt and indeed, how to accomplish
such a gargantuan task, and do so as efficiently and as realistically soon as humanly possible in
this borderless world. How to separate facts from conjecture, data from diatribe, and logistically
how to interpose material from different milieus in the most credible, accessible fashion.
The times demand this crossing of the streams of high quality information about the uses
and abuses of power in a multitude of subjects. In the months and years ahead, this author
intends to further investigate these subjects and all of the logistical encumbrances and existing
related, organizational precedents to such a timely and publicly necessary endeavor.
For we must enlarge the public space for investigative reporting, for vital, publicly
accessible, authoritative information for citizens everywhere and for all that is possible when it
comes to holding those in power accountable.
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