A Network of Organizations Dedicated to Journalism in the Americas

Sixth Austin Forum Unites Journalism Groups around Investigative JournalismSixth Austin Forum Unites Journalism Groups around Investigative Journalism

Representatives from journalistic organizations in 14 countries met in Austin, Texas, Sept. 19-20, 2008 for the sixth Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas, which focused on investigative journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The meeting was organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, and the Media Program of the Open Society Institute (OSI) to review the situation of investigative journalism in the hemisphere and discuss ways to help journalists to improve its quality.

The Austin Forum is a network of organizations that focus on media development and training in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is also an annual event that unites the organizations.

Focus on Investigative Reporting

In contrast to the previous five meetings, this was the first time that an Austin Forum was devoted to a single theme.

“We couldn’t have picked a topic more important than investigative journalism,” said Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

“In many countries, investigative journalism has been the first victim of cuts caused by the crisis in their business models. But no democracy can have the luxury of failing to stimulate investigative journalism, or to let it die.

“Here in Austin we had an interesting discussion about the state of investigative journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean and about ideas for how we can help it.”

The two-day event consisted of panel discussions that assessed the quality of investigative journalism in Latin America, the work of organizations dedicated exclusively to investigative reporting, prizes awarded for excellent work, and risks faced by those working in hostile, dangerous areas.

Other panels emphasized the need to develop innovative financial models and explored the business models used by several different journalism organizations. In the final sessions, participants divided into groups, to explore three areas of investigative journalism: corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime, and human rights violations.

Investigative journalism is one of several areas of focus for the OSI's London-based Network Media Program, which supports training, networking, and database development for investigative journalism projects in Latin America and several regions of the world.

In 2007, the OSI and the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas held the conference "Press Freedom Monitoring and Advocacy in Latin America" immediately after the Fifth Austin Forum.

Given the curtailment of investigative journalism in newsrooms, the search for alternative models, and the small level of foundation support that goes toward investigative reporting, the OSI is considering how it might provide limited systematic support.

Fourteen Nations Represented

Participants came from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela.

Some of the organizations that had attended previous Austin Forums were created or strengthened with the Knight Center’s assistance, including the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA) the Paraguayan Journalism Forum (FOPEP), the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism (Abraji), Mexico’s Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET), and Colombia’s Newsroom Council (CdR).

Carlos Eduardo Huertas, of Bogotá, Colombia, said the Austin Forum had helped his organization, the Newsroom Council, in several ways.

“First, it allows us to learn about the experiences of others. Second, it reminds us of the importance of connecting with equivalent journalistic works from other places. And finally, it allows us to project ourselves collaboratively.”

The discussions about new forms for financing journalism come at a good time for Abraji, said José Roberto Toledo, representative of the Brazilian group. He reported that Abraji has assembled its own investigative databases, expanded its funding base, and created online training courses to deliver from its own web site, after hosting such courses on the Knight Center's site.

"The Austin Forum has been the most advantageous event for Abraji to make international contacts and to get inspired by other experiences that will help us improve our work," Toledo said. "The 2008 Austin Forum has been the best year that we've participated."

Other organizations attended for the first time, including Chile’s Investigative Journalism Center (CIPER), Colombia's investigative TV program Contravia, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, the investigative news magazine El Buho (The Owl) of Arequipa, Peru, and the online newspaper El Faro (The Lighthouse) of San Salvador, El Salvador.

One panel focused on the dangers faced by investigative reporters in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries. Mexican journalists Adela Navarro of Zeta magazine (Tijuana) and Daniel Rosas of El Mañana newspaper (Nuevo Laredo) described the hardships of doing investigative work in a country where a growing number of journalists have been killed by drug traffickers, making Mexico the hemisphere’s most dangerous country for reporters.

María Teresa Ronderos of Colombia said editors had to dedicate themselves to safety in matters ranging from editing language with precision to recognizing when a reporter must withdraw from a dangerous zone.

Luisa Rangel of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma described the resources their organizations provide.

Investigating Drug Traffickers, Corruption, and Human Rights

In the final hours, participants divided into working groups to discuss three specific issues: drug trafficking and organized crime, corruption, and violations of human rights. Selections from their recommendations follow:

Drug trafficking and organized crime
This group emphasized the need for the following practices:
*Provide security for journalists as a primary concern.
*Promote collaborative activities such as investigations involving more than one news organization.
*Help journalists to understand changing business patterns of drug trafficking, and to maintain ongoing discussion about drug policies.
*Create a workshop for journalists who specialize in drug trafficking, to promote regional collaboration.
*Cultivate and quote more sources.
*Create an online group that can share documents and sources, and a type of “Narcopedia” based on the Wiki format.

This group reported the following:
*Frequent types of corruption include political campaigns, public contracts, legislative and judicial systems, poverty programs, investments, and within the communications media.
*Corruption is evolving more quickly than investigative journalism, and is therefore difficult to document.
*At the same time, certain laws do not work, or journalists do not know about them.
*To resolve these problems, journalists need more training, more expert sources who can assist them in their investigations, improved resources (such as databases) for conducting investigations.
*Prizes for investigative journalism can be improved and can be promoted more vigorously in the interior of countries.

Human rights violations
This group emphasized these key points:

*Human rights should be approached through two lenses: countries that are at war (like Mexico and Colombia), and the social rights of groups deprived of their dignity.
*Journalists become skeptical and fatigued after witnessing so much violence and impunity.
*Human rights stories are often presented in a sensationalist way.
*Journalists need specialized training in law, public policies, and national budgets.

“It’s not enough to tell a story. We need to find its links with power,” said Mónica González, the group’s reporter. “We have to tell stories of pain and horror, but that carry hope about human rights, and that make the reader feel: 'That could have happened to me,'” she said.

By the concluding session, several participants said they were planning activities in the coming year with organizations they had met through the Austin Forum.

“We are very happy with the results of the meeting,” Alves said. “Almost 40 participants left Austin with fresh ideas on how to improve the investigative journalism in their countries. And foundations who sent their representatives to the meeting left it with a better idea of how they can help.”

Added Nov 25, 16:30, 2008

Contact Us  |  Staff  |  School of Journalism  |  College of Communication  |  University of Texas
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has operated since 2002 thanks to the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.