By the end of this year, more than 3 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people will have Internet access. Two billion of those people will be in developing countries, which means writers have an increasing audience of readers around the globe who can access their stories on the web. However, our interconnected world isn’t necessarily a better place for all journalists.
Earlier this month, the grantmaking network Open Society Foundations published a 360-page report that evaluated the forces affecting digital media worldwide. Researchers in 56 countries detailed both the risks and opportunities created by media innovations in the past ten years. A good portion of the report examined the ways in which the changing media landscape affects investigative journalism.
Here are five findings from the report that explain how digital media impacts investigative journalists around the globe:
1. More than 60 percent of the countries saw an increase in publishing platforms for investigative journalism.
Both developed economies such as the US and France, as well as emerging economies such as China, India, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco and Brazil have created new online publications, which have had an overwhelmingly positive impact for journalists. In Jordan, for example, an investigative piece by the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), which was formed in 2005, was picked up by local news websites and shared through social media. The story detailed abuses at private centers for people with disabilities, and caused the king of Jordan himself to visit the centers and demand punishment for those responsible. Other local news organizations conducted their own investigations into abuses at private centers, which brought more attention to the issue and showed that audiences will spend time reading in-depth reports.
2. Less than one third of the countries found that digital media expanded the social impact of an investigation.
Digitization has helped reporters in Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Thailand produce reports in a more widespread manner, which increases social impact. However, reports filed in several Latin American and Western European countries cited a more limited digital impact. The impact can also vary within one particular country. The study explores the role of digitization in Canada, where the Internet has made it easier for journalists to find sources. But, much like in the US, there is also an increased demand for immediacy, which hinders investigative journalism by limiting the ability of reporters to provide context. Additionally, in certain countries such as Malaysia, reporters have more access to their sources, but tend to overuse user-generated content without verifying its factuality. According to the study, “Even though access to information has become easier, few journalists have been trained or take the time to wade through the enormous amount of data available online.” As a result, investigations are less credible and don’t have the potential for social change.
3. About 80 percent of countries now have increased access to sources, information, and data.
In the last ten years, there has been a substantial increase in data reporting, which is one of the best tools the media has to promote government transparency and accountability. Data-driven journalism has developed quickly in both North America and Europe. However, the study found that the most impactful stories don’t just use data, but instead weave statistics into narratives about real people and their lives. The Internet has also made it easier for reporters to find sources in minority groups. Now more than ever, marginalized groups have the opportunity to make their voices heard, whether through conducting investigations or through posting on social media. These groups can also use digital platforms to add more context to an investigative story. However, the study found that most traditional media outlets around the globe have not significantly reduced their biases or sensational coverage of minority issues.
4. Digitization has not helped decrease censorship and self-censorship in certain countries.
Although government censorship and self-censorship of media or journalists existed before digitization, it has not helped dilute its prevalence. The study cited Nigeria, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and China as particularly affected by restricted information. In China, professional journalists who publish sensitive stories can face reduced wages, being fired, or permanent expulsion from the media industry. Also, the government prevents websites from hosting investigations that detail themes such as corruption, human rights, energy and the environment, health, and safety.
5. There is room for improvement in the way media outlets handle leaked documents.
Digitization has not empowered investigative journalism to its full potential because there is no universal Freedom of Information Act. In countries that do have freedom of information laws, implementation and enforcement remain problematic. Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Morocco, the four Middle Eastern countries covered in the project, are said to suffer the most. Although a freedom of information law does exist in Jordan, it has not been implemented effectively. Citizens desire greater transparency, but the government’s hostile attitude impedes quality journalistic work. For the time being, social media platforms have given citizens, in the Middle East and all over the world, a chance to voice their personal stories and politics, and have served as crucial tools for activists.