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INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN CRISIS

Posted by >>>>> on February 18, 2015

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INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN CRISIS

New report finds over 500 important stories went unreported

in the last five years because of the squeeze on investigative reporters,

and that freelance investigative journalists are an endangered species.

Survey coordinator LAIRD TOWNSEND is available for interview and the report can be downloaded.

The report, which was conducted by Project Word, under the auspices of Investigative Reporters and Editors, shares the results of a 2014 survey that collected feedback from over 200 freelance investigative journalists. Based in 36 states and 26 countries the respondents represented all ages, media beats, and experience levels.

Project Word Director Laird Townsend says the problem is system-wide and that a solution will require cooperation from funders, editors, and freelancers. “I’ve been an editor, so I know what it’s like to deal with a skeletal budget and not be able to pay freelancers to produce valuable stories. My hope is this report can begin an industry-wide conversation to address the crisis.”

What Project Word found was startling and should have us worried about the future of serious journalism and its crucial role in democracy. Here are just a few of the alarming findings.

Freelance investigative journalists:

  • Are downwardly mobile. Compared to the equivalent investigative project five years ago and adjusted for inflation nearly half the respondents (44 percent) reported getting paid less and nearly one quarter (22 percent) by half as much. A whopping 92 percent report feeling anxiety about finances on a daily or monthly basis.
  • Are being driven from important reporting in order to make a living. Only 34 percent said they spend more time working on investigative stories than doing other work to generate income; all told, respondents counted a minimum of 300 to 450 colleagues who’ve had to “drastically cut back” or “abandon” investigations due to resource constraints.
  • Are reaching into their own pockets to fund their investigative work. Eighty-four percent of respondents spend their own money to cover the investigative costs of their stories, amounting to a total expenditure of a minimum of $460,000 per year, and as much as nearly $1 million—from respondents alone.
  • Stories are disappearing. Eighty-one percent reported that resource constraints forced them to abandon “otherwise viable and important public-interest stories” over the past five years. As a result the public was deprived of over 500 stories. Based on a handful of interviews with respondents, these aborted stories covered everything from the way the Pentagon handles the health of soldiers and the US role in mass killings in an ally country, to global reproductive rights, an investor’s plan to sell off minority-owned broadcaster companies on the public spectrum, and “blatant corruption” in Florida.

 

  • The four main challenges facing freelance investigative journalists are:
    • Unworkable economics;
    • Overstrained and underfunded outlets chasing shorter stories to appeal to digital-era attention spans;
    • Inequitable contracts; and
    • Inadequate tools.

The report goes on to make recommendations citing freelancers’ own creative solutions to the crisis. They include:

  • Offering fair and standardized contracts to freelancers;
  • Standardizing grant applications;
  • Providing legal and resource assistance, so freelancers have libel protection and access to investigative assistance; and
  • Increasing unbiased funding sources.

“This country was founded on critical inquiry and independence—and these are the core traits of freelance investigative reporters,” says Townsend. “Freelancers are the bald eagle of the journalism world: yes, they are an endangered species—but they can be saved with more attention, resources, and thoughtful planning. That has to happen soon,” says Townsend.

ABOUT LAIRD TOWNSEND

Laird Townsend is an Associated Press-trained journalist and former magazine editor. For more than 15 years, he has worked with upwards of 100 journalists of all levels, from New York Times reporters to beginners, and has helped a number of journalists make the transition from newspaper and trade reporting to narrative journalism. Before founding Project Word in 2007, he was features editor at Orion magazine, which he helped earn the Utne Independent Press Award for General Excellence in 2004. From 1997 to 2003, he was editor of Terrain magazine, a Berkeley-based environmental news quarterly, where his writers won two Project Censored awards. His writing and editing have been supported by The Christensen Fund, the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Mesa Refuge, the Mailman Foundation, The Nation Institute, and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, with funding from the McCormick Foundation.

MORE ABOUT PROJECT WORD can be found at projectword.org

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