Panel explores the present and future of investigative reporting

The “Shining a New Spotlight: Innovations in Investigative Reporting” panel was held July 7 at Stanford University. Video of the panel is available for viewing.

Print newsrooms across the nation continue to shrink and overseas bureaus to shutter as advertising revenue dwindles and digital platforms take over much of the media market.

Yet the mood was hopeful among some of the world’s finest journalists who gathered at Stanford University last week. They heard a panel of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and editors who believe technology and collaboration are allowing the industry, and investigative reporting in particular, to thrive.

New tools are leading to a resurgence of respect for the beleaguered print media.

The satellite imagery that caught fishing boats filled with slaves in Southeast Asia; the open-source visualization tools of massive data dumps shared among journalists across the globe that led to the Panama Papers; and the shoe-leather reporting by Boston Globe reporters who uncovered sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

All are examples of how classic reporting, complemented by new technology and innovative thinking, are helping journalism to evolve.

“We reported our stories at the dawn of the internet era,” said Michael Rezendes, an investigative reporter at The Boston Globe who was on the Spotlight Team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for revealing the cover-up by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by its priests against their young parishioners.

“In addition to reporting the story, we posted the documents (online) and they were incredibly powerful because it made our story bulletproof,” said Rezendes, who is a JSK alumnus.

At that time, the posting of documents on the Globe’s website was innovative and the team’s use of technology consisted of using a spreadsheet. Today, an array of sophisticated technologies power investigations and accelerate their impact. But the importance of the Globe’s work gained renewed attention after the release last fall of the movie “Spotlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture this year.

Rezendes, who was portrayed by actor Mark Ruffalo, was joined onstage by Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor of the Spotlight investigative team portrayed by Michael Keaton in the film.

They were speaking to an audience of some 300 journalists, Stanford students and faculty on the panel, “Shining a New Spotlight: Innovations in Investigative Reporting.” The two-hour conversation was part of the 50th anniversary reunion of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, also sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association.

“As everybody knows, newsrooms today have far fewer resources; most newspapers have half the reporters that they had 15 or 20 years ago,” said Robinson, now editor-at-large at the Globe and also a fellowship alum. “But reporters now are much more resourceful — if they know how to use databases.”

From the Spotlight team’s simple spreadsheets and postings of church and court documents on The Boston Globe website more than a decade ago, to the satellite imaging that allowed an Associated Press investigative team to track down small fishing boats carrying slaves in Southeast Asia last year — information is still king. But it can no longer live behind the castle walls.

“The technology aspect of it is actually really exciting,” said Mary Rajkumar, the international enterprise editor at the AP who edited the series of stories in “Seafood from Slaves.”

Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the series revealed the slavery tied to the Southeast Asia supply chain of seafood in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants. The reporting led to the freedom of 2,000 slaves, brought perpetrators to justice and is leading to reforms. One of the AP reporters on the team, Martha Mendoza, was a 2001 JSK  Fellow.

“I knew nothing about satellite imaging until starting this project,” Rajkumar said. The AP used a company, DigitalGlobe, to help the news agency find boats of missing men who had been held captive for years by the fishing fleets working for seafood companies.

“As they said, `You can’t hide from space,’” Rajkumar said. “We gave them the rough coordinates and they literally just canvassed the whole area until they found them and then they matched the images to previous satellite images.”

Rajkumar, who has a master’s degree from the Stanford Journalism Program, said AP is using this technology in other isolated and dangerous corners of the world, such as Iraq and Syria, where it is hard for reporters to be on the ground to verify information.

“The technology, the satellite imaging, can show us which buildings have been leveled and which buildings still exist,” she said. “That’s how we found that the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq had been leveled.”

The panel was moderated by John Temple, managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Also onstage was Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and project manager of the more than 375 reporters in 76 countries who produced the “The Panama Papers.”

Eleven million leaked financial and legal records from a little-known law firm in Panama earlier this year showed how heads of state, criminals and celebrities have been using secret offshore companies to facilitate bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud and drug trafficking.

Guevara said the source of the leaks remains unknown; even the gender of the whistleblower known as “John Doe” is a secret.

Unlike the seafood investigation — where Rajkumar said it was very hard to document the ma-and-pa companies that were enslaving their workers — Guevara said their problem was the overwhelming amount of documents the journalists had to sift through.

“Technology allowed us to look into these massive amounts of documentation is a smart way,” she said. “Being able to rely on the open-source technology that is out there … helped us to visualize the networks to see how the people and money were connected.”

Guevara believes journalistic collaborations such as the massive, unprecedented ones that resulted in the Panama Papers are giving new life to the industry. But investigative editors are going to have to realize that their reporters are not going to be able to call all the shots.

“We’re taught to be lone wolves — that’s what investigative reporters are,” she said. “And we are telling the lone wolves now: join the pack and share your scoops. Not with one or two reporters, but with hundreds.”

Rezendes conceded collaboration is the future, but called it a difficult “radical change.”

“We used to have seven foreign bureaus and now we have none,” Rezendes said of The Boston Globe. “So now we’re more likely to collaborate than ever before. How else are we going to hold the powerful accountable with diminished resources?”

But reporters have egos, he said, and live to beat their rivals.

“It’s very hard to shake that spirit of competition,” Rezendes said. And documentation, collaboration and technology are moot if you can’t turn the data into a human narrative.

“We’re in a golden age of data journalism right now, but still, the data has to be brought alive with real people,” he said. In the Catholic Church scandal, for example, “the most important thing I did was get a guy to talk to me.”

Guevara agreed. It took hundreds of coders and engineers and programmers around the world to turn the leaked documents into evidence that reporters then turned into narrative gold. But the students in the audience who were considering journalism, she said, needed to know that good reporters leave their desks, talk to people and do the hard work before they break stories.

“I think that young students would want to learn about platforms and coding, but let’s not forget the basics of traditional reporting and the collecting your documents and building your case, finding your evidence, going to court and filing your FOIA requests,” Guevara said.

“If you don’t have all that — there’s no coding or social media that’s going to give you a great investigative story.”