Research: “TPA: A Successful Method of Teaching Top-Notch Investigative Journalism”

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This is a research paper that was presented at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2017 Academic Track, which IJEC organized and covered. For more research and coverage of GIJC17, see here.


 

 

 

TPA: A Successful Method of Teaching Top-Notch Investigative Journalism

 

 

By Paulette Desormeaux Parra

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.

 

 

Abstract

This article examines an innovative method that has proved to be consistently successful at teaching investigative journalism to undergraduates in Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. With a practical approach to knowledge and learning, this method of teaching has enabled students to systematically produce relevant investigative journalism stories, focusing on data, access to open sources and Freedom of Information Act requests. The analysis suggests that experiential learning as a teaching method, applied by teachers who are active in the media industry, and lead by a practitioner trained at a Global Investigative Journalism Conference, has a determinant impact in the new generations of journalists. This, in a country with no strong tradition of investigative journalism education.

Keywords: investigative journalism, teaching methods, access to open sources, freedom of information, experiential learning

 

 

Introduction

Focused on teaching investigative journalism, the course at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile called “TPA: Taller de Periodismo Avanzado” (or “Advanced Journalism Workshop”) started in 2013 with four students. Two years later, over 40 students were enrolling each semester and it became key before graduation.

Its popularity among undergraduates does not come from a perception of it as an easy course. Quite the opposite: students must research and write stories that tackle failures in public policies, unearth corporate corruption or expose organized crime, with a very restricted budget and in a time frame of 15 weeks.

How to achieve this? With a methodology based on experiential learning (see Kolb & Kolb, 2005). This means that students learn about investigative journalism by doing investigative journalism stories.

The stories published as an outcome of this teaching method include the sterilization in public hospitals of women with mental disabilities, the misuse of public funds by parliamentarians, the illegal working conditions of inmates employed by private companies, among others.

Since 2014, their authors have won all the national awards of journalistic excellence for content developed by undergraduates, demonstrating the high professional quality standards of the stories, which are regularly replicated by the mainstream media, amplifying their reach.

Moreover, this teaching methodology has proved to be strongly effective in equipping young journalists with tools and skills that differentiate them from its peers when joining the media industry. Importantly, journalists educated at TPA have won in Court access to documents they had requested under the Freedom of Information Act, and that had been denied by the Army, the Police and the National Tax Service. This way, they might be moving the border of what is considered public information in Chile and impacting on the reporting possibilities at their newsrooms.

 

Theoretical Framework and Definitions

How we define investigative journalism has a key impact on how we should teach it, as the objectives or core elements we identify with this genre will determine which skills and tools students should acquire.

According to “Story-Based Inquiry,” a manual for investigative journalists published by Unesco in 2009, “investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed, either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding” (Story Based Inquiry Associates, 2009). Importantly, investigative journalism is not in-depth journalism or precision journalism, nor is the interpretation of particular events; although it can incorporate all those elements, because it “uses facts gathered in foreign investigations properly quoted; it investigates in depth, with precision, it interprets, it denounces” (Faúndez, 2002:14).

Kaplan (2013) warns that investigative journalism should not be confused with what has been called “leak journalism”: “Quick-hit scoops gained by the leaking of documents or tips, typically by those in political power” (p.10), and suggests that in countries with emerging democracies the definition might be ambiguous as it might include stories just because they are centered in corruption or provide some analysis.

This is relevant because when teaching the genre, the focus should not be put then on how to get leaks, and should not be limited to developing skills that enable the correct interpretation of events.

There is consensus that there are three elements that distinguish investigative journalism from other genres, such as interpretative journalism or journalism of denounce: it reveals something hidden, it has relevance for the public, and it is a product of the initiative of the journalist (Atwood, 2000). As Santoro (2004) points out, it is “done by the reporter and not the judicial system, the police or individuals with an interest” (p.24-25). This excludes from the genre those stories that merely reproduce information that has been gathered in the investigation of other institutions (Fuentes, 2006). Indeed, one of its constitutive elements is the systematic in-depth investigation done with original reporting (Kaplan, 2013).

The times in which the milestone for reporters was to get closer to the solitary news-hunter, that experienced (typically overworked and badly fed) reporter with a nose for scoops and leaks, is long gone. These are the times of collaboration and methodology, as the Panama Papers project well show. Even looking back at Watergate, which became “a journalistic goal that did not exist before” (Dinges quoted by Scharfenberg, in Cañizales, 2006:60), according to Dinges this was not only due to the consequences of the story or the fame gained by the reporters; but because Woodward and Bernstein “wrote how they covered the story, demonstrating this way that their investigation was successful because it followed a specific method” (quoted in Scharfenberg, 2010:78).

Considering these elements, it is possible to identify the need of teaching students how to find or propose a socially relevant story without expecting to get a leak, how to investigate independently not counting on a deep-throat or depending on external sources, and how to properly manage their own investigation. Thus, they need to be taught a proper method that helps them carry out an original investigative journalism story.

If they are not to depend on external sources, students need to know how to find and use open sources. They need to know about computer-assisted reporting. They need to understand how the State operates, so they can develop a document mindset and know which documents they need to request when using the Freedom of Information Act.

To effectively match this challenge, I created a methodology based on experiential learning, which is mainly practice-based (Tanner et al, 2012). As Kolb & Kolb (2005) define it, it consists in “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p.208).  As it has been said, students learn about investigative journalism by doing it and reflecting on what, how and why they are doing it. Thus, the learning cycle is recursive and has four stages: experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting (Kolb&Kolb, 2005, p.194).

 

The History of a Method

There is little literature on investigative journalism in the Chilean landscape (Lagos, 2013, Fuentes, 2006, Faúndez, 2002). Some scholars consider that the first investigative stories started under the socialist government of president Salvador Allende (1970-1973), and dealt with the nationalization of companies and the social inequalities of the 70s (Guerra, 2014). During Pinochet´s dictatorship (1973-1990), investigative journalism tried to fill the void left by other institutions in the accountability of power and was centered in human rights violations (Jara et al, 2003). It is the case of media such as “APSI”, “Análisis”, “Cauce” and “Fortín Mapocho”, and journalists that published their investigations in books, like Patricia Verdugo´s “Burned alive” (1986) or Mónica González´ “The secrets of Comando Conjunto” (1989).

When Chile returned to democracy in 1990, many of these media that had been publishing investigative stories during the dictatorship disappeared. The two main TV stations in the country, the public broadcaster “TVN” and the private channel “Canal 13,” had programs that produced in-depth stories. Sometimes, they broadcasted consequential investigative pieces.

What is clear is that since the genre started to be produced in the country, investigative journalism was not consistently taught at universities, nor was it systematically produced in the media industry.

It was in 2007 when things started to change. A senior journalist that had reported under the dictatorship, Mónica González, founded the “Center for Investigative Journalism CIPER Chile”, a not for profit online media focused on unearthing corruption and failures in public policies. This is the only online media that systematically does investigative journalism in the country. Five years later, several mainstream media, including national newspapers such as “La Tercera” and “El Mercurio”, started to create small units of investigative journalism within their newsrooms.

In this process, a need was identified: journalists who had graduated from university did not have much knowledge on investigative journalism. In Chile, most working journalists are university-trained. If they wanted to make a difference in the media industry, they would have to gain certain skills that would enable them to pursue independent and socially relevant investigations.

In 2013, an experiment was put into place in the Communications Faculty of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, based in Santiago, the Chilean capital. Focused on educating journalists to become professionals oriented at satisfying the right to information and the strengthening of democracy, the faculty considered that it was of key relevance to address this need. Being a mid-career journalist who had worked as a reporter at the Center of Investigative Journalism, I put together an elective course to teach what I had learned at CIPER. The purpose was to give new generations of reporters the tools that would enable them to do top-notch investigative journalism. Chile´s democracy needed it and the cultural and political context were favorable for such change.

The course was named “Taller de Periodismo Avanzado” (TPA), or Advanced Journalism Workshop, and its objective was that the students could develop their own piece of investigative journalism with emphasis on public policies, involving the State, the economic, political or judicial powers, or the organized crime. This had to be achieved in a time frame of 15 weeks and with no financial resources.

Four students enrolled in the class that was first given the second semester of 2013. Each of them worked on their own stories during the semester, meeting me once a week to get guidance and reflect on their reporting.  Only one of them was able to finish the semester with an article.

To improve my methodology, that year I attended the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and went to every panel on how to educate students on this genre. My attendance to the conference was key to upgrade the course to what it is now. Understanding how to think and report in terms of open sources, how to follow the money across borders, to see people such as Giannina Segnini teach how to report on organized crime, was key for my understanding on how this class had to be organized and the objectives it had to achieve.

Back in Chile, I re-designed the course to put the focus on the use of open sources. To make sure that 15 weeks were enough to finish the investigation, students were paired around one topic. They would have to reveal a failure in public policy, taking as a starting point a Freedom of Information Act request. Chile has the 20.285 law of Access to Public Information and Transparency. This law protects the right that all citizens have to gain access to the information in hands of the administration of the State. This includes governmental bodies, municipalities, public companies, among others. It refers to information in any means of support: paper, audio, video. Importantly, it also includes the information that civil servants take into consideration when ruling or deciding on any public matter. This legal framework has a key relevance in the success of this method.

The law was not written to satisfy journalists’ needs – which is clear in the time frame defined for the civil servants to answer requests: 20 working days plus 10 extra days when the governmental body considers that such time is needed. Still, it is a very effective way of obtaining documents to analyze public policies, and also those that people in power within the state do not want to make public. As the law is from 2009, not many journalists know how to effectively use it, so for me it was key that students could become experts in the tricks and resources that they could use to assure access to such information.

The first semester of 2014, eight students took the class and four investigations were produced. Two of them were published on the website of the university where stories written by undergraduates are exhibited. They all had at its core the analysis of information they had access to by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

The first story published was titled “25 Members of Parliament financed election polls with money from Congress”. The story revealed that over $137 million of Chilean pesos were spent by 25 MPs that since 2012 and until March of 2014, payed for 44 surveys with electoral purposes. The money came from the allocation for external consultancies, although the law that norms these expenses specifically states that these funds are to finance work conducted to support the legislative work. The MPs involved belonged to all political sectors and among them was the chairman of the Ethics Committee of the House of Commons.

The story impacted on the national agenda and it was replicated by “El Mostrador”, a major mainstream online media. It was also published in a book that gathers the best written journalism of the country each year. This was the only piece published in the book that had been reported and written by an undergraduate student. The author also won the award of Excellence in Journalism for the undergraduate level. He is currently working doing investigative journalism for a TV show of the public broadcaster.

The second story published uncovered an unregulated public transportation system that services citizens of 18 municipalities traveling daily to Santiago, on buses with safety issues and coordinated fare increases included in the price of the bus tickets. This research won the national Chile Etecom Contest in the Print Media category. The year after the publication, one of the authors interned at CIPER.

 

Award-Winning Stories and the Method Behind It

TPA methodology is based on the practical experience that students gain in the course. Experiential learning applied to investigative journalism means that the role of the teacher gains a significant importance. As students engage in the production and research of these stories, they need appropriate guidance and editing. It is important that teachers are involved in the media industry and have experience in the genre. Also, the amount of students that a single teacher can guide is restricted, as he or she needs to be on top of every step of the reporting process and on how the topic that is being covered unfolds.

As the interest in the course grew, I had the need of hiring new teachers. By 2015 the course already had 40 students enrolled each semester and it became compulsory. To join me, I chose a mid-career journalist trained at the Center for Investigative Journalism CIPER Chile, and two senior editors in chief that also worked in CIPER. The relevance of sharing common criteria and a similar understanding of what it means to do investigative journalism could not be underestimated.

The semester unfolds with weekly editorial meetings with specific reporting goals, complemented with field trips to the Judicial Archive, the Center of Justice, the Real Estate Records Office; and practical exercises on data bases built with information from the Civil Registry Office, the Security and Exchange Commission, the Stock Market, among others.

Most of them, places where anyone can have access and ask for a specific document: the archetype of an open source. The students learn that if they want to know who owns a house, for example, they can find that information bringing the address to the Real Estate Records Office. If they want to know if a person owns a corporation, they can track it at the Official Bulletin.

To train them on finding independently a story that is worth pursuing an investigation, the students are faced with the challenge of pitching a proposal to key journalists and editors working in the media industry. They get feedback and then reflect on their performance and the quality of their story. Likewise, when they hand in the final version of their story, they are requested to reflect on what they revealed and how they did it, and answer potential questions and requests by an external editor that publishes the stories on the university website.

The students that take the course are in their final semesters of their journalism undergraduate studies and normally they graduate after TPA. These are some of the stories they have produced the last two years:

In 2015, two students investigated and published a story called “Gendarmerie recognizes that prisoners work under illegal conditions in prisons”. It revealed that remunerated employment of prisoners in jail “Colina I” and the Metropolitan Women’s Correctional Center did not meet the requirements dictated by the norm that regulates it. Some of the irregularities were the payment of lower wages than the legal minimum, the absence of contracts and the lack of insurances. Gendarmerie is responsible for ensuring that employers respect the minimum set by law, but in practice that did not occur, as the institution is part and parcel of the conflict. With this story, done at TPA, the authors won the Chile Etecom Contest in the Print Media category and the award of Excellence in Journalism for the undergraduate level. The story was published in the book “The best Journalism of Chile 2015”, and replicated by online mainstream media.

In 2016, we published a TPA story revealing that women with mental disabilities were being sterilized in public hospitals. The students found that in Chile women with Down syndrome, neurological damage and mental disorders are operated to prevent them to have children. Their fallopian tubes are ligated or cut irreversibly, without complying with the minimum requirements that the law sets for this procedure. Irregularities include not to consider the consent of the patient, not to take the case for discussion at the ethics committee of the hospitals, and not to have the recommendation of the National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Mental Illness, an agency under the Ministry of health. The authors of this story won the Chile Etecom Contest in National and Print category and were awarded with an internship in Animal Político, an independent online media from Mexico.

That same year, we published a controversial story that also set agenda. “In 2015 the Army spent more than $1.000 millions reincorporating through invoices former military that were retired.” According to the investigation based on Freedom of Information Act requests, the army reinstated 153 retired military officials in that year, leaving them with double monthly income: the reinstatement salary and the pension, both funded almost entirely by the state. A commission put together to analyze the pension system in the country, established that in Chile the “principle of uniformity of pension rights” is not fulfilled, since there are two pension systems: that of the military, where the state finances 94% of pensions; and that of civilians that are listed through the compulsory private system of pension funds, AFP, which provides lower amounts and does not have any fiscal contribution. This story also won the award of Excellence in Journalism for the undergraduate level and was published in the book “The best Journalism of Chile 2016”.

 

Conclusion

The development of an experiential learning method guided by investigative reporters, with a focus on open sources and the use of Freedom of Information Act, has made the TPA course successful at teaching students how to do investigative journalism stories.

Indeed, all the stories described here match the definition of investigative journalism that was provided in this paper, as they are the result of systematic and independent investigation of a topic of social relevance and they reveal something that was kept hidden or unknown. After the publication of the story regarding inmates’ illegal working conditions, for example, the reaction of Gendarmerie proved that the institution had no interest in making such information public. The institution heavily complained about the story with the Director of the Faculty but could not point to any wrong fact in it. Likewise, the story revealing misuse of Congress funds by parliamentarians was certainly uncomfortable for some of them. One even tried to make the faculty pull down the story from its website. There was nothing inaccurate in the text and every fact was sustained in FOIA request documents, so the attempt was unsuccessful.

The focus on open sources encourages and allows independence in reporters. Knowing and using such sources changes the perspective and possibilities for any media worker and especially for young journalists. At TPA they develop a way of understanding reporting and their relationship with sources. They do not depend on a specific interview or on someone to leak certain information. They know where to find the documents that support their story. They do not aim at doing a journalism of declarations, but of facts that are proven with documents. They also follow a methodology that works as a strategy to find a topic and manage their research. They understand that doing top-notch journalism is not a matter of luck or of having access to a good network of sources. It is the result of hard independent work, developing a document mind-set, being perseverant, critical and creative.

A good example of this achievement is that most of the TPA students who joined newsrooms after their graduation have started filing FOIA requests to pursue stories at media where almost no one had that tool in mind before they started working there. They stand out as they are used to think in terms of public information and which documents are produced in the deliberation process of authorities. Not only they know that when an institution denies information they can appeal at the Council for Transparency. They have already done it themselves.

As a matter of fact, in 2016, a student gained access to documents stating abuses perpetrated by policemen in a shanty town in Santiago. The police wanted to keep them secret and the students appealed to the Council for Transparency. The council instructed the police to make the documents public.

This year, the requests of two former students got to the Court of Appeals. Both were won. One was requesting the documents containing the list of people that the army had hired under a specific type of contract and the amount of money spent in their salaries. The other, requested the reports that the Tax Service had of donations from certain not for profit foundations and corporations.

By knowing how to request such documents and how to persevere in their right to access them, former TPA students might be helping to move the border of what is considered public information in the country, also impacting on the reporting possibilities of all media workers.

This teaching method might be replicable in different contexts with a similar legal framework, especially in countries with a strong Freedom of Information Act and safe access to open sources.

 

References

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Cañizález, A. (2006) Ojos frescos y bien abiertos. Apuntes sobre periodismo de investigación. Caracas: IPYS Venezuela.

Faúndez, J.J. (2002) Periodismo de Investigación en Sudamérica. Obstáculos y propuestas. Publicaciones Forja, Capítulo chileno de Transparencia Internacional.

Fuentes, C. (2006) ¿Es viable el periodismo investigativo? En Cuadernos de Información 19.

Guerra, T. (2014) ¿Cómo investigar y no perderse en el intento? Una guía para la realización de reportajes investigativos basada en el método de Ciper. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

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Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212.

Lagos, C. (2013) Apuntes sobre Periodismo de Investigación en el Cono Sur, en El Estado del Periodismo: Desafíos en el Siglo de la Comunicación. Comunicación y Medios n.28,  Instituto de la Comunicación e Imagen, Universidad de Chile.

Santoro, D. (2004) Técnicas de Investigación: Métodos desarrollados en diarios y revistas de America Latina. 1.a ed. vol. 1. México D.F., Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Scharfenberg, E. (2010) El “Método Dinges” de investigación periodística. En Métodos de la Impertinencia. Mejores prácticas y lecciones del periodismo investigativo en América Latina. Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela (IPYS Venezuela).

Tanner, S., Green, K., & Burns, S. (2012). Experiential learning and journalism education: Special Olympics – A case study. Australian Journalism Review, 34(2), 115-127.

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