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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

War Logs and Asbestos: Outsourcing Investigative Reporting

The recent revelations about the conduct of the war in the Wikileaks' Afghan War Logs is stunning in its scope. The reports (simultaneously published  in three media outlets - the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel) show how the nine year old conflict has been botched.

In more than 90,000 documents, Wikileaks gives a detailed look at how a lack of knowledge of the region and its people, an over-reliance on high-tech weaponry and a lack of clear policy direction have led us to this point.

The reports have been greeted with much defensiveness: the American government says things are going much better now that the Obama administration has taken control. Some inside the administration and in Congress are dismissing Wikileaks as the dubious efforts of a somewhat mysterious anti-war blogger, Julian Assange. He calls it the most comprehensive history of a war ever to be published, during the course of the war and compares the release of the war logs with the release of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s.

Wikileaks was clever about how this story broke: instead of just dumping the documents on its website,  where it could easily be ignored, Assange worked with three legacy media organizations. They in turn, used their editorial expertise to make sense of it all.

This is precisely how new media and old media will work in the future.

Some legacy media organizations and their editorial writers are quick to say that they reported all this before, They just haven't done it in one large data dump as Wikileaks has so thoughtfully provided. "Nothing to see here folks. Move along about your business..."

I sense an editorial touchiness here. Whenever a media organization is scooped (and they've been scooped massively in this case) there is an instinct to dismiss the story as "old news." Years of cutbacks and layoffs have reduced legacy media to the point where they no longer have the editorial resources to handle a story like this.

Recently the Center for Public Integrity based in Washington, DC combined with the BBC  to release an excellent investigative series called "Danger in the Dust" on Canada's role in aggressively selling asbestos from Quebec through the developing world. This, despite conclusive scientific evidence that asbestos (now marketed as "chrysotile") is highly carcinogenic and as such, is banned in Canada.

CPI is one of the few places still raising money and doing investigative reporting. To borrow a phrase, "they're doing the reporting so you (the mainstream media) don't have to."

It's the way journalism is heading, so kudos to CPI and the BBC.
No mainstream media organization in Canada, as far I know, has picked up on this story, except for the website of CBC News.

The CBC, to its credit, has done a number of stories in the past on how Ottawa, the province of Quebec and Quebec trade unions have lobbied hard to keep the asbestos industry alive. The last major exploration of this issue was on CBC Radio more than two years ago. If ever there was a story for public broadcasting to go after now, this is it. Editors are probably anxious not to be seen as "following" the BBC on this one. They shouldn't be.

I sense the well-known defensive crouch in Canadian and US newsrooms is back.  Pity.  Editors and managers will just have to get used to being scooped, as long as their bosses keep believing that investigative reporting is too expensive and only of marginal interest to their audiences.

1 comment:

  1. Kudos on the excellent reflection about the synergies between New and Traditional Media. If mainstream media gets over its fear, loathing of, and scepticism over, new mediatic ventures...all consumers of news and information will be better serviced.