ON THE 25th anniversary of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Sheila Coronel, PCIJ founding Executive Director and Dean of Academic Affairs of Columbia University in New York, delivered a lecture on Doing Watchdog Journalism in the 21st Century.
This is a recording of Coronel’s lecture, held at 6:30 p.m. at the Sulo Hotel in Quezon City on June 20, 2014.
The following text is a live blog of Coronel’s lecture:
Sheila Coronel began by saying that the PCIJ is one of only two non-profit investigative centers that were set up in 1989, and the first in Asia, as well as the first in the developing world. Certainly, Coronel said, it was clear that the PCIJ is one of the few investigative journalism centers run by women.
Coronel recalled how the nine founders of the PCIJ contributed one thousand pesos each, a huge amount already in 1989, in order to set up the PCIJ. With that pooled money, the nine journalists bought second-hand typewriters and tables to use in a borrowed room of a sympathetic international media organization.
1989, Coronel recalls, was a tumultuous time, a time of coup attempts and revolutions. Yet paradoxically, it was also a good time for journalism. She said it was the time to open governments to scrutiny.
The PCIJ, Coronel said, is really a child of revolution; it would never have existed had the EDSA revolution not happened.
“The Constitution and the laws enabled us to hold those in power to account,” she said. In fact, Coronel recalls always having a copy of the Constitution in her drawer for quick and ready reference. The rules were new, and were worth being explored by journalists, she said.
However, Coronel said that if EDSA was a political revolution, we are now in the midst of what she called a technological revolution that threatens to change much of what journalists take for granted.
Coronel said this technological revolution is “redefining what journalism is, who is the journalist, what the story is, how it can be told, and how information can be disseminated.”
She said new media has radically stripped big media brands all over the world of the powers and money that they used to have.
“Our competition is now the audience. Everyone is now a journalist,” she said. “Everyone is now doing this.” This was seen during Typhoon Yolanda, when storm chasers beat mainstream media in uploading footage of the devastation, and in Syria, where much of the footage used by news organizations are actually shot by citizen journalists.
“Social media are now the primary breakers of breaking news,” she added.
With that context, Coronel asked the question: How would we investigate Joseph Estrada today?
Coronel recalled that the PCIJ investigation into Estrada’s wealth revealed he had 17 properties worth more than two billion pesos. But these days, as shown by the Janet Napoles pork barrel scandal, it is much easier to check on the lifestyles of certain people, mainly because some people cannot help but post their lifestyles on social media.
During the Estrada investigation, for example, Coronel said that PCIJ staffers had to do stake-outs, and physically trace license plate numbers. When the PCIJ tried to take a photo of a P200 million Estrada mansion in Wack-Wack, they had to take the photo of the roof of the mansion from the EDSA MRT station.
“With Estrada, we couldn’t go near because the fences were so high,” Coronel said. “But now we can use Google Earth.” Burmese activists were able to expose the magnificent palace of one Burmese general because of Google Earth, she said.
However Coronel noted that journalists must not think that internet research is the be-all and end-all of modern reportage. In the end, an investigative journalist still has to look for hard data to verify what he learned from, for example, the internet or social media.
“The Net is not a substitute for hardcore reporting,” she said. It is just a tool that enables journalists to do their investigation with less time and resources.
Coronel also noted the paradoxes that continue to afflict today’s journalists and citizens. In her younger days, she recalled that they only had three newspapers and three television stations. Now, the choices are infinite in cable TV alone. However, she says this has not necessarily translated to “greater understanding.”
“There is a gap in sense-making,” she said. The challenge, she says, is to publish data that matters to people, or data they can act on.
Yet another paradox: Coronel notes how, despite the technological advances, global press freedom has been regressing over the past few years. “The Press Freedom Indices since 2012 have been regressing, showing a narrowing of the democratic space.”
“Despite the pluralism of the internet, there has been increased concentration of media ownership globally,” she added.