Doug Haddix is executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a training forum which — with some 6,000 members — represents one of the largest journalism organizations in the United States. Yet Haddix says the reporting climate in the U.S. has become so fraught with hostility and disinformation that his goal at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference is to learn how reporters from autocratic countries have adapted. Here are excerpts from his conversation with Rowan Philp.
What is your chief concern about the investigative journalism industry?
We have a lot more concern for the personal, physical safety of journalists. More journalists have received death threats in this very volatile climate we’re now in. We at IRE are also working on helping reporters with their digital safety. Our members are learning how to not leave digital fingerprints or footprints where possible. Even physically — we’ve brought in experts at our conferences to talk about how to be more careful, and not use your regular phone to set up an interview; using WhatsApp or Signal, and encrypted messaging systems to set up meetings with a confidential source.
After the Capital Gazette shootings in Maryland [last year], that really brought home the question of newsroom safety, and newsrooms are now looking at that in a way they hadn’t since shortly after 9/11.
And we’re in troubling times for the press in the U.S. Here [at #GIJC19], I’m looking forward to learning from journalists from other countries who have dealt with autocratic governments for a very long time.
How has the global push for privacy protections affected how reporters search online?
It is a balancing act, because, as a human, I understand the need for reasonable privacy. But as a journalist, you need certain information to be available, especially for verification, and you need to use these tools that have privacy ramifications.
Many of our [members] are very concerned about the recent Facebook changes. It’s impacted how people find sources. Facebook added a very long code to their searching [function] this summer for privacy reasons. Graph Search was set up in a way that you could search for people who posted images about a particular topic in a particular place — or people who were born in Chile and who now live in Ohio — and that flexibility has been deliberately removed by the company.
At least in the U.S. you still have public documents, and information that people have willingly shared, and more access to information than in many countries.
We still talk about using Deep Web research; reverse image searches are really powerful for verification; Tineye remains a great tool. There are so many cool internet search tools that can help you think creatively about searches, and not be duped.
Is IRE launching any new training initiatives?
Leading into next year in particular, with the U.S. elections, we’re looking to add training on detecting [digital] fakes and deepfakes, and more analysis of social media in terms of how things are spreading connected to political campaigns.
Our national conference in June will be in Washington D.C., and our March conference on data journalism will be in New Orleans, so we’re scouting out people who can help us on the digital fakes track.
The impact track of the most successful investigative stories is no longer easy to predict. What is the core impact challenge that editors face in today’s landscape?
Through social media, the impact of investigative stories can potentially spread wider and deeper. But the challenge is that the news cycle is so crazy right now that, seemingly, every half hour there is a new big story, and it’s hard to keep people focused on one investigation.
For instance, [last year] the New York Times did a massive investigation of the Trump family business practices. It was an amazing investigation. The narrative Donald Trump had created was that he was this brilliant businessman who took a small amount from his father and turned it into billions. The Times documented how this just wasn’t true. Ten years ago, that would have been the lead story for weeks. But it had a shorter lifespan, because within days there was some new crazy story that people were chasing.
It’s partly a firehose of just information and nonsense.
What is IRE’s next major project?
We’ve just announced our IRE on Campus program. We’re going to help professors learn how to use data and data tools, so they can teach the next generation those tools, with a special focus on some underserved universities. We’re focusing on historically black colleges and Hispanic population-serving colleges, and we’ll do week-long data boot camps. We’re terrifically excited about this project.
Meanwhile, we have thousands of tip sheets on our website that are searchable by topic, by journalist, by subject matter. We try to make it so that it’s customized to what you need now, not something that’s generic. IRE is set up so that journalists can help one another.
Rowan Philp was chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times for a decade; a period bookended by fellowships at the Washington Post and MIT. Rowan has reported from 27 countries, and his 2014 investigative report revealing Russia’s secret effort to sell 8 nuclear reactors to the South African government for some $70 billion was credited for a role in the scrapping of that deal last year. He is a regular contributor to GIJN.