‘Hard to say who’s a journalist now’

By Cristina DC Pastor; TF photo

Sheila Coronel is director of the Columbia University Graduate School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

TF: I’m sure there’s a lot, but can you discuss just one notable project of the Stabile Center.
SC: One of the stories that started out as a school project won the Polk Award. It’s an investigation that started out as a sports story on steroid abuse. It turned out eventually to be a story on steroid abuse by New Jersey policemen and firefighters, and how members of the NJ police and firefighters were acquiring, using these steroids provided by this pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. It came out in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The student did it as a master’s project, she pitched it to the Star-Ledger, and she was offered a job right there and then, given a one-year contract to continue working on the story.

TF: Were there charges filed, was anyone fired?
SC: I don’t know, but the reaction was immense. The New Jersey police force and fire department started an investigation, the State Assembly had an investigation, and measures have been taken to make sure that that doesn’t happen anymore. It didn’t turn out to be a sports story in the end.

TF: Have you done any digging up in New York?
SC: There’s one in Albany, an investigation on the New York State Assembly. It was a case of just looking at public records to see who had criminal records, court cases and so on. They found out that one of every four members of the State Assembly then – this was five years ago – had been convicted or charged for anything from drunken driving to corruption to stalking.

TF: How is watchdogging in the U.S. different from how it’s done back home?
SC: In the U.S. there is more access to public records. There is also Freedom of Information law. One of the first things we teach the students is how to use the FOIA. All of them have to do a FOIA request and see how far they’ll go. They’re not always successful, but it’s part of the tool kit of techniques that we teach: how do you get public records, look at database, etc. In the U.S., a lot of the information is also online, like corporate records.
In the Philippines, you have to line up at the Securities and Exchange Commission at 7 in the morning, and you can only get three corporate documents in a day. And you have to wait several hours. So when we were doing our investigation on Joseph Estrada who had 66 companies…We were able to do it, but there was tremendous investment on time. In the U.S., you can do that without leaving your desk.

Sheila assists a Columbia student with his project.

TF: What kinds of students are enrolled in the center?
SC: We have a range of students – right now I have 16 — fresh out of college students, students who’ve had a few years of reporting, students in their 40s and have done something else other than journalism. I had an accountant and a policeman, three or four lawyers have been through the program, people who work for NGOs. Some of them have done some investigative work like the lawyers, others think this is an exciting kind of journalism, others feel like investigative reporting will help them become better journalists.

TF: Is there a future for investigative journalism in a media environment of 140-character Tweets?
SC: There will always be room for investigative reporting. It has taken different forms now. Because of the Internet, a lot of people are now doing multimedia investigation, putting a lot of emphasis on databases. It’s large amounts of data, processing them and making them accessible to people.

TF: Is that similar to what WikiLeaks does?
SC: WikiLeaks, strictly speaking, is not investigative reporting. They make available a lot of documents to the public and let the public decide. It’s hard to say who’s a journalist now, but WikiLeaks is a form of making information public. (Julian) Assange claims that he is a journalist. I don’t want to get caught in that definition. The question of who is a journalist is evolving very fast. I don’t think it’s a useful debate to have. The whole WikiLeaks thing shows you need journalists to make sense of, say, 250,000 State Department cables. We see a lot of document dumps, but we need the stories that contextualize, organize, analyze the information, and tell you why it’s important, and that’s what a professional journalist can contribute.

TF: With a lot of newspapers closing down, are there fewer outlets for investigative reporting?
SC: There are many more websites now that publish investigative reporting. I’m a member of a group called the Investigative News Network, and right now it has over 40 members.
Many of them are local. There’s the Voice of San Diego, for example. The community lost their newspaper so the Voice is sort of the community paper there. They do a lot of day-to-day reporting, but they do a lot of watchdog reporting also. There’s the St. Louis Beacon. There’s still a newspaper in St. Louis, but I don’t see it as competitive, more like supplementary. Of course, they will never get as many page views as celebrity websites, but that’s the way it has always been. Mother Jones could never compete with People magazine.

TF: Shouldn’t there be a minimum requirement?
SC: I sit on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Our position is: We don’t have to define what a journalist is. Defining it in an era where the boundaries are becoming porous is a useless exercise. You know a journalist if you see one.
Even in the Philippines before the days of the Internet, we had a problem defining a journalist. A radio commentator, who buys block time but is actually the PR of a politician, is shot. Is he a journalist? Our default there is, if he is killed because of his commentary no matter if he is a mercenary journalist, he is still a journalist. What I’m saying is the Internet did not invent this problem.

TF: What are your thoughts on bloggers Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown now leading media empires?
SC: I think it’s great! We’re seeing a period of creative destruction, where a lot of the old institutions are dying and new ones are taking their place. Historically, we’ve been through these upheavals before, and they didn’t really end in the death of public service journalism. I see it as a very exciting period, and Arianna and Tina Brown are sort of experimenting in that space, a space that’s traditionally been dominated by men.

Before joining Stabile, Sheila Coronel was executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, acknowledged as a model for independent media organizations. Its series showing a paper trail of corruption by Joseph Estrada was the push that led to his resignation – the first by a Philippine president.

Cristina DC Pastor is the founding editor of The FilAm.


  1. Rodney Diola wrote:

    Wonderful piece…

  2. Dulce Castillo Morales wrote:

    A very good read, indeed! Nice one, Crien.

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  4. jocuri de gatit wrote:

    Dude, I wish I could write articles half as good as you. Your posts are always so well written.

  5. […] journalist Sheila Coronel will become dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia Journalism School on July 1, […]

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