Latin America and the Future of Investigative Journalism

Safae Daoudi, Staff Reporter

(Photo/ Omidyar Network)

Investigative journalism would not be possible in Latin America without foreign aid, said Jairo Lugo-Ocando, professor at Northwestern University in Qatar and a former journalist in Latin America, in a virtual panel held on Tuesday. 

The panel was organized as part of the Latinx Digital Media virtual seminar series and discussed Twitter use, authorial control, and agenda setting in Latin America’s nonprofit investigative journalism organizations. 

The event was moderated by Pablo Bockowski, a professor in the Department of Communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, and Valerie Gruest, a doctoral student at Northwestern’s Media, Technology and Society (MTS) program and an affiliate at the center of Latinx Digital Media. 

Lugo-Ocando began by highlighting that foreign aid has not only opened new opportunities for journalism in the “global south,” but it has also imposed new challenges and posed new questions about agenda setting.

His book “Foreign Aid and Journalism in the Global South,” which is based on research he did with Jose Luis Requejo-Aleman, professor at the University Carlos III of Madrid, takes a closer look at the transformation of journalism as a political institution in Latin America. 

Lugo-Ocando explained the factors that have made Latin American nonprofit organizations dependent on foreign aid. “Digital native-based investigative journalism is part of the new media landscape in the region and as such, they confront a series of challenges that define and shape the way they operate,” he said.  

He cited among those challenges the increasing process of depoliticization, the technological revolution that provoked a fragmentation of media users, the decline in the consumption of news as well as the weakness of new media brands and their lack of standardization. 

“In the light of these factors, these organizations struggle to sustain themselves financially and they depend on foreign aid. In fact that foreign aid is fundamental to them,” he added.

Lugo-Ocando also said that people tend to assume that since digital native-based investigative journalism relies so heavily on foreign funding, these organizations are subject to interference from foreign governments and don’t have control over their narratives. 

He clarified how this is an inaccurate assumption and gave examples of the Panama Papers and the Lava Jato leaks to explain his point.

“When the Pulitzer Prize was awarded, a huge proportion of the organizations that worked on the Panama Papers case were Latin American digital native organizations. Without foreign aid, the Panama Papers probably would not have happened…According to our research, some people who were exposed in the Panama papers were donors of these organizations.” 

 Lugo-Ocando also traced the transition of media from traditional to digital based in Latin America because of the fast growth of internet usage. 

“Social media has been key for these organizations for influencing the news agenda in their own countries,” he said. Many media organizations transferred their efforts from Facebook to Twitter and Instagram and as a result, experienced a rise in social media penetration and influence. 

“Twitter has been more effective. It is shorter and because of its political nature, it works better with the nature of journalism and the imperativeness of crafting attracting headlines,” added Lugo-Ocando. 

During the panel, an attendee asked about distrust in mainstream media and the credibility crisis that news organizations have faced in Latin America. 

“If the U.S. had the media Latin America has, it will be better prepared to face Trump,” Lugo-Ocando replied in a humorous tone. 

“The news media in Latin America has always had a problem with credibility. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have influence,” he added. 

He explained that the reason why digital media is competing against traditional media is not because they have more credibility, but rather because they are producing different stories and presenting a different agenda. 

Lugo-Ocando stressed that it is important to talk about the issue of penetration and visibility of digital media in Latin America. “The case of digital media in Latin America informs us about the future of journalism,” he said. 

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