Anya Schiffrin is the director of the technology, media, and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a member of the advisory council of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). Earlier this year, at an NRGI event in Accra, Ghana, Schiffrin sat down with NRGI’s communications director, Lee Bailey, to share her opinions on cross-border investigative journalism, big data and the changing profile of women who cover natural resources.
NRGI: What are some of the key developments you’ve observed when it comes to media coverage of oil, gas and mining, particularly in resource-rich countries?
Anya Schiffrin: It’s so important that groups like NRGI are thinking from start to finish about what it takes to create good journalism, and the enabling environment, and all those questions that have come up about institutions versus individuals, follow-though and investigative work. Since we first started looking at this subject—how to train and do media development on extractives—there’ve been a few big developments that have been very exciting. Cross-border journalism that brings together journalists in different countries (for example the “Fatal Extraction” series by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or the same group’s work on the Panama Papers) is a kind of collaboration that didn’t take place 10 years ago. Cross-border reporting has a huge potential to really help journalists that write about oil, gas and mining.
NRGI: So is cross-border journalism a new force for change?
AS: I think I was too optimistic about the effects that digital technology would have on reporting on the extractives. I thought that it would make it so much easier to collaborate and for journalists to get information about what is happening around the world. I envisioned African reporters finding out more quickly what big companies are doing in Europe and I thought non-governmental organizations in the Global South would be able to get the word out about local abuses.
In fact, social media, big data, digital technology are not yet having the major effect on extractives journalism that I expected. All of the old problems are still there—such as the lack of funding to do investigative work; the soft pressures from government and advertisers; the hard pressures including the prosecution of and attacks on investigative reporting; the fact that oil, gas and mining are such complicated, technical subjects in which journalists don’t have expertise, and when they get expertise they end up leaving the newsroom. So those are some of the reasons that we have not seen the dramatic improvements in extractive sector journalism I had hoped for.
On the other hand, financial problems are making media outlets more willing to try new things, including accepting money from donors and doing cross-border journalism with other outlets they may once have viewed as competitors. Lots of legacy media houses are more open to these kinds of arrangements than they used to be. In the U.S. in the 1970s, as media outlets started to get more desperate they started to do things that they didn’t do before, like TV stations sharing film footage, or joint printing arrangements.
ICIJ has been encouraging collaboration for a while. Even before the Panama Papers there was LuxLeaks, Fatal Extraction, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project as well, with Paul Radu, SCOOP. Not only are journalists covering these complicated stories across borders—Paul Radu is fond of saying, “Crime doesn’t stop at borders, why should journalism or law enforcement?” But that experience of partnering is also extremely helpful and does develop skills where they are in deficit—learning by doing.
The digitization of media has also been important for the dissemination of news in Africa. Sahara Reporters, the Daily Maverick, Angelo Izama, Maka Angola—for them, going online or going mobile has been very important in terms of building a new audience and putting an alternative voice out there. As I said, we’re yet to see many “big data” investigations coming out of African media outlets on their own, but there is definitely potential there, and the training that NRGI is doing with African journalists is a move in the right direction.
NRGI: In most countries and contexts at some point in history the participation of women in journalism has been a challenge. Is there anything unique about the current challenge faced by female journalists in developing countries?
AS: There are some women doing great journalism here in Africa. Khadija Sharife and Mae Azango come to mind immediately. But I think one of the main things about women in journalism is to never assume that the situation will get better. Never think, “Oh, in ten years it’ll be fine; we’ve got more women starting now, and the world is a more equal place.” Because that doesn’t actually really come true. I remember when I worked at Dow Jones I gathered data on salary inequality about 25 years ago; my editors said it was just a matter of time before women worked their way up and would earn the same as men. But that wasn’t true because many women left. So, inequality in newsrooms is not something that gets fixed on its own, because the problem is at all levels. It’s not just the hiring but it’s also retention and promotion. Newsrooms or organizations that want to have more women involved really need to make an effort at all levels. It’s really about hiring women, making sure you keep women, giving them good assignments, and ensuring they’re included. I would say that is also true of affirmative action and promoting diversity generally—not just women. The effort must be sustained over many years.
Language and hiring and grooming and training are all really important when it comes to being inclusive in the workplace. Newsrooms are often very male—in business journalism even more so. And some sectors are even more macho, like oil and gas. OPEC meetings used to be a bunch of male reporters in leather jackets. But it’s changing.