Marina Walker has a bright career as an investigative journalist from her beginnings in her native Argentina to her current position as the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, based in Washington, D.C. One of the highlights of her career was leading two of the largest collaborations in investigative journalism as director of strategic initiatives and network of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ): Panama Papers (2016) and Paradise Papers (2017).
How has investigative journalism changed during these years? What is the impact of the new threats to democracy in the world for reporting? I talked to her about these issues after her meeting with the WPI fellows.
How do you think investigative journalism has adapted to new technologies?
New technologies have been very transformative for investigative journalism, especially to help journalists’ processes, like indexation of large amounts of documents. There are many processes that can be automated that 20 years ago or less could only be done manually, and that took a great deal of time.
Another great contribution is the possibility of undertaking what I call “impossible investigations,” which could not have been done without the use of this artificial intelligence. For example, we promoted an investigation to map illegal landing tracks in the Amazon. The only way in such a complex geography and so difficult to penetrate was to use “eyes on the sky.” We taught the computer to recognize how the land looks when these irregular tracks are built. Then the computer searches through a number of satellite images for matching images that may indicate that illegal tracks are there.
What do you think are the risks of the use of artificial intelligence for journalism?
Technology is always at the service of journalism and not the other way around. The processes have to be guided by editorial criteria. Technology is a tool, and many times it is imperfect. These new technologies complement the traditional work of investigative journalism, which requires meticulous checking, interviews and field reporting. But they never replace the reporter.
The other risk is not being transparent with the process when we publish a story. It is important to explain to the reader in simple words why we are using this technology, how the algorithm works, what are the limitations of the model and what we learned along the path.
What are the lessons you have learned about storytelling and long investigations?
Sometimes we have long stories with all the bells and whistles, but we fail to explain to people in a simple way how that story affects them in a particular way. In the case of the Panama Papers, we realized that the stories we had been publishing about the offshore system were failing because they were too dense. So the game changer was to invest in an animated video focused on the victims of the offshore world. The best way to be visible is to be relevant and in touch with the needs of the audience.
Another important aspect is connecting the stories with brands or people that are familiar to our audience. For example, on the issue of the Amazon, we followed the supply chains, from the moment the trees are cut for the cattle and how those cows are used to create different products, which are then exported. So it is one thing to read “they cut down more trees in the Amazon” and another is to read that your Starbucks coffee or the leather of your Tesla comes directly from that cattle in the Amazon.
How do you think the rise of autocracy in the world impacts investigative journalism? Does it encourage it or discourage it?
Authoritarian tendencies are on the rise in many regions and that threatens investigative journalism because our mission is to make power uncomfortable, and what autocratic regimes want is for there to be no disruption of the status quo.
But on the other hand, in my opinion, investigative journalism has never been stronger than in the midst of all these challenges, and that is thanks to a process of democratization. Thanks to technology and collaboration, we have been able to redefine who is an investigative journalist, and that role that was previously assigned to a very select group of people has expanded. Authoritarian regimes did not count on the cunning of journalists to reinvent the profession, to leave behind the obsolete models of the journalist working in isolation, and redefined themselves as part of something bigger, recognizing that information crosses borders. In the past, stories could be stopped and journalists could be killed. That still happens, but it is much more difficult today to censor stories completely, because journalists are working together and they protect each other.