Knight Center survey shows interest for investigative journalism in Latin America but lack of training in the field

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  • December 19, 2013

By Magdalena Saldaña*

Despite Latin American journalists' high interest in investigative journalism, there is a shortage of strong university-level programs to teach these skills and professional journalists consider that they do not have the resources in their newsrooms to conduct in-depth investigations, according to a recent survey conducted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The survey was sent to 9,900 journalists, journalism professors and students in 20 countries across Latin America who receive the Knight Center's newsletter or have participated in one of our courses or activities. The goal was to study both the state of investigative journalism in the continent and the investigative reporting skills that are being taught in journalism and communication programs across the region.

Seventy-two percent of the almost 1,600 respondents said they participate in investigative projects regularly or sporadically; however, only 27 percent works in media outlets that have a dedicated investigative journalism team. Regarding their perceptions about investigative journalism, 73 percent thought that investigative journalism is practiced in their countries, but only 43 percent believed that media outlets were interested in doing this kind of journalism.

Asked about journalism education, respondents graded investigative journalism programs in their countries with an average of 3.8 in a 1-through-7 scale, even though the grade was slightly higher among participants who were professors (4.3 average). The lack of professional training and the lack of resources in the newsroom were listed as the biggest challenges facing investigative journalism in the continent.

Investigative journalism in the media

Ninety-five percent of journalists said investigative journalism boosts media outlets' reputations; nevertheless, it seems like publications are unwilling to provide more professional training in this area. The vast majority of organizations do not have an investigative journalism unit, and only 15 percent of journalists said that their media outlet's stylebook listed investigative journalism guidelines (50 percent of journalists said that their publications do not have a stylebook of their own).

These numbers reveal that those journalists who practice investigative journalism are doing so in precarious conditions. Professional training in this branch of journalism is minimal and mainly based on what journalists have learned on their own and/or from observing their colleagues. Only 27 percent has participated in some kind of investigative journalism course at one time or another, and less than a third of them learned investigative techniques during their undergraduate education.

The percentages differed at media outlets with specialized investigative teams. More than half of those who work in such teams said their publications have won at least one award for their investigations, and their teams tend to be multidisciplinary as they are composed by other professionals that work with journalists during their investigations. In general, these teams are composed by two to four persons who work in more than one investigative project simultaneously.

Among the resources that journalists used the most when working in investigative projects, respondents mentioned documents received from sources and/or informants, websites and public documents obtained through legal mechanisms. Beyond regular reporting skills, journalists mentioned the access to downloadable data among the techniques they most used in investigative journalism, while the ones they used the least were mathematical data analysis techniques.

Investigative journalism in the classroom

Sixty-four percent of respondents thought that investigative journalism should be considered a separate type of journalism genre. The percentage was lower among journalism professors (58 percent).

Practically all professors said that their universities teach investigative journalism skills to their students, either through obligatory courses (42 percent), optional classes (8 percent) or as part of other assignments (43 percent). Most colleges invite renowned investigative journalists to give conferences or special classes to students; however, only 9 percent of professors said that their universities offer some kind of specialization program in investigative journalism.

Meanwhile, students said it was "very important" to learn investigative journalism skills, and 66 percent said that their university teaches investigative journalism as part of their programs.

Ethical conflicts

The survey also asked participants about their opinions regarding a series of practices that can be considered unethical in journalistic investigations. Comparing the responses of journalists, professors and students, most differences emerged regarding their opinions on the use of microphones and hidden cameras, pretending to be another person and revealing a source's identity.

Even though, in average, most respondents said that these practices are inexcusable, students were more inclined to justify some of these strategies. For example, 16 percent of students thought that using microphones or hidden cameras is always a justifiable practice, compared to 9 percent of journalists and 4 percent of professors who answered the same question. Ten percent of students justified pretending to be another person to obtain information; 6 percent of journalists and 2.9% of professors agreed. Finally, only 1.6 percent of journalists and 1.8 percent of professors justified revealing the identity of a source, compared to 4.4 percent of students who agreed.

The emergence of social networks

According to the journalists who responded to the survey, social media are useful for investigations, specially for learning more about what people are talking about. Most of them said they are free to decide whether to use or publish information found in social media without consulting with their editors first, and only 28 percent said that their publication had policies regarding the use of social networks. This finding reveals that, even though most people in the field use social media, few organizations have created guidelines regarding these tools.

This survey was conducted by a team of investigators from the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas composed by Rosental Alves (lead investigator, University of Texas at Austin), Amy Schmitz Weiss (San Diego State University), Vanessa Higgins Joyce (Texas State University-San Marcos) and Magdalena Saldaña Villa (University of Texas at Austin).

Research Details

Journalists and journalism professors and students from Latin America associated to the Knight Center (newsletter subscribers, participants from courses and other activities).

Data-gathering method:
Online survey in Spanish and Portuguese sent through email between Sept. 26 and Oct. 10, 2013.

Number of participants:
Journalists (1,146); professors (277); students (163). Total: 1,586.

Number of participants by country of origin:

Brazil 383 Costa Rica 54 Honduras


Mexico 365 Ecuador 50 Dominican Rep.


Argentina 173 Guatemala 40 Uruguay


Colombia 162 Bolivia 32 Panama


Peru 133 El Salvador 21 Cuba


Venezuela 125 Nicaragua 21 Puerto Rico


Chile 115 Paraguay 17    

* Magdalena Saldaña is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.