Q&A: Colombian journalist Carlos Huertas discusses developing transnational journalism as a Harvard Nieman fellow

Colombian journalist Carlos Eduardo Huertas is the investigations editor for the political magazine Semana and the founder of the Newsroom Council, which promotes investigative journalism. In his career as a journalist Huertas has specialized in themes like corruption, human rights and the environment. He has also been involved in many of the magazine's award-winning projects, including the King of Spain in 2008, the Press and Society Institute's Best Corruption Investigative journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean award, and Transparency International's award for investigating the connections between paramilitaries and Colombian politicians.

Huertas won a Nieman fellowship to study at Harvard University for one year, which he has dedicated to planning the creation of a Latin American center for transnational journalism.

As the deadline approaches for the next round of Harvard University's Nieman fellowships and other scholarships, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with Huertas about his experience and his idea of transnational journalism.

Knight Center: How did you come up with the idea of transnational journalism?

Carlos Huertas: My work focuses on corruption but the umbrella extends to cover other topics like the management of public funds, the environment and money laundering. Two reflections came out of my work: there are stories that seem local but after digging into them they always have transnational connections, and; the question is, if the journalist had covered these topics from a local perspective along with national and international information from the beginning, surely there would have been major breakthroughs, a more efficient use of time and a more complete report.

KC: Can you talk about one of these journalism projects?

CH: In this regard, serendipity plays a part. Participating in journalist networks in the region led to fortuitous events that have improved the end product. A couple years ago, the Newsroom Council of Colombia proposed examining a common topic in several countries with journalists from 11 countries. The final product was a report on carbon emissions trading produced by Giannina Segnini, editor of investigative journalism for the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación. It was a pilot project for investigative journalism.

KC: While some advocate for hyper-local journalism, you’re proposing transnational journalism. How can both styles coexist?

CH: Many of the structural topics in our countries go beyond the local. Jaime Bello, of the New Ibero-American Journalism Foundation, very successfully used the term, “translocal.” It’s one of the challenges. According to several studies, communities are more interested in hyper-local subjects but these subjects extend beyond borders. The challenge is to bring them together. This is why it’s important to define the journalistic agenda.

KC: What methodology do you use to conduct investigations that transcend borders?

CH: The first thing is to make sure the local players have an active role. The first error would be to try and implement an outside agenda; there have to be common themes. Look for themes that are important for two or more countries. Second, engage local players because they’re the ones that know the game in each context. Third, is to work horizontally with a team and not vertically, with one person in charge of the project.

KC: So, the result is several reports?

CH: Of course, it’s never the same. The production of transnational themes has to be flexible and adjust to each local context. There are different themes, like the arms trade or Mercosur, that wouldn’t be complete without a transnational angle. If there were only a local component, there would have been a scandal but with a transnational component it can generate wider reflection on changes in society.

KC: Besides a common language, what other advantages does Latin America have to practice this type of transnational journalism?

CH: We have several advantages. The language without a doubt, with the exception of Brazil. We also have similar culture and traditions, fewer cultural barriers. Furthermore, many countries right now share similar institutions and needs. This elevates the work beyond just investigation into a better picture of what’s happening in the region.

KC: Did the interview with Wikileaks found Julian Assange inspire you to think about transnational journalism?

CH: The experience working with Wikileaks was more interesting in understanding how a good idea can move forward, involving the interests of various stakeholders. There was a moment when practically all the major newsrooms were working alongside Wikileaks with a common goal. This shows it’s possible; it was the learning moment. However, the media have not been working together. What was amazing about Wikileaks in relation to the media was there ability to inject information into the mainstream media without spending a dime. The relationship was built on confidence and cooperation.

KC: What was the result of your work with the Global Investigative Journalism Conference?

CH: There were two interesting things about the conference. First was the importance of finding new business models and second, the importance of networking at similar events to develop and explore project ideas. At an event like this, it’s possible to meet as many people as one might in a year in the span of a week. The next global conference will be in Brazil, organized by Abraji. The conference will pay special attention to Latin America focusing of valuable topics that affect the region.

KC: Do you believe that this type of transnational journalism could help project reporters from threats from organized crime or corrupt governments in Latin America?

CH: Yes, this is a way to promote the flow of information without the limitations that some of the region’s democracies experience. In Colombia it was fundamental. When many of the regions had trouble what was happening locally, the media in the capital, Bogotá, could operate without those limitations. By reporting local stories we can paint a more detailed picture of what’s happening in the country. The most important thing was that the information got out to the wider society.

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