Investigative Journalism Goes Online in Germany

November 28, 2014 • Specialist Journalism • by

Germany’s first non-profit, investigative website has been launched in Berlin and Essen, inspired by similar prominent sites in the United States, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Center for Public Integrity. These aim to uncover and research stories in the public interest, which are then given to media ‘partners’ to publish.

Correctiv, which launched earlier this year, publishes in-depth data-driven investigations for both English and German speaking audiences. Each report, such as one released last week about Germans dying from superbug pathogens as a result of antibiotics and poor hospital hygiene, comes complete with a multimedia graphic localizing the story. Some stories are multinational: a report on bond fraud was produced in part by the website’s two Italian based reporters who solely cover the mafia and organized crime.

Under the conditions of its German non-profit status, the multimedia-savvy start-up must also be educational. Fulfilling its mission, it offers its members data training sessions in cities across Germany, including Berlin. It is also launching a two-month investigative data-journalism fellowship for reporters throughout Europe to work in Correctiv’s newsroom.

“Investigative journalists are just citizens with a bit of training,” said Daniel Drepper, co-founder and senior reporter who was inspired to start the website after a year spent in New York receiving a master’s degree from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. “The more citizens using this information, the better it will be for freedom of information.”

A US Model

Unlike many other German media endeavours, Correctiv currently has a financial safety net: the Essen-based Brost Foundation has fully funded the organization with one million euros a year for its first three years.

Some would say that it’s a similar funding situation to the US’s successful ProPublica, which also had a guaranteed source of funding for its first few years. That allowed the website to make a strong start after its launch in 2007, says Sheila Coronel, head of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia.

It produced in-depth investigations and won a Pulitzer prize. It then used its initial funding to tap into other funding sources, she said.

When developing Correctiv, ProPublica “was a model”, particularly in how it works with other media outlets to publish its stories, founder David Schraven previously told the European Journalism Observatory’s German website.

As with most US investigative nonprofits, anyone can re-publish Correctiv’s stories for free, provided they are not altered and that they  credit Correctiv. This policy is explained in a “Steal our Story” function on the website. The website even features an encrypted upload for readers to surreptitiously submit their story tips.

Investigative Reporting in Germany v the US

It can be more challenging to do investigative reporting in Germany than the US, where there are older, more established laws for accessing public documents.

“In the US, everyone’s gathering data so you have to be really good at it. But here it’s a mix of investigative journalism and activism,” said Drepper, who has sued or threatened to sue public offices a few times in order to receive information under Germany’s eight-year old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Germany also has a press law, which Drepper says is quicker but does not grant access to the original documents.

Unlike in the US, there is no specialized investigative reporting track at journalism programs in Germany. Instead, most place more emphasis on long-form reportage, said Drepper. He estimated that no more than 10 percent of his undergraduate classes, when he studied journalism at TU Dortmund, had an investigative focus.

Expansion of investigative non-profits

A lack of skills often impedes the expansion of investigative journalism worldwide, said Coronel. In many countries, non-profit investigative centres like Correctiv are trying to fill the gap, not just through their reporting, but by offering training.

“As news organizations contract, editors no longer have the time to train and act as mentors to young journalists,” said Coronel. “Universities and news nonprofits are trying to fill the training and mentoring gap.”

In Europe, there are currently a couple non-profit investigative journalism websites in the UK and several in the Balkan countries, such as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and Balkan Insight, which offers a summer investigative training programme. There are also similar websites in France, Romania and Italy.

There are about 15 to 20 non-profit journalism websites in Germany, according to Günter Bartsch, organizer of Netzwerk Recherchean investigative journalism association with a non-profit initiative, most of which have started up within the past couple of years.

Foundations are taking notice, he says, and granting money for innovative projects with which traditional media outlets struggling with funding may not want to take a risk.

“With the start of Correctiv,” said Bartsch, “there was the feeling among many journalists that there were other models and possibilities.”

 Photo credit: Ivo Mayr / CORRECT!V




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