New models of funding and executing

Glenda Cooper

On 30th July 2018, the Guardian newspaper led with an arresting front-page story: an influential thinktank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, had offered ministerial access to potential US donors which would help shape research in favour of free-trade deals during the Brexit process (Booth, 2018).

It was a great scoop, the result of six months worth of investigation, including some undercover reporting, but despite the by-line of The Guardian’s social affairs reporter, the original investigative work had not been carried out by that media organisation. Instead it had been carried out by Unearthed, an investigative unit set up by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace. While the Guardian performed checks on the investigation, the genesis and the execution of this story belonged to the NGO (Mayhew, 2018).

Greenpeace is not the only NGO to have moved into the field of investigative journalism. In 2017, Global Witness was shortlisted for the prestigious Paul Foot award for investigative and campaigning journalism (Hazard Owen, 2017). The aid agency Christian Aid recruited former Sunday Times investigative journalist John Davison to head up its press office in the early 2000s, and Amnesty International set up its Digital Verification Corps.

Investigative reporting remains one of the most prestigious and well-regarded parts of journalism.

Yet many journalists find these aspirations to ‘truth-tell’, to pursue stories in the public interest, is increasingly difficult in a time of cuts and instability in the mainstream media. Lee-Wright (2011) talks of journalists’ inability to go out and seek stories and, if confined to the office, finding themselves caught up in hot-desking as ‘an unhappy version of adult Musical Chairs’ and reduced to producing ‘churnalism’ (Davies, 2008), that is, rewriting press releases. Into this gap have stepped NGOs, and while the blurring of lines between investigative journalist and campaigning NGO may not be new, in these times of economic difficulty for media organisations, NGOs have become increasingly important for investigative journalism.

The presence of NGOs in the investigative journalism field, however, continues to stir up debate about what journalism is and who a journalist is. So this chapter will look at what current thinking is around what Gillmor (2008) once dubbed ‘almost journalisin’ and how both sides are negotiating this boundary work.

The stepping back of mainstream media from investigative journalism

While the advent of NGOs as players in the investigative journalism field is not new, their incursions into this field may have been speeded up because of the collapse in funding of media organisations. The Pew Research Center for the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimated that since the year 2000, US newspapers alone have lost US$1600 million annually (Requejo-Aleman and Lugo-Ocando, 2014). While subscription models have seen some revenue return, it remains a difficult time for legacy media organisations, and those areas of journalism which are expensive to carry out have been particularly hard hit. These include both foreign news (Harding, 2009; Sambrook, 2010) and investigative journalism (Lashmar, 2011). Speaking at a debate organised by the Frontline Club as far back as 2008, the award-winning photographer Marcus Bleasdale said:

Over the last ten years 1 would say 80—85 per cent [of my work] has been financed by humanitarian agencies. To give one example, in 2003 I made calls to 20 magazines and newspapers saying I wanted to go to Darfur. Yet I made one call to Human Rights Watch, sorted a day rate, expenses and five days later I was in the field.

(Frontline Club, 2008)

A decade ago, Hamilton (2009) estimated that it would cost a large metropolitan newspaper in the United States $500,000 a year to fund an investigative unit comprising an editor, three reporters and a researcher plus expenses that might result in two to three successful investigations a year — something that would be out of reach of many struggling media organisations. It is no wonder that in some parts of the world, journalists have looked to different models to fund investigative journalism.

In the United States, investigative non-profit outlets such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting received $184.5m over seven years (Birnbauer, 2018). Requejo-Aleman and Lugo-Ocando looked at non-profit investigative journalism in Latin America, where such initiatives talked about developing “investigative journalism more as a moral force” (2014: 523), but that relied hugely on foreign aid donations. “Therefore, we cannot really talk about a sustainable model ofjournalism and in many ways neither can we really talk ofjournalism independence,” the authors concluded (2014: 528).

When the journalist Steve Crawshaw left the Independent newspaper in 2002 to join Human Rights Watch, where he worked as London director and then

UN advocacy director, he saw a considerable difference between investigative journalists and NGOs, a gap that he has seen to narrow since then because of the financial situation of mainstream media.

The media in those days was very wary of NGOs bringing things along to them. They thought ‘we need to do it [the investigation!’and that’s shifted significantly. It’s probably an economic thing I think. But if an NGO now brings a ready packaged story with video, not only will a little two-bit local television station take it, which might have happened in the old days, but you know, a big global television channel is also likely to go ‘It’s a good enough story and if we think you’re doing it okay, then that’s fine too’. That’s an interesting change for me.

(phone interview, January 2020)

Crawshaw went on to direct Amnesty7 International’s International Advocacy Programme and the office of the Secretary General and at present is director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture. He acknowledges that many NGOs are also financially squeezed but have the incentive to invest in investigative journalism. At the beginning of his career when he worked for the Granada investigative programme World In Action, he perceived that there was an attitude that money would be thrown at a story if media organisations thought a story was there. Such attitudes have changed since.

NGOs of course don’t have the money as such, but they have the impetus, the desire to feel that this is what we do. The NGO will say ‘we need to nail this down because if we do, we can really make change’. So you have more of. . . an incentive. And that means that the NGOs have got more determined to do it. . . in parallel to the fact that editors, and managers in the media are kind of less keen to throw different lots of money at something often with no certainty of what’s going to come back.

(phone interview, February 2020)

The other practicality' is the increasing speed of the news cycle, which can also make journalists more reliant on NGOs’work. As John Davison, a former investigative journalist with the Sunday Times who then went to head up Christian Aid’s press operation in London, points out:

You could take a bit more time over it and develop the story' more . . . the reports we did were well researched, but they weren’t just investigative, we had to get a top line out of them. You didn’t have more resources but you did have more time. You know, y'ou weren’t trying to turn a story out every' week.

(phone interview, February 2020)

Non-governmental organisations and investigative work

In the mid-1990s, Davison was working as part of the Insight team at the Sunday Times when the paper started looking into what became known as the Pergau Dam affair. In 1988, the Thatcher government had put in place a secret defence agreement linking the promise of civilian aid to Malaysia with a major arms export deal, despite objections from civil servants, who refused to sign off on the spending without written instruction from ministers. By the mid-1990s, details were beginning to emerge, and Davison was covering it for the paper. He was contacted by a small NGO called the World Development Movement (now Global Justice UK).

Charities used to have a bit of a suspicious eye towards journalists especially . . . Murdoch journalists, but they (WDM) didn’t seem to care. So I basically said, ‘well, will you give us all your stuff?’ And they said ‘yeah’. I remember speaking to my then boss and he said, ‘so, well you’re going to nick all their research?’. When I said yes, he said ‘brilliant’. It got us quite a long way.

(phone interview, Feb 2020)

Davison recalls that as the first time he had worked so closely with an NGO in his career as an investigative journalist.1 However, when he went to Christian Aid in the late 1990s, he incorporated his previous job’s skills into his new role as head of press. At the time, aid agencies were increasingly hiring journalists for their press offices (Cooper, 2007), and Davison found that there was a market for such stories. In 2003, the Christian Aid press office, working with its researchers, found that billions in Iraqi oil revenue and other funds had disappeared into opaque bank accounts administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority (Christian Aid, 2003). The reaction was, as Davison recalls: ‘it went global . . . absolutely bonkers’.

Christian Aid’s press office and researchers were relatively small scale. Other NGOs such as Global Witness and Human Kights Watch (HRW) have grown massively. Amnesty' in the early 1970s had 14 research staff; now it has 130 full-time researchers and 500 other staff'in public relations, advocacy and fundraising, while Human Rights Watch has grown from 10 researchers in the 1980s to 400 full-time staff (Powers, 2015). Key investigations such as HKW’s investigation into human rights abuses in the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia (HRW, 2009) or Global Witness’s undercover investigation into lawyers in New York City (Global Witness, 2017). Two interesting approaches, however, have been Greenpeace’s Unearthed and Amnesty's Digital Verification Corps.

Unearthed positioned itself as a journalistic unit set outside the NGO itself and works in a very similar way to traditional investigative journalism. The unit began life as Energydesk but changed its name in 2015 to reflect wider interest in any environmental issue of global importance. As editor Damian Kahya puts it:

The name-change reflected a slight change towards longer-form investigative and in-depth reporting and away from relatively rapid-fire energy and climate commentary/fact-checks which had formed a large part of our output to begin with but which we now felt served more as the starting point for a longer piece of work rather than an output in itself.

(personal communication)

Unearthed consists of eight journalists, three of whom started as interns after completing MAs in investigative journalism. Two came from trade magazines, one from The Guardian; one came from the Guardian’s trainee scheme, and the final staff member was a former Greenpeace campaigner. The influence has been news led; Kahya sees strong news judgement, pursuit of a story and teamworking skills as key for those who work there and sees this hybrid of journalism and NGO work as fundamental:

The difference between [Unearthed] and the work Greenpeace already did is important but also nuanced. It means we are more story-led and, by adopting our own editorially autonomous platform, we can ensure our reporting is put out in a clear and transparent way whilst allowing for key elements of journalistic work, such as the right to reply, to be effectively implemented. We have a different approach to legal risk and sometimes deploy different reporting techniques to those used previously e.g. we work a lot with sources. There’s also a less-theoretical difference which is possibly more important to why Greenpeace has given space to this project. It sometimes allows you to be quicker and more impactful. Our staff' journalists are directly accountable to fewer people than most investigators in NGOs. there are fewer meetings, there is less confusion of purpose, people have the freedom to chase a lead and see where it goes.

(personal communication)

He is quick to say, however, that while the Unearthed model works for his organisation, there should be no ‘one size fits all’ approach and that different NGOs will have different models depending on the size of their organisation, funding and those people involved.

For example, the growth in open-source intelligence has allowed other NGOs to start using the kind of skills that were also seen as cutting edge in the journalistic world. Use of new technologies that could be used for verification was taken up with enthusiasm by those working in human rights, and some saw the possibility of collaboration with journalists. One of the most successful has been the aforementioned Amnesty International Digital Verification Corps, which now operates in six universities around the world. One of the foundingpartners was the Digital Verification Unit (DVU) at the University of Essex, now in its fourth year, where every year students compete for 16 places to work as volunteers at the unit. The students include human rights researchers, lawyers and journalists working together and must sign a contract to say they will dedicate 6—8 hours a week to the project.

The DVU has specialised in analysing user-generated content - the students are given a crash course in verification techniques in a weekend at the beginning of their contract, looking at geolocation, sundial calculations, search techniques and the discovery process. The result is, as the principal investigator at the DVU, Dr Daragh Murray, says, far more extensive than could have been managed in previous times, as was seen in the award-winning open-source investigation into airstrikes on Raqqa:

What the open source work allowed us to do was to pretty much document every airstrike. We spent a lot of time on the verification, looking through videos of Raqqa before the fall of Raqqa, and immediately after, so that was everything from ISIS videos, propaganda videos, things that people had recorded, videos made by the Kurds as they drove around town. And then we essentially looked for destroyed buildings and geolocated them and we mapped all of those out in the different verification units. ... So this allowed Amnesty to go to the coalition with much more specific dates, and then to go and investigate those specific sites with a lot more detail. So they were able to really effectively map out the whole, the whole attack.

(Skype interview, Feb 2020)

The Amnesty reports findings was initially denied by US and UK forces, although the United States later conceded that civilians had been killed in the airstrikes (Cohen, 2018).

While journalists may taken part in these investigation processes, Murray says that they are often involved for their interest in the story — not because they are commissioned to do so — or that they may be involved at a strategic level rather than actually uncovering the detail needed:

They’re typically involved giving advice or at a strategic level as opposed to spending a lot of times themselves — like they can kind of outsource a lot of the hours. Either they don’t have the skills or they don’t have the time.

(phone interview, February 2020)

Non-governmental organisations: the ‘almost journalists’?

The media are one means by which NGOs have traditionally tried to get their message across. They produce information, reports and press releases but also work closely with political players and communicate directly with the public, often through fundraising, to increase awareness of their particular causes (Cottle and Nolan, 2007; Waisbord, 2011).

In order to maximise their chance of media attention, scholars have argued that rather than challenging journalistic norms, NGOs have sought to mimic journalists (Fenton, 2009; Cottle and Nolan, 2009), using the idea of‘media logic’, as described by Altheide and Snow (1979). Waisbord (2011) sees NGOs’actions as part of a widespread professionalisation of newsmaking in order to become ‘news shapers’ (Manheim, 1998). He puts forward the idea of‘journalistic’ rather than ‘media logic’ as a better way of understanding the NGOs’ approach, encompassing news values, media formats, labour conditions and editorial positions.

Powers (2015) talks about the NGO as journalistic entity’, and this is a significant conceptualisation. He says that the content produced by NGOs expands the boundaries ofjournalism. This is happening in spite of the fact that NGOs themselves, he says, are not usually driven by journalistic instinct but aim for legitimacy by providing information to political elites via newsworthy coverage. Like others (Cottle and Nolan, 2007, 2009; Fenton, 2009), Powers also argues that NGOs are still subject to journalistic norms and practices rather than subverting them.

The question, however, that scholars return to time and again is whether NGOs can actually ‘report’ and ‘investigate’ in the same ways as journalists who subscribe to norms such as objectivity. Dan Gillmor (2008) famously dubbed activists who got involved in journalistic activities as ‘almost journalists’ doing ‘almost journalism’. Gillmor criticised NGOs and human rights organisations who have entered the media field thus: “They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness” (2008).

This idea of lack of ‘fairness’ - a lack of commitment to straightforward reporting in favour of advocacy — is one that has dogged those NGOs that have engaged in journalistic activity. Yet NGOs have attempted to mimic classic journalism by attempting to provide deeply researched reporting on topics of public interest (Russell, 2013). Certainly, when teams such as Unearthed talked about the work they do, they are keen to stress their journalistic credentials (Damian Kahya, the editor of Unearthed, was a former BBC journalist) and the resources they used. In talking about the Guardian splash, Kahya said that they used three journalists at all times and that there was a distinction between Greenpeace and Unearthed:

Greenpeace understands that and that’s built into how we work and our decision-making structure, so we are completely outside of the rest of the Greenpeace decision-making structure. An article that goes on Unearthed doesn’t have to be signed oft' the way a press release does.

(Kahya, cited in Mayhew, 2018)

No money changed hands between Unearthed and The Guardian over the story, said Kahya, who added Greenpeace did not fundraise off the back of it “because when you’re doing something that’s quite high risk like this, you don’t want to colour it with ‘donate here’” (Mayhew, 2018).

Crawshaw takes issue with the idea that NGOs cannot report to the same high standards as investigative journalists. He thinks back to his own transition from journalist to NGO worker.

The degree of extra checks [in NGO work], any set of facts was put through was very striking to me when I first moved. So if I was working for the Independent or the Financial Times or anyone else if I was covering a massacre in a village, broadly I would go there, I would get my notebook, I’d find as many people as I could and get a reasonable number of things. And that can just become to come the front page story of any foreign correspondent anywhere in the world. Whereas in a human rights organisation every single bit is check and double check and triple check.

(phone interview, February 2020)

Sam Dubberley of Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps similarly talks about the need for caution on the part of NGOs when doing investigations and reports, compared with the mainstream media.

The big difference is: how to decide what to publish. I think people working in the human rights sector are more careful, or reluctant, before they publish anything. Also, human rights people usually need far more information before they go out with anything than, for example, evidence from a video only. Overall, I think the human rights sector is generally more cautious before anything goes out, and there is a higher threshold than in journalism, partly because of the possible consequences.

(Dubberley, quoted in Spangenberg, 2019)

Niall Couper, head of Media, PR and Supporter Communications at Amnesty International UK, sees the transition from investigative reporter for a media organisation to one in a NGO as being a difficult one to achieve. The overlap, he says, is smaller than people may realise.

This is in part due to campaigning organisations not quite grasping the excellent skill sets investigative journalists do have. And also one of the key elements of a campaigning organisation’s work is duty of care. Of course that is considered by the investigative journalist, but for researchers it is pretty much top of the list and conies with a large amount of paperwork and training. I think there is a transition path, but it does need training to make it work.

(personal communication, January 2020)

Boundary work, ‘truth-telling’ and the objectivity norm

Is the transition particularly difficult because of the fluctuating boundaries of journalism at present? Boundary (re)negotiation is a key struggle in the journalistic field at the moment (Carlson and Lewis, 2015), with journalists aiming to “defend [journalism] against incursions from non-journalists” (Carlson, 2015: 9).

This was seen clearly in the struggles around citizen journalism where journalists frequently denied that that those citizens were performing acts of journalism. Equally, journalists have been quick to deny that those working for NGOs can be seen as journalists. Phil Vine, a high-profile broadcast journalist who moved to work for Greenpeace New Zealand, wrote about the idea of the ‘audacity* in still describing himself as a journalist while working at the NGO and that it was journalists who were the ones that principally objected to the idea that someone at an NGO could describe themselves as a journalist.

New Zealand journalists took umbrage at my job description. Certain of them made it plain that by crossing this perceived Rubicon between ‘recognised’ media and a campaigning organisation ‘with an agenda’, meant that I would have to leave the tribe, hang up my pork pie hat with the reporter card in it. In footballing terms they seemed to see it as a clear case of divided loyalty. I’d taken on the manager’s job at Liverpool while still insisting on wearing an Arsenal scarf at every game.

(Vine, 2017: 45)

Added to this, journalists are frequently guided by a sense of professional norms such as truth-telling which Zelizer (2004) refers to as the ‘God-term’ of professional journalism. Codes for journalists foreground objectivity, with the journalist taking the stance of neutral observer (Schudson, 2001), autonomy and public interest as well, and other ethical stances include checking of facts, comprehensive reporting, truthfulness, fair representations of people’s viewpoints.

Russell (2013) examined coverage of the 2011 United Nations Climate summit in Durban and found tension and overlap in the way that journalists and activists covered the summit. While journalists subscribed to conventional norms of objectivity and neutrality, Russell notes that this often resulted in amplifying the views of the elite or even creating false balance by giving space to the views of outlier climate change deniers. The activists, in contrast, had a more exhaustive coverage of the summit but also subscribed to a notion of a ‘public good’ by going beyond their own specific agenda. Vine (2017) also questions the issue of bias in mainstream media and NGOs

[Greenpeace’s| bias in favour of the planet is intentional and transparent. I would argue that objectivity is an outdated and unachievable myth. As journalists we all come to stories with inherent biases — personal, financial or institutional. The manifest biases of the mainstream are far less easy to spot.

(Vince, 2017, 48)

Crawshaw also thinks that bias needs to be understood in terms of the mainstream media as well as in NGOs; that the argument that only NGOs are approaching investigative work with an idea fixed in their mind is false - and the consequences for NGOs if the investigative work doesn’t stand up if you do not scrutinise it properly.

I mean an investigative journalist is kind of hoping for an outcome to the story that he or she is working on because otherwise there isn’t a story . . . Usually you think there seems to be some funny business and you kind of smell where it might be coming from. And so in a sense everyone’s starting with a possible idea. I think [with NGOs], if you all seem to have overstated your case, you may get better headlines in the short term, but you kind of lose respect if you could come to be seen as a cowboy, you lose respect in the medium and longer term.

(phone interview, February 2020)

Davison agrees:

I don’t remember national newspapers being particularly objective about their targets. I’ll put it another way around. If you were, as I was, an investigative journalist looking at anything, then you go and find the people who [cared|. Say you’re doing something into political corruption, you go and find the people who cared about it, because they would also know about it and they would tell you things that you could then write about. I mean, you can’t do journalism sitting in an objective bubble. Anybody you talk to has a point they want to make.

(phone interview, February 2020)


Investigative journalism is frequently time consuming and expensive, requiring the two commodities that mainstream media have in short supply at the moment. As such, there has been an increasing understanding that other actors may play a role in providing newsworthy investigations for public consumption. This is nothing new in one sense — NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have been investigating human rights abuses for decades. However, the ability to self-publish and the increased opportunities of open-source material mean that NGOs themselves have been examining different ways to bring their investigations to light.

The continued discussion over transparency and objectivity means that journalists are still liable to distinguish NGOs’work as separate from their own, and, as Vine makes clear, there is still hostility to the idea that someone can ‘cross the line’and still be seen as a working journalist. Gillmor’s ‘almost journalism’ description is still upheld by those working in the mainstream media, who still defend the boundaries of journalism.

Finally, Greenpeace’s Unearthed and Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps are both examples of how NGOs are seeking more innovative ways to carry out investigations with facilities and skills that mainstream media may not have. Yet as can be seen with Unearthed’s collaboration with The Guardian, both sides still need each other in order to make maximum impact with both elite and public opinion.


1 WDM continued to research the Pergau Dam affair after the Sunday Times moved on and, after two parliamentary inquiries and a landmark judgment, the aid for Pergau was declared unlawful in 1994 in the case R v Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Ex p The World Development Movement.


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