08/20/2014 02:42 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Q&A: The Bravery of Those Who Toiled to Expose Injustice

Renowned Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe once said that foreign correspondents are often the only means of drawing attention to disasters "in the making or being covered up."

The making or covering up can happen anywhere in the world. Actually, muckraking journalists have been been exposing these injustices for hundreds of years. It is not simply in the modern era of American journalists Woodward and Bernstein, and presidential cover-ups.

The list is impressive and global. There is Dwarkanath Ganguli's exposé of the British "coolie" trade in nineteenth-century Assam, India; and missionary newspaper coverage of Chinese foot binding in the nineteenth century. More recent are Ken Saro-Wiwa's defense of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta; and Horacio Verbitsky's uncovering of the gruesome disappearance of political detainees in Argentina, both in the 1990s.

Author and journalist Anya Schiffrin has taken painstaking efforts to chronicle the world's bravest journalists, many who have risked their lives around the world. Her recently published book, Global Muckraking, puts a spotlight on journalists from every continent, and the inequities they uncovered. The almost 50 stories in this anthology are riveting and inspiring, and span the past 100 years.

Anya Schiffrin, who is also director of the media and communications program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, discusses the book with Anna Shen.

What prompted you to write this book?

I was preparing for a course at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on the history of journalism since 1600. To prepare for the course, I went to libraries around the world, such as the British Library in London, and the Delhi and Calcutta libraries. What I found were 18th and 19th century papers, and what I realized was that the history of journalism around the world is largely unknown to people outside historians in academia. I felt that I was getting in touch with lost history and I wanted to share it with the rest of the world.

Can you tell me about the research process?

An important book for me was King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, which explores the atrocities and exploitation of the Congo Free State under King Leopold II of Belgium. In the book, Hochschild describes how Ed Morel, a shipping agent who became a journalist, exposed the conditions of the rubber trade under the King. I was intrigued and wanted to do know more about what he did next - and what other kinds of reporting and campaigning 19th century journalists were doing overseas.

Next I read about Jordan Goodman, who wrote The Devil and Mr. Casement about British consul Roger Casement's 1910 journey to Peru to uncover the torture and enslavement of local Indians in the rubber trade.

I started learning about all kinds of reporting I hadn't known about - for instance, about the boycott of Cadbury's chocolate in 1906 due to abuses in São Tomé and Príncipe. What fascinated me were the parallels to stories of abuse today - there is Nike in Vietnam, Liz Claiborne in Latin America, and Foxconn in China. The parallels were striking. So many of the stories we think of as contemporary have been covered before, in many places around the world.

As I mentioned before, I spent a time in libraries around the world. And I had a team of researchers who spoke different languages - French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, Swahili. Above all, Vanessa Pope, my chief researcher, spent about a year at the British Library for me.

At some point I started to worry that old-fashioned journalism would not make sense for the modern reader, so I got scholars, activists, historians and journalists to explain the context of each piece in the book and whether it had an impact.

Speaking of parallels, is there any conclusion you drew after so much research?

The sum of the book is bigger than its parts, and the stories aren't just interesting in their own right, but it is what emerges when they are all put together. In the book, we look at so many themes: labor, corruption, oil and gas, anti-colonial movements, women, rural affairs, famine and natural disasters, police and military brutality. There is a piece about the military in Chile, next to one about Argentina military abuses, next to one on South Africa.

The conclusion is that these are universal themes that journalists have gone through over and over again. The question is really why they have an impact sometimes and why they don't. It is a question of what made the campaigns take off or not.

What makes this book different than others that chronicle muckraking?

I read many anthologies of investigative reporting but this is different because it goes back in time and emphasizes the developing world. No other book does both of those things. I tried to use journalist's work from developing countries. Some are from China - for example, there is a piece on the 1976 Tangshan earthquake which is introduced by Ying Chan, the Founding Director of the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center; and a piece on working conditions at Foxconn in China introduced by journalist Beibei Bao.

What is it about these journalists all over the world that impressed you the most? Was it depressing to hear their stories?

Was it depressing? No. I came away uplifted because of the tenacity and bravery of the journalists, who toiled away to expose injustice. Many have been killed or jailed. The stories inspired me - there was one Benjamin Saldano Rocca who wrote about the conditions of rubber workers in the Amazon. He published in relative obscurity until American engineers took the news back to London, where the Amazonian company was listed. This caused a scandal with the shareholders. This was in the early 20th century.

Were there any takeaways about how the publishing world worked at that time?

We always think that it is important to create publications that last, but most of the ones that published the pieces in this book don't exist anymore. Sometimes people started papers due to their outrage and decided to start a paper to start campaigning. Their journalism had an impact and then they moved on to do something else. This made me think about sustainability and impact in journalism - that reporting can have an impact even if the outlet where it was published doesn't endure.

What is the difference between journalism then and today?

Because of the Internet, nearly anyone today can launch a publication. So the question is how to get attention. One thing I learned through my research for this book is that many factors come together for journalism to have an impact. For example, Anthony Appiah talks about the fact that people were writing about foot binding in China over and over. But, when an educated elite came along, society was able to make changes.

This was also the case with Dwarkanath Ganguli's exposé of the British "coolie" trade in nineteenth-century Assam, India. Jayeeta Sharma, who introduces the chapter, explains that the Brahmo Samaj sect in India wanted to bring about reforms to Hinduism so that was an important part of why there was an audience for Ganguli's writing.

Were there any surprises?

I was surprised by the relationship between journalists and advocates. But so many of the big stories happened because human rights activists or campaigners worked with the journalists by helping them find and verify information.

The other thing the book reminded me was that although it is now currently fashionable to talk about media impact, you don't know what is going to have an impact. It can take a long time for journalists to make a difference. Take the big labor stories, for example the Cadbury or Nike boycott -- it took years for the company to change their ways. There were labor struggles for years.

Is there a difference in the types of problems or stories you are seeing today versus then?

There are things that are universal -- labor trafficking, women's rights, corruption, and things that keep occurring such as military brutality and human rights abuses. However, information travels faster now and it is harder to keep things hidden. In many ways, the reporting is better than it was because there is more information, more facts and data are available. Technology is connecting citizens and journalists to each other.

Were there any funny moments amongst all abuses you were reading about?

I often laughed when reading the 18th and 19th century newspapers -- they reminded me of today's blogs. They were personal, and had lots of rumors and unverified information -- often written with great color and flowery language. I particularly enjoyed the random stories thrown together. One day in Calcutta I read a report about sanitation facilities for "coolies" that was next to a letter from London saying that everyone that season was reading George Eliot's Middlemarch. I read about carriage traffic on a bridge in Calcutta in the 19th century. After that I left the library, I got into a taxi and got stuck in Calcutta traffic. But there were cars instead of horses.

This piece is dedicated to journalist James Foley, who tirelessly and bravely fought to tell the truth in Syria. May he rest in peace.