For those who haven't been paying attention to the groundbreaking work of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it's time to start.
ICIJ has been breaking new ground since it was launched in 1997 to extend globally the Center's style of watchdog journalism. Its international tobacco smuggling investigation, Tobacco Underground, has been raking in the awards and kudos, as much for its innovative presentation as for the reach and breadth of its reporting.
Now it's taking on an even more complex and nebulous target: the international lobbying effort currently spending millions to influence the coming treaty on global climate change.
"It's probably the most important story unfolding in the world right now because the stakes are so high," said Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of ICIJ and an award-winning investigative reporter in her own right.
The scope of Tobacco Underground, ICIJ's first online multimedia project, was staggering: It involved 22 journalists in 14 countries, tracking a shadowy multibillion-dollar industry. The illicit cigarette trade amounts to about 12 percent of all sales for a total tax revenue loss of $40 billion annually. Worse, the proceeds go to fuel organized crime and narcotrafficking networks and terrorist groups like the Taliban.
ICIJ reporters took on a similar project a decade ago in an investigation that revealed major tobacco companies like Phillip Morris were complicit in this illegal trade. That investigation helped lead to lawsuits, government sanctions and billions of dollars in settlements. The project was a success by all accounts. But a new multimedia ICIJ is taking investigative reporting to the next level.
Go to their web page, launch the project and you'll see what I mean. In the old days, this massive project would have been presented as a weighty tome sure to impress public officials and investigative journalists, but about as likely to be tackled by the average reader as the Federal Register.
Round two of the global tobacco investigation takes a much different tack. The whole project has been designed around an interactive map, with menacing-looking hot spots throbbing from virtually every point on the globe. The presentation begs for interaction, and the stories, video and audio do not disappoint.
The group also experimented with digital technology in the reporting phase, creating a virtual newsroom that the entire team could use to share and organize documents, photos, video and ongoing discussions in real time.
The Center for Public Integrity, ICIJ's parent organization, followed the tobacco investigation with an equally impressive multimedia investigation detailing the widespread failures of the Bush Administration as a new president prepared to inherit them. Broken Government's interactive presentation features a disintegrating White House, and readers can click on bits and pieces to track 128 executive branch failures -- or report their own.
Now CPI and ICIJ are serving up an encore. CPI has already tackled the enormous task of identifying the hordes of lobbyists descending on Congress in The Climate Change Lobby.
"Other media had published stories about one company or one industry lobbying on climate change," said Walker Guevara. "The Center took a step back and looked at all lobbying records, built a database and found that lobbying on the issue had jumped 300 percent in the last five years."
"Now it's only natural that we take this investigation to the international level."
This time the international network is gearing up to launch in the coming weeks as journalists report in from eight different countries, including some of the biggest carbon-emitting culprits, like the U.S., China and Brazil.
The rollout of the group's research efforts began two weeks ago with a brand-new Twitter feed specifically targeting this issue -- @climatelobby -- which will serve as a newsfeed for related coverage. It will also help build readership for its coming series of reports, which will launch in early November and continue to publish leading up to the climate talks in Copenhagen in early December.
"The idea is to make this website a one-stop shop" exposing the maneuverings of special interests trying to shape the agreement, Walker Guevara said. "The prospects are not very good for a strong treaty. So it's important to investigate how powerful interest groups are quietly twisting governments' arms."
The group has already had great success with its fan page on Facebook, earning followers and even tipsters in some unexpected places, like Africa. ICIJ uses the news feed to promote not only the group's work, but that of investigative reporters around the world.
The group is experimenting with low-cost Facebook ads in an effort to reach a wider, younger audience and also to target readers in a particular country when a story launches about that country.
"Through Facebook we've rapidly built a base of readers in more than 20 countries," said Walker Guevara. "It shows that there's a need worldwide for the kind of deep-dive, cross-border journalism ICIJ does."
Tracy L. Barnett, www.tracybarnettonline.com, is an independent writer based in Houston.