Prize-Winning CAR

Article excerpt

Computer skills help snag key Latin American awards

Investigative journalists in Latin America have uncovered bribes to former presidents, dissected organized crime, analyzed campaign contributions and spotlighted political corruption by using spreadsheets, databases and advanced Internet skills.

Stories made possible only through computer-assisted reporting have won many of the most prestigious journalism awards in various countries and in international competitions. Prizes from Prêmio Esso (Brazil), the Press and Society Institute (IPYS in Peru), International Rey de España (King of Spain), Inter American Press Association and Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo (Colombia) have helped encourage many reporters and editors to invest time to learn and improve their CAR skills.

Ten years ago, few reporters in Latin America used spreadsheets and databases. Now, CAR skills are widely taught in seminars and classes across the region, with thousands of journalists trained during the past decade.

Investigative Reporters and Editors helped lead the first CAR courses in Latin America in the late 1 990s. With the help of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, new journalism associations patterned after IRE have been formed. They include Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, Argentinean Forum of Journalists, Paraguayan Journalists Forum and Consejo de Redaccion in Colombia. The professional organizations have played an important role in deploying computers as tools to acquire, organize and analyze information.

The appetite for CAR courses has grown since U.S. journalist Lise Olsen (now at The Houston Chronicle) and Mexican journalist Pedro Almendares disembarked in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the late 1 990s to talk to a few journalists at the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper about Excel, Access and a new thing called Google. The seed they helped plant was later nourished through a few courses by IRE's former executive director Brant Houston and Argentinean reporter Sandra Crucianelli. Since it was created in 2002, ABRAJI has trained more than 3,000 journalists in CAR techniques in Brazil. The organization also has led CAR training in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.

At the same time, a new culture of creating Web sites to disclose and provide access to public information has grown in Latin America, especially in Brazil. Private groups such as Contas Abertas (Open Accounts) and Transparencia Brasil (Brazil Transparency) developed databases for their Web sites to give journalists and the public better access to information on government expenditures and campaign finances.

However, traditional journalism culture dies hard. Not one university has made CAR part of its journalism curriculum, and most newsrooms do not have Excel (or any spreadsheet software) installed. Unfortunately, many journalists still believe that crunching numbers is something best left to economists.

The world economic crisis and financial challenges facing news media could put at risk the little that has been done so far. Some newspapers already have cut their training budgets and are starting to lay off workers, too. Investigative journalism, more expensive than just turning on a tape recorder, could be the first victim.

The track record of hard-hitting investigations using CAR might have helped news media owners and the public see the value of such work.

A query in the IPYS prize database, probably the most important journalistic award in Latin America about political corruption, shows that at least 21 finalists' stories in the past six years used CAR tools in a major way. The investigations came from Puerto Rico and eight countries: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru.

Daily newspapers and other print media dominated the finalists, making up 20 of the CAR-driven stories. The list included only one TV news investigation ("La Ventana Indiscreta," which borrowed its name from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Rear Window"). …