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Reporters use Knight Center online courses platform to learn and practice investigative journalism

Corruption, irregularities and complaints were common themes of investigative projects that Latin American reporters tackled during intense online courses and workshops organized by Reporteros de Colombia (Reporters of Colombia) and IPYS (Press and Society Institute) of Peru, using the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas distance learning platform.

“The platform is great; it's great!” said El Nuevo Herald reporter Enrique Flor, one of the tutors for IPYS' "Advanced Investigative Journalism" course. “That (platform) is definitely a tool that energized us,” said journalism professor Claudia Fontalvo Polo, one of three coordinators of the Colombia course titled “How to Investigate and Access Information about Topics of Justice and Peace: Emphasis Lands." “Without it, the initiative would not have been possible,” she added.

The Knight Center's distance learning platform is based on the open-source course management system called Moodle, widely used around the world. It allows students to view lectures, post documents, participate in discussion forums and hold informal chats. It is the same platform that the Knight Center has used to train over 5,000 journalists worldwide.

“What we like most are basically two things. First, that it has diverse tools and second, that it is very simple, very clear, easy to use, not only for the instructor, but for students, too,” said Miriam Forero, project coordinator for the Consejo de Redaccion or CdR (Newsroom Council of Colombia), a Knight Center partner in Colombia.

The Colombia course, which was partially taught by CdR journalists, linked 41 reporters from different regions of the country through the virtual platform. This enabled instructors to guide them as they investigated whether lands illegally confiscated during armed conflicts were being properly returned to farmworkers according to the Law of Victims and Restitution of Lands that was recently passed in Colombia.

“We are documenting and investigating the restitution process of the lands—if there have been irregularities, or if the work has been done well—if they have been returned to the people, “ said Fontalvo, “We have seen that no, they aren’t doing this work well… on the contrary, they are killing those that say ‘this land is mine… they are killing them!"

And that is exactly what journalist Ricardo Cruz found when he investigated the murder of Yolanda Izquierdo, an activist in the Cordoba department who was killed when she tried to help local peasants get their land back. “I had the subject, the course became available, the opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of the information, the concepts that the course taught me and the possibilities that were opened to me by the Reporters of Colombia,” said Cruz, a journalist who works for the Instituto Popular de Capacitación (Institute of Popular Training) in Medellín.

In the article Cruz cited a study by the Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (The Office of Human Rights and Displacement) which found that 50 peasants were killed for their land between 2002 and 2011. Cruz credits the course for giving him a better understanding of the land issue by helping him “identify sources and research methodologies.” Eventually Cruz’ article was published by Revista Gente, a national magazine in Colombia.

Finding better ways to research and access documents became a common goal for the 18 reporters from several South American nations who took the IPYS course. The journalists, who had proposed an investigative project affecting their own countries, found that the platform allowed them to not only watch instructional presentations but to bounce ideas back and forth. “The majority are projects of corruption and investigations of corruption in public companies. The (Knight Center) platform allowed us to get together in one space,” said Flor.

In Venezuela, a journalist researched irregularities in the economic sector; in Chile, another found corruption in the awarding of post earthquake construction projects; and in Peru, the awarding of fishing permits was found to be tainted. “Regretably, those permits, have not always been respected because the authorities who control those things are weak, and it’s a sector that the press has hardly touched,” he explained..

In both courses, the Knight Center's distance learning platform was used not only to teach investivative journalism technique, but to articulate anof coordinate actual investigations of irregularities in Latin American countries. But it’s the education of journalists that has proven to be a key benefit of the initiatives of IPYS and Reporteros de Colombia.

Fontalvo said that her organization used to hold workshops in remote parts of the country but they weren’t as productive and thorough as what has been accomplished using an online course. “This is a big step forward for us because we have seen that we needed to progress, that going there to the regions and spending 8 hours with them then saying, ‘ciao’, well that did not lead to important things. These courses, which are more intensive, do help them produce high quality journalism.”

“We are very happy to see our pioneering and innovative distance learning platform being used by other organizations, not only to teach investigative journalism but to produce actual investigative stories that are published in Latin America,” said Knight Center director Rosental Alves. “I can’t imagine a better use of our successful infrastructure of online training for journalists.”