Global Investigative Journalism Network + Pandemic Plastic Use

An icon of 20th Century journalism, Walter Cronkite, once said, “The profession of journalism ought to be about telling people what they need to know – not what they want to know.” That quote was never more relevant than today. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with two reporters. First we talk about the state of independent journalism with David Kaplan, the Executive Director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an organization promoting cutting-edge investigative reporting. Then we hear from Tara Duggan of the San Francisco Chronicle about some reporting she has done on single-use plastic products — how their use surged during the pandemic and whether retailers are finally reverting back to pre-pandemic practices.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

David Kaplan 0:21  We love technology. You know, tech is our friend. And we’re, we’re constantly looking for ways to use technology as an equalizer out there, so that our journalists around the world who don’t have a lot of resources can get an edge and start documenting the lack of accountability, the looting of the environment and abuses of power, and it’s working.

Narrator  0:48  An icon of 20th century journalism, Walter Cronkite once said, The profession of journalism ought to be about telling people what they need to know, not what they want to know. That quote was never more relevant than today. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with two reporters. First we talk about the state of independent journalism with David Kaplan, the executive director of the Global investigative journalism Network, an organization promoting cutting edge investigative reporting. Then we hear from Tara Duggan of the San Francisco Chronicle, about some reporting she’s done on single use plastic products, how they’re used surged during the pandemic, and whether retailers are finally reverting back to pre pandemic practices.

Alex Wise  1:30  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by David Kaplan. He’s the Executive Director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. David, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

David Kaplan 1:51  Thank you, Alex. Good to be here.

Alex Wise  1:54  So what is GIJN? Why don’t you explain the mission of your organization in a nutshell, if you can,

David Kaplan 2:00  GIJN serves as the umbrella organization for the world’s muckraking journalist for reporters who do watchdog journalism, who care about social accountability and go after the issues of the day in depth. It’s a grand old tradition that here in the US stretches back more than 100 years and has a strong social justice component. Our core mission is to strengthen and spread quality investigative journalism around the world. And it’s pretty strong in the West, though, about 20% of our work is, is US based. But the most urgent areas we work in are the global South,  that’s where this kind of reporting can have the biggest impact where the stakes are the largest and in where the issues and people are most in need. So GIJN has 227 member organizations, all nonprofits in 88 countries, and we work through our members and then we work through the broader journalism community really through through anyone who uses what we call public interest, investigative tools, to work in the public interest. And it’s one of these best of times, worst of times, our community is under assault from all directions from autocrats and oligarchs from, from slap harassment lawsuits and, and physical threats. At the same time, we have grown dramatically. And we have investigative journalists in places from Peru to Botswana to Nepal, doing phenomenal work, and our ranks are are getting bigger. So gi J and acts as a training and professional development organization and as a professional association, to bolster those ranks to get them the latest tools and technology and to help protect them.

Alex Wise  4:17  And yes, the world of journalism has changed so much over the last 1015 years. You don’t have distribution outlet of your own, but why don’t you explain how your model works and how you’re able to support the work of these journalists.

David Kaplan 4:34  We don’t get involved in the actual investigations where we’re you know, if you think of journalists as the Special Forces as an if you think of investigative journalists as the Special Forces of journalism, you know, gi j is kind of Fort Bragg when we’re training and coordinating and networking. These were reporters around the world. Other fields in the media had associations, broadcast journalists, health reporters, education writers, business writers. But the journalists who did the toughest jobs, who went after the toughest targets, and use the most sophisticated tools didn’t have their own Association and part of its a tradition of kind of being lone wolves. But that has really changed in the last 20 years today, collaboration. And cross border work is the name of the game. Because in a globalized world, you can’t go after the issues and the institutions that matter, without collaborating across borders. So a lot of the work we do is bringing people together, building partnerships, building collaborations, and sort of setting the table and then say, have added folks, and it’s been exciting. I’ve been, you know, involved in this for over 20 years, I used to direct ICJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, I was the chief investigative correspondent for US News & World Report, the news weekly when it had 2 million subscribers. So I kind of I’ve seen, you know, the end of legacy media, I was an early blogger, I’ve seen that, you know, the new media and how that changed things. Now, in this new world, you know, we’re looking at what are the kinds of models that will sustain public interest investigations? How can we support people? And how do we go after these really tough issues of our time, like climate change, like, like the challenges to democracy, and what’s happening to disenfranchise people around the world, whether it’s indigenous communities or LGBTQ communities investigated investigative reporting on women’s issues, there’s  a whole set of exciting areas that we’re bringing the world’s most enterprising journalists to bear on, and that that’s been pretty gratifying.

Alex Wise  7:23  And so how would logistically a journalist who wanted to cover a story that like what you just mentioned, let’s say water rights in Sub Saharan Africa? How would they connect with your organization? And how would you help their stories be read?

David Kaplan 7:43  Good, good question. We build and strengthen networks and our building blocks are, they begin with social media? GIJN publishes and distributes in 12 languages a day, we have a system of regional editors around the world that act as hubs in these international networks. We have two editors in Africa. We have an English editor, based in the in Uganda, in Kampala. And then we have a francophone African editor based in Dakar, Senegal. And these two guys, you know, we don’t have a lot of resources, we do this on a pretty spare budget. But these guys serve as hubs linking together, more than 5000 African journalists, including the best environmental reporters, so we can link up someone say from the States or Britain or India, who wants to report on these issues and get them to the best people doing this stuff. In the region. We publish in, we don’t only have a French edition, but we have an African French edition that’s targeted a Western Central Africa. And then we leave increasingly gone beyond sort of the 12 dominant languages we’re in which is you know, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French, and so forth. Where we’re we published our first stories in Swahili house and, and Kenya, Rwanda in the last couple of years. And that’s an exciting we just published our first pieces in Mayan, in Central America. This is great stuff because we’re reaching you know, most journalists don’t speak English. And we take for granted that the tools and techniques that we use in places like the states are widely available. They’re not journalism schools are stuck in another century. They don’t teach this stuff. They don’t Know how to use data analysis. They know how to use satellite imagery. They know how to use sensors to detect levels of pollution. And we love technology. You know, tech is our friend. And we’re, we’re constantly looking for ways to use technology as an equalizer out there, so that our journalists around the world who don’t have a lot of resources can get an edge and start documenting the lack of accountability, the looting of the environment and abuses of power. And it’s working. It’s been again pretty exciting work.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  10:48  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to David Kaplan. He is the executive director of GIJN, the Global Investigative Journalism Network. So, David, we’re talking about technology and the barriers that non English speaking journalists might have in covering stories overseas. On the flip side, you got your start in the journalism world in a foreign language that you hadn’t mastered yet, you wrote Yakuza back in the 80s, covering the Japanese Underworld and mafia. And I bet it would be pretty nice to have some of the technology that is available today. Back in the 80s, I saw that there was a I knew that there were like headphones that people can wear that will immediately like translate for each other, like that’s still in the earlier phases, but it’s pretty next level stuff. When you think about finding common languages and being able to tell stories to everyone.

David Kaplan 12:44  It certainly would have been and, and but in the end, while the technology is enabling and empowering, that the fundamentals have not changed in many ways that the street level, person to person kind of detection work, that that we do, has not changed a lot since the great old muckrakers of, of the progressive era. People like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, you know, Nellie Bly who went undercover into a mental institution and wrote 10 days and in a madhouse and changed policy. Because of the 100 years later, when one of the guys in our global community in Ghana did the exact same investigation, he had himself committed to Ghana’s most notorious mental institution, documented horrific conditions. The one difference he had a lapel pin, a button camera, and he was able to document the entire thing on video, but the actual methodology he used getting himself committed of documenting what was going on and having first hand experience of being accurate and then, you know, following up on all that, none of that changed. So the trick here is, is marrying the cutting edge stuff with the basics of great reporting, and an inquiry, you know, in the end, it comes down to the scientific method, and good investigative journalists form a hypothesis, and then they test it. You have to go out and get the data and see if it’s repeatable, and if the facts don’t match your thesis, you have to abandon it. And sometimes we do, but when it comes together, it’s a marvelous thing and the And again, there’s people like this guy in Ghana who are doing God’s work out there, in places that, you know, one of the reasons we have such pushback now by autocrats around the world, is they’re not used to having to answer questions about accountability. And we’ve got people asking them like never before.

Alex Wise  15:24  So maybe you can give us some more examples of work that your journalists are doing that you’re particularly proud of.

David Kaplan 15:32  Oh, boy, we do if you go to our website,, you’ll see, at the end of the year and the beginning of this year, we’ve been doing round ups from all over the world on the best of investigative reporting in Russian, in Chinese, in Spanish, in Hindi, and even in places that are under really tough conditions like, like Turkey, or Russia or China. There is still great investigative reporting being done, and it’s because the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t, you’re not going to be able to stop journalists from as not only asking these, these important questions, but from following up with good reporting techniques. I’ll give you a couple quick examples. When the COVID-19 virus spread around the world, governments were routinely lying about the true death toll. They were doing it for political reasons, or just because they were incompetent and didn’t have the data. Gi Jan did a an overview showing I think 12 Different techniques journalists were using to document the real death toll in the in the early months. And they ranged from, you know, American reporters doing pretty sophisticated looks at at morbidity reports from past years and doing a data analysis and showing how many more people were dying here to Chinese reporters who were visiting cremation parlors, and counting the deliveries of funeral urns. The Spanish journalists were interviewing grave diggers, and on and on. So we compiled all of these techniques. This was looked at by journalists in 80 countries. I’ll give you another example. us the best us papers have pioneered a kind of forensic analysis to look at public protests, and do a ballistic analysis. So you can you can determine through say cell phone recordings, both video and audio, who fired a shot. So if security forces open up on unarmed demonstrators, you can actually pinpoint ballistically where the shot was fired from we put that analysis, we interviewed the reporters, we showed the technology, we put that on our website in multiple languages. That too, has been downloaded by journalists in 80 countries and it’s being used in other places. So now, you know, it’s another example of how the technology, you know, which is kind of wrecked the financial base of our industry has also empowered us to be able to one do these kinds of analyses and to share it with our colleagues around the world.

Alex Wise  18:49  He’s the Executive Director of the Global investigative journalism network, David Kaplan. David, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

David Kaplan Thanks for having me.


Alex Wise  19:53  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Tara Dugan. She is a staff writer for The San Francisco Chronicle Tara Welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Tara Duggan  20:03  Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Alex.

Alex Wise  20:05  So, Tara, you have a piece in the January 18 San Francisco Chronicle entitled, Bay Area’s Zero Waste stores thrive after pandemic pollution. Why don’t you first summarize your piece and explain why we’re starting to see a trend away? Again, at least in the bay area away from single use plastic?

Tara Duggan  20:26  Yeah. So about I would say right before the pandemic started, a colleague and I were noticing, you know, there’s a uncovering some big trends in efforts to reduce single use plastic, like bans on single use cups and certain cafes and big companies saying that they’re gonna no longer give their employees meals and plastic containers, they’re going to use reusables. And there were a lot of these things happening, it felt like kind of a sea change was happening, right in 2019. And then, of course, the pandemic happened. And there were actually prohibitions on things like that, like people couldn’t use their cups, reusable cups of cafes, and they couldn’t bring their bags to stores. So it sort of went backwards. But at the same time, because of the pandemic, people were using a lot more plastic, getting tons of takeout delivered using Amazon services, things like that. In fact, Oceana, which is a conservation organization, notice that plastic use from Amazon went up something like 30%, between 2019 and 2020. That was our estimate.

Alex Wise  21:43  I mean, that’s massive. When you think about it, Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, I think, a 30% spike in one year, that’s really not sustainable in any sense of the word.

Tara Duggan  21:56  Exactly, especially when plastic was already a huge problem before that. So one of the things I noticed was a bunch of new stores in the Bay Area that specifically focus on, you know, reusable packaging. So they’re often called refill stores. Sometimes they’re called Zero Waste stores. And that was just sort of an example. Maybe anecdotally, but example of a new interest in avoiding plastic waste. There are about 10 of them in the Bay Area. And most of those have opened, actually, since the pandemic, I would say, and the owners of those stores are saying their customers are tired of all the waste, and they’re really looking for a new solution and to avoid plastic packaging.

Alex Wise  22:42  And did these store owners expressed to you plans to open these doors before the pandemic or not?

Tara Duggan  22:50  Yeah, that was my question. And it turns out, actually, a couple of them already had plan to open during the pandemic, but they had to sort of change how they did things. So these businesses actually found that their sales increased during the pandemic. So I think there was kind of a quick turn around and some of that momentum that had started before the pandemic continued, despite it.

Alex Wise  23:19  So do you have any sense that larger grocery stores and big box retailers are going back to pre pandemic protocols in terms of plastic use?

Tara Duggan  23:30  Oh, that’s a that’s a really good question. I mean, there was, at least in California, there was, you know, during the beginning of the pandemic stores were no longer allowed to sell in bulk. So that did lead to stores doing that kind of thing, you know, putting things in pack more packaging. And that restriction has since been lifted. But I have heard that some stores haven’t necessarily gone back to offering more bulk or going, you know, going back to normal, some of those things kind of turn into habits that people get used to, again, get used to, you know, get used more packaging. So, yeah, I don’t, I don’t really know why it’s, you know, how widespread it is. On the other hand, what a lot of people in the so called zero waste movement, I say so called because, you know, there’s always some waste, but that’s kind of like the shorthand for the idea of trying to really reduce your waste as much as possible. A lot of people in that movement would say they think that the popularity of this the growing popularity will encourage bigger retailers to make changes in their plastic use. So we’ll have to see if that’s really the case. You know, one of the one of the issues is much you know, where a lot of grocery stores do have bulk, say bulk items for sale. It’s not always possible to bring in your own container so you might end up just using a plastic bag that the store provides.

Alex Wise  25:09  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Tara Duggan. She’s a staff writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. So Tara, you quote the owner of the reup refills shop in Oakland Matt Zimbalist, he talks about wish casting, when it comes to recycling, I like that term and never heard it before. What did he mean Exactly? By a Do you think?

Tara Duggan  25:32  Yeah, I like that, too. Basically, you know, in many areas where you have curbside recycling, we tend to put a bunch of our plastic in the recycling bin with the idea that it’s going to get recycled. But unfortunately, in the US, less than 9% of plastics are actually recycled. That is an overall number for plastic. So it’s not necessarily you know, 9% of what you put in your bin is not recyclable. It’s more just the overall, us, you know, average.

Alex Wise  26:10  So you mentioned these co-op model, retail stores, is there a chance these type of stores get popular enough to actually compete with the big players in the industry, or at least influence them?

Tara Duggan  26:25  Yeah, you know, one of the one of the owners specifically said that she said to me, I hope, in a way, I hope we get put out of business, you know, that this becomes so popular that the bigger companies start to start to make these kind of changes. You know, for example, she buys detergent, so this is this place called homebody refill. in Sonoma County. She buys detergent from an Oakland company called Pure detergent. So for example, she buys laundry detergent from that company, that company delivers the laundry detergent in a big container, a reusable container, she puts it in her book bins at her store, and then that company comes back and picks up the container refills it, you know, so it’s a circular economy type of idea. None of those containers get thrown out, at least not for many, many years. So, you know, it’s not just at the store. It’s also how the product arrives in the store. And, you know, if those kind of changes could be made at larger retailers, that could just make a huge difference. You know, it doesn’t have to be everything that these small stores do doesn’t have to be replicated, but if some of those changes could be made, it could really probably make a big difference in plastic waste.

Alex Wise  27:51  She’s a staff writer for The San Francisco Chronicle Tara Duggan. Tara, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Tara Duggan  27:59  Thanks, Alex. great talking with you.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Polyrhythmics, Sunny Terry and Steely Dan. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.