What is investigative journalism (for)?

On Wednesday I attended a fascinating conference addressing the question of whether investigative journalism was “dead or alive”. As is now routine at these events the ‘Is ice cream strawberry?’ question reared its head as those assembled tried to establish just where they stood in this Brave New World – but this time it got me thinking…

It was a stunning line up of speakers – live, pre-recorded, and remote – and after being drawn into a Skype two-way with David Leigh by chair Kevin Marsh on whether “professional” journalists still had a role to play in all this, I started to literally sketch out – on paper – some of the key questions underlying investigative journalism’s own identity crisis.

Is investigative journalism defined by how its done, or what it does?

Investigative journalism was described in many ways throughout the afternoon: as “uncovering the hidden”; “expensive”; “difficult”; “requiring dedication”; “has impact”; “holding power to account”. These terms are important: I’ve blogged elsewhere about journalism’s professional ideology and how it compares to bloggers’, and investigative journalism has its own professional ideology within that. If we are going to ask “But is it investigative journalism?” then these will be particularly relevant.

For example, there was a focus on investigative journalism as process that particularly fascinated me: Donal Macintyre talked about the ‘undercover reporter’ as a “narrative device” to allow them to create a narrative around important but difficult-to-dramatise issues, rather than something inherent in investigative work itself. In other words, for his purposes the process of ‘going undercover’ had a storytelling function as much as – if not more than – an investigative one.

On the other hand, some members of the audience dismissed modern examples of investigative work because it did not fit into this mythology.

A comparison of the Wikileaks, MPs’ expenses and Watergate stories is useful to flesh this out: in looking at those three where is the cut-off point that makes this one ‘investigative’, and another not? More to the point, why do we care?

If Wikileaks hadn’t had a website, would it make those stories more ‘investigative’? Do the parts of Watergate based on public documents not count as ‘investigative’ because they were available to anyone with a library card?

It struck me that this idea of ‘uncovering the hidden’ was key – and not too dissimilar to the general journalistic idea of ‘reporting the new’.

Defining ‘hidden’

What is ‘new’? It can be what happened today – but it is not limited to that. It can also be what is happening tomorrow, or what happened 30 years ago. It can be something that someone has said about an ‘old story’ days later, or an emerging anger about something that was never seen as ‘newsworthy’ to begin with. The talent of the journalist is to be able to spot that ‘newness’, and communicate it.

So does journalism become investigative when that newness involves uncovering the hidden? And if so, what is ‘hidden’?

I would argue that it is anything that our audience couldn’t see before – it could be a victim’s story, a buried report, 250,000 cables accessible to 2.5 million people, or even information that is publicly available but has not been connected before.

Like the journalist’s eye for ‘the news’, ‘the hidden’ is subject to individual perceptions, and the talent of a particular journalist for finding something in it – or a way of seeing it – that is ‘newsworthy’.

I sketched out a thought experiment: what if all of the investigative journalist’s material was public: documents, sources (witnesses, experts, victims, actors in the story), and information?

The role of the investigative journalist would perhaps be as follows:

  • To make the ‘hidden’ (to their audience) ‘visible’;
  • To hold power to account;
  • To make connections;
  • To verify;
  • To test hypotheses.

This doesn’t sound very different to how we see their role now.

But in reality, all of the investigative journalist’s material will most likely not be online, so if we leave that thought experiment behind we can add other elements to acknowledge that, particularly in a digitised world:

  • Making the invisible visible (i.e. digitising offline material, from paper documents and witness accounts to the ‘invisible web‘)
  • Making the disconnected connected
  • Identifying gaps in information – and filling them

These are all in fact ‘making the hidden visible’ in another form. It is the final one which comes closest to the process-based model identified above. But does it matter whether they fill those gaps with material that is in the public domain or which only exists in a single witness’s diary?

(I may have missed elements here – if I have, please let me know)

Narrative and authority

The role of a journalist in creating a narrative came through strongly in the conference – and also comes through strongly here: hypotheses are about narratives; making connections is about making narratives.

The other role that comes through strongly is institutional: holding power to account involves (but does not require) being in a position of power to do so; verification involves (but does not require) the stamp of institutional ‘due process’.

My own experience with Help Me Investigate suggests that these two roles remain important bases for journalism as a profession: in crowdsourced journalism, ‘writing the story up’ did not particularly appeal to people (the story was in their minds already) – only journalists wanted to do that. And it took an established media outlet to get official reaction.

This is not to suggest that only journalists can “have impact” as was mentioned at the conference – there are plenty of examples of groundswells of opinion online instigating media coverage: Memogate is perhaps the best known example. But this does not mean we need journalists – it means that we need publishers and broadcasters. There is a difference.

Demystification

Does deconstructing investigative journalism in the way outlined above make the craft any less special? I don’t believe so.

Does it make it less mysterious? Probably. But that’s no bad thing. I was heartened to hear the responses of two of the Coventry University journalism students in the room to a question from Kevin Marsh on how they saw investigative journalism: the first felt that institutional restrictions on time or money should not be an excuse for journalists failing to investigate important questions in their own time; the second felt that people no longer needed institutional validation to investigate something: they could publish on a blog and build an audience that way.

The mythology of our craft, however, has said that they have to get a job before doing investigative journalism. We have even – over the last 50 years – built an iconography to market it: the ‘undercover reporter’; ‘Deep Throat’. And in drawing a line between investigative journalism and journalism – and between journalism and everything else – we took a little bit of power away from our colleagues, and from our readers.

Giving some of that power back was one of the things that excited me most about Help Me Investigate – and research into its users suggests they have found it genuinely empowering. It’s not, of course, enough on its own: there remains a disconnect between citizens and journalists, and too often power is held to account for entertainment rather than the greater good.

Now, I’ve taught enough students to know the sort of initiative expressed by those two Coventry students is not shown by every aspiring journalist (which perhaps comes back to my differentiation between wanting to be a journalist and wanting to make journalism happen), but still: it demonstrated that they were not going to wait to be given the job title of ‘investigative journalist’ to get out there and do some investigating. That’s good: it also shows that they are doing so not for status but for the reasons for investigative journalism’s existence: to hold power to account, to make the hidden visible, and perhaps just for the pleasure of solving a problem and gaining knowledge.

If we can swallow our pride long enough to stop debating the membership requirements of who and what can be in ‘our club’ – whether that’s investigative journalism, watchdog journalism, or just ‘journalism’, we might just have time to help those students – and those who can’t afford to be students, or indeed journalists – do it better.

Advertisements