Has investigative journalism found its feet online? (part 3)

Previously this serialised chapter for the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? looked at new business models surrounding investigative journalism and online investigative journalism as a genre. This third and final part looks at how changing supplies of information change the context within which investigative journalism operates.

What next for investigative journalism in a world of information overload?

But this identity crisis does highlight a final, important, question to be asked: in a world where users have direct access to a wealth of information themselves, what is investigative journalism for? I would argue that it comes down to the concept of “uncovering the hidden”, and in exploring this it is useful to draw an analogy with the general journalistic idea of “reporting the new”.

Trainee journalists sometimes see “new” in limited terms – as simply what is happening today. But what is “new” 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 effectively.

Journalism typically becomes investigative when that newness involves uncovering the hidden – and that can be 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 (“the hidden” – like “the new” is, of course, a subjective quality, dependent on the talent of a particular journalist for finding something in it – or a way of seeing it – that is newsworthy).

So 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 – the why and how of journalism.

This doesn’t sound very different to how we see the role now. Of course, 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 roles to acknowledge this:

  • to make the invisible visible (i.e. digitising offline material, from paper documents and witness accounts to the “invisible web” of databases);
  • to make the disconnected connected: publishing information in such a way that others can make further connections with other sources of data;
  • to identify gaps in information – and fill them.

These are all, in fact, “making the hidden visible” in another form, whether they fill those gaps with material that is in the public domain or which only exists in a single witness’s diary.

Narrative and authority

The role of a journalist in creating a narrative comes through strongly here: hypotheses are about narratives; making connections is about making narratives. Narratives are important – they help people find their place in a story – but onlline investigations can have multiple narratives and different users can find different entry points across those.

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 non-journalists (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 so much as it means that we need publishers and broadcasters. There is a difference.

No excuses

So what does this mean for future investigative journalists online? Firstly, we may have to accept that many parts of investigative journalism will lose their air of mystery: from gathering information to publishing and distributing it, there are now dozens of new opportunities for the aspiring investigator: FoI tools such as WhatDoTheyKnow; free data gathering and interrogation tools such as Yahoo! Pipes and OutWit Hub, leak-hosting sites, and tools to combine and clean data such as Google Refine and SQLite. I see students now able to do work that would baffle many full time journalists.

That’s no bad thing: distinguishing investigative journalism from other types of reporting was always problematic: “All journalism should be investigative” is a near-cliché because it goes to the heart of what we should be doing as journalists. Now we have the opportunity to act on that sentiment.

Journalists will be – and already are – more collaborative, learning how to work with and across networks. The internet has made it possible to separate the “investigative” from the “journalism”: students, bloggers, activists, and anyone else with a burning question can begin to investigate it. They can raise questions openly with thousands of others online, submit FoI requests at the click of a button or analyse datasets and documents with free tools, regardless of whether or not they are employed as a journalist. The vast majority do not want to be a journalist. What they want are answers.

Their efforts can have value regardless of their job title. The role of investigative journalism – online, and then in print and broadcast – will increasingly be to build on their work: to make it visible; to verify it; to connect it to other information; to hold power to account over it. (If that threatens your romantic idea of the “individual genius” and makes you feel somehow less important, then you can take comfort in calling those people mere “sources” and yourself a “proper journalist”. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as journalism gets done – although you may alienate potential sources by doing so in public.)

Secondly, journalists will need to carefully judge how and when to tell different parts of their story. The medium and channel of presentation is one new element of judgement – but they will also have to balance publicness against privateness at every stage, and judge how either might improve or speed up their work, and increase its impact and reach. There are no easy answers to these questions.

Finally, aspiring investigative journalists will no longer wait for a job title – or even a job – to begin investigating. At the conference that inspired this book two journalism students were asked how they saw the problems facing 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.

These are hugely encouraging sentiments for anyone who worries about the state of modern journalism. Of course, some people will always look for excuses, but thanks to the access to information, documents, sources, collaborators and tools that the internet presents, we have fewer excuses to make. Not only that, journalists and aspiring journalists have the opportunity of a generation: to define the shape of investigative journalism to come.


3 thoughts on “Has investigative journalism found its feet online? (part 3)

  1. WIlliam Diepenbrock

    This article/chapter makes it abundantly clear that a big factor in the future of investigative journalism is the ability to assess the quality of information you discover, weigh it against physical reality and determine those conclusions. You mention students doing work that would baffle reporters. I add a caution: I’ve watched reporters and students alike examine online documents with a Pierre Salinger-like naivete. Oh, it’s on an excel spreadsheet — it must be true.

    Doctoring documents is nothing new — and yes, we have new and better tools to help discover those scams. But we need to continue to educate working journalists and students alike about the importance of reviewing online materials and tracking data back to its sources.

    That said, I agree that the digitalization of data is opening the door to new vistas of discovery. And I love that a large part of what our “proper” journalists can do these days is to help unearth meaningful data that they then place before readers along with their discoveries, and invite readers to help continue the process.

  2. Shanda

    So the expansion of all this access to sources and information scare you? I think it is great that citizens can now be knowledged and obtain the information that journalism was born to provide. Citizens can join forces in holding our leaders accountable. My fear is who will be the gatekeepeer. If everyone is able to be an investigative reporter and anyone can publish information on a wide variety of platforms, who will be there to make sure it is accurate. With overload of information being dispered will it make it easier for leaders to not be held accountable because nobody can really determine the facts. I do like what you said in teh end however that the internet is a tool that enhances the “proper” journalists job and invites the readers to help. If this is the fashion the world is headed I think it would be the perfect journalistic world. The accesability of information and piblication is what scares me.

  3. Darren Anthony Tynan

    I am a Private Detective and have Identification card with my company on as proof that I am really a private detective with 4 years experience in investigation work, I have now turned Investigative Journalist and looking on the write I have found that this is very use full information for any investigative journalist and to reason of why onlie documents are needed for investigative journalist work with out obtaining these documents we investigative journalist would not be able to do our job’s properly.


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