The latest in the series of FAQ posts comes from a student in Germany who is interested in how investigative journalism is affected by the financial situation of publishers, and how it might develop in the next decade.
1. How would you describe the current situation of investigative journalism in the UK?
I think it’s a mixed situation as always. There’s certainly a lot of interest in investigative journalism, with a lot of people taking the initiative to launch their own projects. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been particularly notable in that respect, but also the work of Brown Moses stands out.
Crowdfunding in particular is playing an increasing role (one of my distance learning students at Birmingham City University raised over $6000 for her investigation), but also campaigners and activists publishing their investigations, and data journalism techniques being used by a wider number of people.
A lot of publishers are starting to see investigative journalism as a way of adding value and setting themselves apart from blogs and other sources.
2. In recent years there has been less time for developing contacts and less time spent on each story also due to financial problems. In your opinion has this influenced investigative journalism in the UK?
Well your question includes an unsupported statement of fact so I’d need to see the evidence of that first!
Certainly anecdotally a lot of individual journalists (not specialist investigative reporters) complain about there being fewer reporters and more pressure, but then again as I say above some publishers are re-allocating resources to focus more on original journalism than processing.
So I think we need some proper research that measures how resources are being allocated with fewer staff but also easier access to information and increased competition.
Aside from that, I do not think investigative journalism has suffered in the last few years, especially when you look at the string of landmark stories from MPs’ expenses to Wikileaks and Offshore Leaks.
3. Nowadays newspapers are full of reports about spying scandals and worries about data protection (i.e. NSA). Do you think this has changed the way an investigative journalist works in the UK?
It is starting to change the way they work, yes. But that change is having a different impact on different journalists.
I think there’s a spreading recognition that we need to be careful about protecting sources and our own information – but at the moment it’s merely that: awareness.
Transforming that into action takes time: a lot of journalists don’t know where to start and are just taking their first steps into things like encryption. Because the NSA story was framed as being about national security, too many think it doesn’t affect them. More recent revelations about police using RIPA in the UK have broadened the relevance further, but not widely enough.
4.. There was a big media scandal in the UK triggered by the hacking of thousands of phones by the News of the World. Has it changed the perception and role of investigative journalism in the UK?
I don’t think so, but a question about public perceptions needs to look at surveys of those.
Most of the surveys I’m aware of don’t ask specifically about investigative journalism but about news brands. In that case trust varies enormously between tabloids, broadsheets and broadcasters.
The hacking scandal was portrayed as being about celebrities, so I don’t imagine most people associated it with investigative journalism.
5. What kind of investigative reporting do you wish to see in say, 5 or 10 years? Who will do it, how will it be different?
I suspect it will be more personalised: we increasingly have the ability to relate our stories to individuals in terms of their postcode or school or health.
I also suspect there will be a greater use of sensors, drones, and hidden cameras as all of those technologies become cheaper and more widely used.
And of course a greater use of data – simply because there will be more of it from all sources including those above.
As to what I’d like to see: well, more investigative reporting which is driven by importance rather than audience.
One of the most exciting aspects of online journalism for me is the way that it makes different types of investigations possible – not just the ones that would attract big audiences or make a big splash.
So I don’t just mean investigations which are important nationally, but important to communities which don’t have a well staffed newspaper, or who aren’t represented on (overwhelmingly white and university-educated) staff of newspapers.
In that sense I’d like to see it being done by a much broader range of people than has been the case traditionally.
I’m currently working with some organisations to teach investigative skills to young people who wouldn’t think of journalism as a profession and probably wouldn’t be able to afford to work in it. Hopefully in a few years time they will be doing their own investigations simply because they can, and not because it’s their job.