INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM – SOME THOUGHTS

A distillation of numerous talks and lectures over the years. 

Investigative journalism is all about digging deeper, and seeking relevance. It is the essence of all good journalism – researching and publishing information that is in the public interest. It can also be a risky business, since digging beneath the surface invariably uncovers things that some people would prefer kept out of the public gaze.

Journalists should be bringing to light that which is hidden, whether by accident or design, enlightening the general public about matters which may be of (grave) concern to them

Investigative journalism may ‘name the guilty’ but it may also simply inform the innocent. Reviewing John Pilger’s compendium Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs Roy Greenslade pretty much said it all.

The phrase ‘investigative journalism’ is, in a sense, tautologous because all journalism should involve some kind of investigation that results in the revelation of a hidden truth. 

‘Then again, there is no single form of journalism so the separate description is understandable. But let’s be honest: there is a qualitative difference between investigative journalism and all the other editorial matter that appears in newspapers. 

‘It is the highest form of journalism, pure journalism, real journalism, the reason journalists exist. At their best, investigative journalists serve the public interest by revealing secrets, exposing lies (and liars), uncovering uncomfortable facts, evading censorship and, sometimes, risking their lives to act as eyewitnesses to events. Its greatest exponents are muckrakers with a conscience working to that age-old dictum: ‘News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want published – all the rest is advertising’. 

‘By its nature, investigative journalism usually involves writing against the grain, confronting the prevailing political orthodoxy and often subverting it. Inevitably, investigative reporters are treated with suspicion, sometimes hostility. They tend to be lone wolves who suffer marginalisation, branded at best eccentrics, accused at worst of being traitors, in order to demean and degrade what they write and broadcast.’[The Guardian, Sat 30 Oct 2004]

However, investigative journalism does not have to be just about righting wrongs, exposing miscarriages of justice, corruption in public life or abuses of human rights. Sometimes it is simply a well-crafted presentation of a thorough piece of research into the causes and effects of an important public issue (the ‘credit crunch’, identity theft, or avian flu, for example) or consumer rights (price-fixing or miss-selling of pensions). 

Investigative journalists may choose to revisit an ancient or more recent historical event and reveal new information that might change public perceptions; or offer a detailed explanation of a constitutional issue (abolition of hereditary peerages; the partition of Ireland, etc.) complete with historical and legislative evidence. 

A riveting first-hand account of a major phenomenon (an earthquake, piracy on the high seas, the siege of Gaza, refugees camps) incorporating facts, figures, and especially personal experiences, qualifies equally well as investigative journalism.

All of these forms, in one way or another, may well hold the powerful to account and help to change the law or social attitudes, but importantly it empowers the citizenry by making available information that may be of value to them.

Often good investigative journalism elegantly fills an information void, laying out properly-sourced facts clearly, accurately and in context. The data may always have been there for anyone to find if they had the time or resources. It may be information that has been obscured deliberately or by default – like the perennial phenomenon of the spiralling cost of government (especially military) contracts; it may be material that answers questions no-one had previously thought to ask – like why is only ‘economic growth’ considered the best measure of human progress?

In a celebrated TV sketch Spike Milligan once delivered the evening weather forecast in front of a sash window on which a map of daytime conditions was painted. After a few suitably zany comments he announced: “And now for this evening’s weather”. Sliding up the window he stuck his head out and declared: “It looks pretty good to me, folks”.

According the formula adopted by The Guardian’s former chief investigative reporter Nick Davies this would be classic example of good journalism.  Rather than rely on a forecast, or a second hand opinion, with of which might make good quotes, good journalists will go out and get a feel for the weather themselves. By checking they have confidence and a context, and they only have themselves to blame if they get it wrong.

One story seldom changes the world, but researching a topic and crafting a story that will inform, enlighten or inspire others (and rattle a few cages in the process) is one of the ultimate journalistic goals – the production of high quality material that really matters to people.

That is my definition of good journalism – the direct communication of reliable information about current events, verified in person whenever possible. Self-confidence and an ability to communicate are a great help if you want to be a journalist, of course, but the four qualities I most respect are constant curiosity; dogged determination (it can take years to unearth the crucial nuggets that make or break a story); responsiveness to challenges; and a commitment to accuracy and the acknowledgement of errors.

I prefer them to Nicholas Tomalin’s 1969 recipe for the successful journalist, ‘…ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’. [Sunday Times Magazine 26 Oct 1969]

One story seldom changes the world, but researching a topic and crafting a story that will inform, enlighten or inspire others (and rattle a few cages in the process) is one of the ultimate journalistic goals – the production of high quality material that really matters to people.

Inevitably there are risks involved when you dig deep – investigative journalists are those most likely to receive threats or to suffer injury or assassination.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists more than 50 colleagues were killed in the course of their work during 2018 alone, including:

  • Radio presenter Jefferson Pureza Lopes in Brazil;
  • Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria
  • The documentary team Aleksandr Rastorguyev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko in the Central African Republic;
  • Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas & Efraín Segarra from El Comercio in Colombia;
  • Doordarshan cameraman Achyutananda Sahu in India;
  • Columnist Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez in Mexico;
  • Online reporter Ján Kuciak from aktuality.sk in Slovakia;
  • Abdullahi Mohamed Hashi in Somalia;
  • Ibrahim al-Munjar, a correspondent for website Sy24, in Syria;
  • Radio journos  Raed Fares and Hamoud Jneed in Syria;
  • Columnist Jamal Khashoggi from the Washington Post, in Turkey.

Too often the killers are not brought to justice – notably in the case of Irish investigative journalist Martin O’Hagan, assassinated by the Loyalist Volunteer Force in 2001 – whatever the circumstances. See https://cpj.org/reports/2018/10/impunity-index-getting-away-with-murder-killed-justice.php

And there are many other assaults on colleagues we never hear of, and there are those killed randomly in crossfire or in targeted attacks on news outlets. Now a team of international journalists are following up on those who are killed and keeping their stories alive at https://forbiddenstories.org/

Investigative reporting takes time and requires more resources than are normally available in a conventional newsroom. That means it a less attractive form of journalism to commercial operators. 

Thankfully there has been revival in enthusiasm for independent investigative work in recent years, thanks to the revelations of https://wikileaks.org/ and Edward Snowden, as well as the collaborations by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that filleted the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers to reveal the secret financial dealings of the rich and powerful.

In the UK the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with its Bureau Local <https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/local>, as well as <http://helpmeinvestigate.com/> and the Centre for Investigative Journalism <https://tcij.org/> are encouraging similar approaches to collaborative research with the new generation of community journalists working on such titles as <https://thebristolcable.org>,  Scotland’s <The Ferret>, <The Manchester Meteor <https://www.themeteor.org> and the Portsmouth Star and Crescent <http://www.starandcrescent.org.uk>

New models of funding are also being developed. Not only are some of the social media giants and charitable foundations offering funds for research and training, but new schemes, such as <https://themediafund.org/> have been set up to encourage members of the public to contribute.

As a result a new era of investigative journalism is opening up. Initiatives such as Delayed Gratification: the Slow Journalism Magazine <https://www.slow-journalism.com/> have pioneered a more reflective approach to the news of of the day, looking back and fleshing out the headlines. 

It would seem that a post-Leveson prediction in The Phone Hacking

Scandal: Journalism on Trial, is  being borne out by the facts. In our chapter Blame not the mobile phone, ’twas ever thus, my MediaWise colleague Wayne Powell and I concluded;

‘The journalism of the future … should become fertile ground for high quality investigative reporting which recognises people’s rights, considers consequences and expects public servants and power elites to operate as ethically as media professionals will now be expected to behave.’ 

©Mike Jempson, 12.i.2019

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