Investigate this

Investigate this

: Accepted wisdom in journalism is that investigative reporting is its highest calling and perhaps highest art. I just returned from two days at an Annenberg confab at which journalism educators lamented declining resource and dedication for investigative reporting. And last night, I appeared on MSNBC’s Connected, where two guests and the two hosts similarly lauded this kind of reporting and complained that not enough is being done (each end of the political spectrum wishing for more watchdogging of the other, naturally).

Of course, when feeling paranoid or pissed, you want somebody to probe the guy you don’t like and bring him down. And the prize economy in journalism is all about awarding big, expensive, long, and self-righteous indictments of the corrupt and nasty.

But I’ll be heretical enough to ask whether investigative journalism is what the public most wants from the press, whether chronic suspicion — as opposed to skepticism — can breed chronic cynicism, whether ever-sparer journalistic resources are best put to bringing down the bad guy or to helping us in our daily lives. What is the proper calling of journalism?

The Archbishop of Canterbury probes the probers today:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will tonight launch an attack on the media, berating the “adversarial and suspicious” nature of modern journalism, which he says holds people “guilty until proved innocent”.

Dr Williams, who won an apology from the Sunday Telegraph in December after the paper erroneously said the Asian tsunami had led him to question his own faith, will say a far-reaching reassessment of the press is needed to raise “embarrassingly low levels of trust” in the journalistic profession….

While stressing that a thriving media is vital to a “mature democracy”, Dr Williams will also tell his audience the way news is packaged inhibits the public from becoming engaged with issues and understanding them fully.

“There is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can’t – information that is needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent.

“But at the same time it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity.”

We love that line. Ironically, though, investigative reporting is one element of journalism that resists commodification and that’s why journalists love it: They get scoops, they get bylines, they get the thing the other guy doesn’t have.

Dr Williams will say the central task of the media is to “nourish the common good” of society, and praises the courage and commitment of many journalists.

Is that the task? There was a lot of talk at Annenberg about how journalism’s duty is to create an informed democracy. Is that more about education … or investigation … or communication?

However, he will add that “some aspects of current practice” are “lethally damaging” to the profession.

“High levels of adversarial and suspicious probing send the clear message that any kind of concealment is guilty until proved innocent. That is a case that needs more than just assumptions to be morally persuasive.” …

There, too, I’m not sure Williams is on the right track. Concealment does not equal guilt. But it does yield suspicion. Or to put it another way: Transparency, we now hold, is a virtue.

Still, Williams has a point.

The cliche is true: The watchdog role of the press is a vital check on the powerful in a democracy. But does every investigation serve the public interest or is it a gotcha moment that serves the ego of the reporter and his institution? Is it good to bring down the powerful or does the constant dogging of the powerful only divide us and sour us? Is it better to trap a lying politician or to bang the heads of our leaders to make them stop yelling at each other — on our cue — and start working together to make them fix health care?

And what role can citizen journalists play in this? Are we unleashing watchdogs on the unwatched — our local school boards, our heads of public works — or are we starting an epidemic of rabies? Are we the watchdogs on the watchdogs or merely growlers who don’t understand or appreciate the value of shoe leather?

These are not idle questions as the news business faces its economic crisis and restructuring, as they ask where to put their resources (task force or hyperlocal), as they grapple with the lack of trust in journalists (could it because we fostered that by trusting no one?). So what are your answers? Is investigative reporting journalism’s highest calling and highest art?

  • I would accept that journalism’s highest calling is helping create a better informed democracy.
    Near to this in value has to be exposing the bad guys, however. Not for the ‘gotcha’ value of the scoop, but for the deterent effect on other potential bad guys.
    Those in power must feel the watchful eyes of us all particularly the press, since they have access and presumably an audience.

  • pilsener

    I have to keep separating the cable news networks from journalism. The endless search for scandal accompanied by endless speculations on guilt or innocence have made CNN, FOX, MSNBC, BBC,, into some twisted, devolved form of investigative journalism.
    So whenever I hear calls for more investigative journalism I think of Richard Jewell, Gary Condit, the Ramseys, and Steven Hatfill. All of whom who were tried and convicted on cable tv, but have never been found to be guilty of anything. We need much less of that kind of investigative journalism.

  • Right of Center

    All the grand pronouncements of the “purpose of journalism in society” are hogwash. The media should be skeptics not adversaries. They should have no agenda except to reveal all aspects of a story in the fullest detail possible. And so it was (or seemed more so) during the (now gone) “age of balanced journalism”. The problem is that the cynicism they so effectively sowed is now biting them in the behind. If the general public believes every arm of government is corrupt and has hidden agendas, why would that cynicism magically stop at the newsroom threshold?
    The public is turning away from the notion of a “balanced” view from the press. We don’t believe in it any more. (both sides of the political spectrum).
    The new media have clear and stated biases. The public can read a multiplicity of biased viewpoints and even participate in the discussion and thereby formulate their own perspective.
    We look toward the “testing” of an idea or thesis (the conversation) to determine truth. Gone are the days when we ask our wise uncle Sal which car we should buy. Now we want to go to a website where they LOVE Toyotas and where they HATE Toyotas and where the lovers and haters go at it to gather facts for ourselves and make our own decision. We might go to the “official” Toyota site to learn the company’s propaganda – although useful we take it with large grains of salt. The same with the news.
    The MSM, as currently constituted, are ill-suited to participate in the open and transparent testing of stories. There cannot be a conversation fast enough in the letter section to test the memes. They will have to adapt or perish.
    Otherwise we will continue to see examples of the MSM being the water-carrier for stories more fully credited or discredited in the blogsphere, whereby (a la Bush Memos) the MSM prints the “result” of the meme testing.

  • It would be easier to take seriously complaints from the high priests of investigative journalism if they were more open to offers of assistance in spreading the skills required to do such reporting. For more than five years, I have overseen a Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting program at The Heritage Foundation that provides at no cost to journalists two-day boot camps in basic statistical analysis. We use the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) textbook, encourage attendees to join IRE and laud the immense investigative reporting resources available on the IRE web site. And yet for all this time, IRE’s leadership has maintained a position of open hostility to our program, refusing all offers of cooperation. More than 200 editors and reporters representing virtually every major media organization in the country has been represented in those attending our CARR boot camps, but it has always been in spite of IRE. We are now encouraging bloggers to take advantage of these CARR boot camps and we want to make the skills taught in our program as widely available among journos, bloggers and others involved in public policy reporting and analysis. Evidently, IRE prefers to keep investigative reporting limited to a small elite before whom all other journos are expected to bow. Puzzling, very puzzling.

  • anne

    Journalists would be taken more seriously if they widened their mission of educating the public to include good and bad news — and I’m not just talking about Iraq and political news.
    The problem is endemic to every large newspaper and most smaller papers as well. That’s not a surprise since it’s the mission of journalism schools to direct reporter-wannabes to find the conflict.
    I worked for a suburban daily for more than a dozen years and even at that level — which I think is more true to reality than larger papers — you find the mind-set that only bad news is worth writing about.
    And when the city paper sends its suburban reporter to cover a meeting or issue, you can damn well bet the reporter will ignore 95 percent of an issue to focus on the 5 percent that can be considered controversial. Thirty people can stand up to comment during a meeting, but the one person who is negative will be the focus of that story.
    That’s not reality — and that’s what more and more people are beginning to understand. Well, except for journalism professors and executives.

  • DSmith

    Investigative reporting, as currently practiced, is mostly worthless or counterproductive. Why? Because it is usually done cluelessly, from a position of bias, or both.
    Case in point: Watergate. It’s pretty clear that Woodward and Bernstein were as much played as players, as much led around by the nose as effective investigators. So, did W&B help us get to “the truth”? Not much. They just popularized a different version of a lie.
    Other cases on point of which I have technical knowledge: the Pinto gas tank scandal, Ralph Nader’s pack of lies “Unsafe at Any Speed”, the GM X-car rear brake issue, Audi unintended acceleration. Every single one of these was either an unfair or totally unfounded accusation. Each was put forth as a “scoop” by people who have zero qualifications to have a technical opinion on the matter. And they got it wrong. Again. And again. And the error wasn’t just harmless fun. Real people lost jobs, real stockholders lost value. All due to incompetent “investigative journalism”.
    Then of course there was the wonderful investigative journalism of Tailwind, Rathergate, etc., etc. Wait, there was that great job they did dissecting Kerry’s war record and getting to the truth there…oh…wait…nevermind.
    No. Spare me. Journalists, don’t do me any more favors. Stop doing what you call “investigative journalism”. It’s a negative-value product.

  • ralph phelan

    Ferreting out sectrets is a valuable job, not the only valuable thing.
    Finding publicly available but obscure information that people would want to know is another.
    Gathering many pieces of information that imply a pattern or trend is a third.
    There’s no particular reason to believe that most or even many of the most important stories are “secrets” stories, rather than of the other two types.

  • Maureen

    I worked in radio as a grunt-level DJ for years. Then I went back to college to get my degree in Mass Comm–hoping to move to “higher level” areas like network tv. What I found was the beginnings of what infects MSM today–doesn’t matter whether it’s the New York Times, CBS, CNN, etc. Watergate was probably the worst thing to ever happen to the media. Academics (inevitably aging wanna-be-hippies who’ve never held a job in the real world) are stuck in a time-warp where they believe the MSM is some sort of cathedral of truth & purity–which it, & ONLY it, is somehow able to ferret out, naturally by attacking & distrusting any sort of authority figure. Combine that with the virtually inevitable situation that they’re (pseudo)-liberals, who envision themselves as would-be Woodward & Bernsteins (in itself ridiculous, since those two were really hacks who got incredibly lucky & made a fortune for themselves off a 70s-era Linda Tripp), & you’ve got the basis for what ails MSM today. The 60s generation who now controls academic teaching jobs all are frozen in some sort of time warp where Woodward, Bernstein, & Rather define the pinnacle of journalism. Why? Well, because in true (pseudo)-liberal fashion, they took that (very tired) symbol of the evil of the Republican Party–old Tricky-Dick (& aren’t they just too clever by half to have come up with that expression!). Interesting how we have no media heroes who ever had the temerity to question JFK on his failed foreign policy (Bay of Pigs anyone?) or RFK & cronies on why they bullied LBJ into continuing the US presence in Vietnam because they needed to continue that JFK “legacy.” Nope, our middle-aged phonies teaching journalism in college today continue with that belief that Republicans/conservatives are evil sweaty old men, while Democrats/liberals are young photogenic symbols of hope.
    Throw in a healthy dollop of the incredible snobbery of snot-nosed kids who think having mommy & daddy pay for 4 years of college somehow makes them superior to the “common folk” out there–& therefore puts them in the position of having to tell the great unwashed what the “news” is, & you see where the public has become so fed up. I was constantly astounded at listening to 19-year-olds pontificate on how the general public couldn’t possibly know what to think without their assistance–aided & abetted by those middle-aged professors who are forever stuck in the mentality that Woodward-Bernstein (or, God-help-us, Dan Rather) define journalism. Having spent several years among that very same general public, I knew full well that a farmer or logger in Idaho (where I worked at the time) knew far more about trade restrictions between the US & Canada than some college kid. They might not have the college degree, but their livelihoods sure depended on those issues–so they could ful well discuss it (just maybe not in the esoteric terms of a college class) & how it impacted them. Ditto the folks whose kids are actually heading off to Iraq today to fight.
    That’s why I think blogs are becoming so successful–& why, say, Fox or Howard Stern are so successful in their niches. (And why they’re so frightening to the pseudo-liberals running MSM.) They’re dropping the pretense of neutrality. As a former news reporter myself, I can assure you that it never existed. Anyone really want to claim that those paragons–Woodward, Bernstein, Rather–were really neutral? No. None of us are. That doesn’t mean you can’t go out & do a good job of reporting. I’ve often found that someone who may be on the other side of the political fence from a person they’re covering tries harder to be fair. But I’d just as soon know the underlying bias of whatever news outlet I’m consuming at the moment. Hey, I’m intelligent enough to filter my own news, thank you very much. I don’t need the pretense of neutrality–that, frankly, makes me more suspicious of a news outlet than a supposedly slanted source. I love reading the UK newspapers. I’m able to know full well that the Sun is going to have a completely different perspective than the Telegraph or the Guardian–& I filter what I read accordingly. I do that as well with the New York Times & the Washington Post. They’re so incredibly biased (under the guise of neutrality) that I no longer regard either one as anything more than a good local paper–their US & international news coverage, frankly, is no more valid than the Sun’s or the Post’s (& a heck of a lot less entertaining!).
    And I find increasingly, that if I want a really good view of what’s going on around the world, I’m going to look at a slew of blogs–rather than rely on the snobby judgement of a Pinch Sulzberger or a Graham (you know, the ones with a college education–so they’re superior to the great unwashed masses) to determine for me what is news that day. I’m more than happy to look at blogs with different ideologies, see what stories they’re picking up from around the globe (most ignored by the Times & Post), filter out the bias, & go from there. Frankly, I find that far more accurate & informative than what I’ll find from MSM sources.

  • Ralph Phelan

    And then of course there’s the elephant in the living room: Bias.
    How about investigating some Democrats and “public interest” groups for a change? I’d bet you’d find a lot of low hanging fruit there. Unlike Republicans and businessmen, they’re not partiuclarly careful – you don’t have to be when you know the press is on your side.

  • I love people with no knowledge of history.
    If it weren’t for Upton Sinclair and the rest of the muckrakers we would all be eating tainted foods, taking harmful and useless drugs, etc.
    And yes, Ralph Nader, too. Whatever the facts of the Corvair, the underlying point of a lack of interest in safety was valid. We have much better autos now as a result.
    True investigative reporting is a slow, expensive process but still goes on in magazines and books. It just doesn’t get much play on TV or in the newspapers.
    Without it we get totalitarianism.

  • Ralph Phelan

    And then of course there’s the elephant in the living room: Bias.
    How about investigating some Democrats and “public interest” groups for a change? I’d bet you’d find a lot of low hanging fruit there. Unlike Republicans and businessmen, they’re not partiuclarly careful – you don’t have to be when you know the press is on your side.

  • DSmith

    “Without it we get totalitarianism.”
    Riiiiight. Without the Blessed Journalists to save us by telling the Real Truth we’re all doomed to totalitarianism, like under Saddam. We need the press to get the truth out to prevent that terrible fate from happening to anyone. Eason, protect us! Woops, wait a minute….
    As to Nader, a lie in a “good cause” is still a lie, and if the cause needs it to succeed, it’s not a good cause. There are exceptions (wartime), but Ralph Nader’s self-serving grandstanding ain’t one of them.

  • whodat

    It depends what you call “investigative” journalism. It doesn’t have to be secret, just mostly unknown. For instance here in Chicago, a TV reporter recently did a report on how easy it was for anyone to buy a pilot’s uniform. Now there are new laws that just passed the general assembly here and await signature from the governor– now making it a felony to impersonate a pilot.
    That is my idea of investigative journalism. Brings about positive change.

  • TL

    Investigative journalism is only as valuable as the consumers of journalism insist that it be. Unfortunately, with our education system degraded into a government monopoly of touch-feely ignorance and the academic crucifiction of analytical thought, there really isn’t a robust market to support quality investigative journalism. Why go to the trouble and expense of providing a balanced, meaningful product when you can b.s. your way to fame, glory and riches with a piece of biased crap aimed at a sympathetic demographic?
    This explains the success of the blogs — those who care enough to do it right are able to bypass the profit-driven filter of the MSM and publish their stuff cheaply and those with a mind for it are able to go out and find it. It also signals the beginning of the end for the MSM as far as investigative journalism goes, because its difficult for profit-driven businesses to compete with a quality product that is free.

  • Maureen

    “True investigative reporting is a slow, expensive process but still goes on in magazines and books. It just doesn’t get much play on TV or in the newspapers.
    Without it we get totalitarianism.”
    Um, yeah–whatever. You mean those “investigative” reports Newsweek gave us recently? Or Time? (Both, of course, with their blatantly obvious slants. I’d actually give them a bit more credence if they’d just come out & put on their masheads “Owned by the DNC; committed to undermining whatever Republican is President at any cost.”) Ironically, tho, you may be correct–just not with the medium. The REAL investigative journalism today is being practiced by those folks in their pajamas the MSM (including “magazines & books”) are so busy maligning. One reason why, I’m guessing, is because those folks in their PJs are actually getting closer to true journalism than today’s biased MSM can hope to be.

  • hey

    “fake but accurate” eh? hahahahahahaha
    one problem with investigative journalism is that most journalists have no education. they’re liberal arts grads that went to grad school to learn to write (6 years of learning to write essays). They are essentially innumerate, scientifically illiterate, economically illiterate, financially illiterate, ignorant about business, ignorant about marketing, have no idea what forces actually are (gravity, etc)…..
    Look at an article about the “rising cost of housing”: they’ll take a quote from a leftist NGO that wants public housing or rent control, talking about how housing prices have skyrocketed by 50% in the past 10 years. they won’t mention that that’s a 4% annual increase and that it is likely essentially unchanged after inflation is taken into account. B eyond that there are all the issues of not knowing how to use statistics, idiotic usage of polls, etc.
    The main reason that people don’t bvelieve the press is because if you know anything about a given issue or area, you’ll see how the general press will completely screw up the story. They won’t take criticism, and people rotate through subject matters too fast to actually be useful. Walt Mossberg used to report on politics, but now that he’s been writing tech columns for years, he’s actually useful and knows what he’s doing. Normal reporters spin through sections and publications in a few years and leave even before they know what they’re doing.
    The atlantics has been doing some good reporting with their security articles. No big “scoop” or evil doers, just well reasearched, long term stories about little reported things that the US military is doing. Leftists writing, but they are actually doing a good job. I’d say that the whole focus on muckraking is idiotic, and that by just looking for interesting and lyrical stories would produce much more interest. You just lose your leftist credentials.

  • whodat

    Kinda harsh about journalists–I think they are more educated than you think and my experience with them leads me to believe that. But I certainly agree with this: “I’d say that the whole focus on muckraking is idiotic, and that by just looking for interesting and lyrical stories would produce much more interest.”
    Have any of you ever watched “Real Sports”? Outstanding example of quality storytelling and journalism.