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?