The difficulties of making investigating journalism.
METODE: Conference on Global Investigative Journalism, Copenhagen, Denmark, April 26. -29. 2001
I guess there is only one reasonable conclusion, I can make about David Boardmans presentation: He is the kind of editor it would be great to work for.
However - instead of an application to Seattle Times - I will try to take another look at the process of managing an investigative project - adding to the discussion a sceptical tone.
I believe, there are increasing problems with the way investigative journalism is carried out. And the role of the editor is at the centre of these problems - from the very early stages of a project to the final conclusion of the investigation.
Back in the eighties I was one of the editors who took a small part in founding a Danish version of ‘Investigative Reporters and Editors’.
With fellow editors and journalists at my newspaper I argued that this discussion could be a great inspiration to everyone - including the reporters with a specific beat and all the people in the newsroom.
Investigative journalism was a brilliant example to follow for all engaged in honest reporting, we argued.
But what happened? Well, during the last few decades investigative journalism has been used more often in Denmark - in newspapers, magazines, radio and television. Never the less - seen from my Danish observation post - many trends are troubling me, and I guess the time is now right to emphasize these problems.
There have been many fine victories for good journalism - but I can’t escape the feeling that quite a few investigative projects have not been fair and accurate - to me it looks like many journalists (and their editors) have fallen in love with their own role in revealing the big scandal.
There has always been a dangerous interaction between the commercial demands of the news industry - and reporters and editors trying to oversell their story and make it look like a much greater scandal than it actually is. I know many of you see another picture: A media-management who does not realize the potential of investigative journalism. But that kind of ignorance should not make us miss the fundamentals:
We must realize that we all work in an industry where increasing conglomerate control over news and culture is creeping in - and the commercial side gets ever stronger. In this context, of course, investigative journalism has to be acknowledged as an important commercial activity. It is essential that especially editors are fully aware of these commercial perspectives - and fully understands under which conditions corporate leadership supports big investigative projects. To ignore this is hypocrisy.
Another important aspect to be acknowledged is the power that aggressive journalism gives to reporters and editors. Tough investigative reporting can be dangerous - sometimes for the journalists - but too often also for the people accused. The good journalist must realize this - and deal with it. The relevant medicine I suggest is accuracy, humility and consideration.
In recent years it has in practise become more difficult to see investigative journalism as a brilliant example to follow.
The main reasons for this decline are weak editors - and the fact that the noble 70 principles of good journalism are often overruled by short sight commercial interests.
So, let my try to sum up some of my concerns:
Firstly - in practise perhaps the biggest danger is this: The project starts with a good idea - but after weeks of investigating the facts do not fit. But much work has been done, promises have been made to the rest of the organisation - and both editors and reporters don't have the courage to call it all off and admit that a non¬story was pursued.
Even editors, it seems, are able to overlook the Watergate-lesson: The cover up is often worse than the first mistake.
Secondly - another relevant danger is when the story's angle is chosen with a commercial eye rather than a journalistic one - there is a contradiction here – let us try to be frank about it. The easy told and sensational story is the one with high short time value - especially in the television-world. It can’t be ignored that editing such stones often includes difficult reflections over the principles of good journalism.
Finally - often the case is so complicated that it can be difficult for the people accused of wrongdoing to disprove a story, which is basically nothing more than a well-planned character assassination. In other contexts we have laws and rules protecting the individual - here the protection can be weak - which leaves a great responsibility with reporters and editors.
Please don't misunderstand what I am getting at:
In spite of all concerns, I strongly advocate investigative journalism. When it’s best it’s a must for society - and the opposite - journalists just holding the microphone or doing superficial reporting - is a much bigger danger.
Allow me also a few remarks on priorities ifl the daily process: I work at a small newspaper with tough budget restrictions. We are such a rare phenomena as a small nationwide daily. Never the less we try - with varying success - to make a difference. Our concept is simple:
• We try hard not to use our scanty resources at just repeating the mainstream top stories
• We try not to make investigative journalism an exclusive way of working for a small group - but instead over time involve the majority of reporters in digging deeper.
• We try to allow a relatively big part of the staff to be engaged in specific projects - at the expense of day-to-day reporting on the main news stones.
• We try to send our reporters in other directions than the market leaders follow.
• And we search for angles that focus on perspective, principles and analysis.
Oh, just another boring newspaper for intellectuals, you might think. And some Danes will agree. But my claim is that also media trying to catch a big audience can often use such principles with success. Instead of just looking around everyday asking: What's new.
We need alternative newspapers to ensure diversity. And that is only possible if someone dares to make a newspaper with it's own priorities - and to have trust in the projects and the investigations that are given priority. It’s not easy - many problems go along with it - but someone has to do it.
Let me try to offer a final conclusion:
Investigative reporting is a serious project to undertake - be sure it’s used only on topics that are important enough to justify the effort. Too many journalists declare themselves satisfied when they have uncovered a case of simple hypocrisy.
We should aim further - to search in order really to understand. As The Philadelphia Inquirers old editor-in-chief, Gene Roberts, underlined when he started investigating his own industry in the project “The State of The American newspaper”:
“We want to get at the seismic issues”, he said, “the fundamental forces that are happening deep below the surface but are forever altering the newspaper landscape”.
Let me try to put it another way:
We have a world undergoing severe climate-changes, we have modern societies that create new and dangerous barriers between people - we have a democracy that is endangered by populism - and we have new science changing the whole conception of life. Just to mention a few essentials.
Too often it’s relevant to ask, why big projects do not deal with what really matters. We must ensure, that the biggest problems are the focus of investigative journalism.
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