Thursday, 25 November 2010

Let's talk investigations

There's a lot of chatter about 'new' ways of doing investigative journalism - those 'new' ways being, inevitably, online, connected, networked, two-way, global and local etc etc.

The problem is, very few of the acts of journalism that the 'new' ways enable are actually investigative. Sure, they're ways of getting below the surface of data and issues and public policy - but 'investigative journalism' they just ain't.

This matters. Because there's any number of external pressures squeezing genuine investigation out of mainstream journalism. And it would be journalism's and the public's loss if we journalists stood by and allowed the name 'investigative journalism' to become hollowed out - but that's what's happening.

Examples. This from Vadim Lavrusik - who teaches social media at the Columbia School of Journalism in the US and for that reason alone is unlikely to be lukewarm about the journalistic possibilities of networking.

His is a beguiling account of "a society more connected than ever" in which "investigative journalists ... are now taking advantage of their online community relationships to help ... uncover potential wrongs".

He goes on to argue that 'tomorrow's reporters' will be able to:

"create contextualized social story streams that reference not only interviewed sources, but embedded tweets, Facebook postings and more."

And already, journalists are:

"leveraging the vast reach of social networks in unprecedented ways ... social media is enabling watchdog journalism to prosper."

Fine. As far as it goes. No-one could possibly argue with the benefits of networks that enable journalists to dig into any story. Or to tap into the experience and expertise that's out there. Or to commission communities and audiences to wear out some of the real or figurative shoe-leather that has to be sacrificed in the interests of reporting.

But this is, rightly, called Distributed Reporting. And it's a long way from investigative journalism, though it might well throw up leads that generate an investigation. But in essence, it's no more than .. well, basic journalism. All journalism has inquiry at its heart - anything else is PR or advertising. But inquiry is not the same as investigation.

Crowd sourcing, or community sourced mapping, is often cited as another 'new' form of investigation - but again, it's anything but and often falls some way short of even being journalism's raw material.

While it's possible to point to examples of mapping that have been robust, timely, accurate and of public use, there are - as I wrote here - those that haven't been and which, in spite of good intentions, ended up lacking rigour, being quickly out of date, misleading and inciting community behaviour that was anything but beneficial.

The third main category of 'new investigative journalism' is more properly a form of watchdog journalism' - the best UK example is Paul Bradshaw's beta site Help Me Investigate. It's a hugely successful site, of immense value which delivers a new form of networked journalism and has seeded a number of successful investigations.

But in itself, it's not investigative journalism - actually, Paul doesn't claim that it is. At its best, it's an exciting, broadly based watchdog journalism - helping keep the community's attention on the things power does in its name. And seeking answers.

All in the name?

Perhaps all we have here is a difference in terminology - but it's one that matters and matters a lot.

Investigative journalism is much more than sifting data or collecting data that would otherwise be uncollected. It's much more than asking the pointed, significant questions that take journalism beneath the surface facts. More than ensuring power is challenged.

In truth, all journalism is about one or more of those.

At some point, all investigative journalism is about uncovering something that's being deliberately hidden. Something that's it's in someone's interest to keep out of the light.

And it's about assessing the veracity, motives and context of sources that help you uncover what's hidden ... often without anything other than strong, circumstantial evidence to rely on.

It's about persistence - getting the key player to speak. Getting sight of the key document. Joining the dots hidden in confusing and often contradictory testimony.

And the relentless, self-critical checking and counter checking, testing hypotheses, testing alternative interpretations of the limited facts you have ... making the call on what you can and can't say. What's true not just in the detail but in the overall account.

The obvious point. It takes time, it takes money and it takes commitment - both of the individual reporter and of the news organisation.

Of course, inviting audiences and communities in, to use those networks to grind through what can be ground through or to add the expertise that's out there. But does anyone really think that we could have networked our way to the truth about Thalidomide or uncovered the 'third man' or identified the Omagh bombers. Or crowdsourced or community watchdogged our way to those hidden truths?

No. Thought not.

And the danger is, if we allow the term 'investigative journalism' to be applied to something that can be made to look and feel a bit like it's 'investigative' but really isn't. And which, into the bargain requires nothing of the same time, money and commitment - is a hollowed out shell - we'll lose the real thing.

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