Journalism as investigation

Investigative journalism of quality and relevance is valuable in itself, in what it can do for ordinary folk and for society, typically holding up truth to power. It can play an instrumentalist role in re-energising professional journalism

May 06, 2016 02:01 am | Updated September 12, 2016 01:40 pm IST

N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Ltd and Publisher of The Hindu Group of publications, delivering the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture at the convocation of the Asian College of Journalism, in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo: V. Ganesan

N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Ltd and Publisher of The Hindu Group of publications, delivering the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture at the convocation of the Asian College of Journalism, in Chennai on Tuesday. Photo: V. Ganesan

Worldwide, journalism and the news industry are struggling, in this digital age, to reassert their relevance and value under profoundly changed and changing circumstances. In response to the challenge, a strong view is forming within the profession that one way to ensure that the activities that constitute journalism will continue to matter is to hone, strengthen, and develop its professional capabilities to perform certain core tasks.

In his important book, Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age (2013), George Brock, a veteran journalist who is currently Professor of Journalism at City University London, identifies verification, sense making, bearing witness, and investigation as “the irreducible core of what can be distinguished as journalism and… the basis of the trust on which it relies.” He predicts that these four core tasks will be “the foundation on which journalism in the 21st century is going to be rebuilt.”

Over the past half-century, there has been an ebb and flow of investigative journalism across the world, including of course India. Related to this, but separate from it, there has been an ebb and flow of public engagement with the results of investigative journalism, in response to larger events, trends, and issues in politics, economy, culture, society, and international relations.

But what is investigative journalism?

When it comes to definition, there is a surprising lack of agreement among practitioners and scholars in the field. Let us agree on the proposition that investigative journalism is the discipline of digging deep and bringing to light verified facts about wrongdoing, or about a matter of significance, which are sought to be covered up or are otherwise inaccessible to the public. But getting the facts right only lays the foundation for investigative work, which will not be worth very much if the reporter does not get the ‘meaning of events right.’

Gabriel García Márquez, who started out as a journalist and remained engaged with journalism and journalism education all his life, has a clear view on the central role of investigation; interestingly, it is a viewpoint shared by many old-world journalists. In a wonderful little meditation titled “Journalism: The Best Job in the World,” delivered in Los Angeles in 1996, the great writer puts forward the view that the education and training of young journalists must “rest on three central pillars: the priority of aptitudes and vocations; the certainty that investigation is not a professional speciality but that all journalism should, by definition, be investigative; and the awareness that ethics are not an occasional condition but should always accompany journalism like the buzz accompanies the blowfly.”

Journalism at its core When Márquez and a number of old-world journalists insist that there is nothing special that needs to be called investigative journalism, what they mean is this. All journalism worth the name must aspire, and be held up, to the higher standards demanded by the profession, not necessarily as it is practised in many places, but at its best. This means that truth-seeking, verification, digging deep, placing facts and events in context and in historical perspective, exercising the journalistic and, where possible, the literary imagination, analysing and commenting independently and freely, acting justly, humanely, and ethically should become an integral part of journalism.

When you take the broad view of journalism that sees investigation as one of its intrinsic and core tasks, rather than as a super-speciality or a sequestered discipline, a vast and wonderful vista opens up of work that is truth-seeking, richly themed, exploratory, imaginative, creative, literary, and, above all, passionate about freedom, humanity, and justice.

While investigating, exploring, and experimenting, journalists of the first rank are not satisfied with bringing to light a mass of material facts that they manage to unearth through diligent work, or that falls into their lap by a stroke of luck. Their real pursuit is to invest these hitherto concealed or inaccessible facts with social, moral and, often, historical meaning and weave them into a coherent and compelling story, so that the journalism contributes significantly to raising social awareness of the issues involved and also stands the test of time.

Consider these two examples of high-quality investigative journalism: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor , young newspaper reporter Márquez’s story of Luis Alejandro Velasco, originally published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador in 1955, and Kenzaburo Oe’s Hiroshima Notes , which began in 1963 as an on-the-spot report for a monthly magazine and was completed in 1965. They are unlikely to find a place as case studies in the textbooks but as investigative reporting, hard worked, meticulously researched, imaginatively conceived, and beautifully written, they will stand the test of time.

Taking the wide-angle approach does not mean that news organisations should not increase investigative bench strength, or form special investigative teams for particular projects. They should, of course. But it does mean that a much larger pool of journalists, educated and trained in the precepts and practice of quality journalism, can be drawn into the task of investigation than current professional practice allows. Motivating and empowering this greatly enlarged pool of young women and men to do thorough, thoughtful, and carefully supervised investigations into subjects of social and moral significance could have dramatic effects in terms of developing capabilities, improving work culture, and raising quality in the profession.

Investigation and ethics Let me take up two problematical issues that face reporters who investigate sensitive subjects — the frequent, almost endemic resort to deception, and dealing with anonymous and confidential sources.

The generally agreed rules relating to the use of deception in investigation are clear enough; the problem is with their implementation or, rather, enforcement in newsrooms. The first rule prohibits resort to deception unless it becomes clear that the information sought by the journalist, on a matter of significance, cannot be obtained in a straightforward way. The second rule requires that the ‘public interest’ test be applied if the deception contemplated is serious and would not be countenanced in the normal professional course. The third rule lays down that any investigation that relies on deception must be closely monitored by an editorial supervisor with sufficient experience to make calls on what is and is not legitimate from the standpoint of professional ethics.

The use and misuse of anonymous and confidential sources is a global phenomenon, a minefield that has claimed many casualties and also taken a toll of the public’s trust in journalism. The real problem for Indian journalism today is not so much the protection of anonymous and confidential sources. It is the licence given to official, corporate, and other privileged sources to use and abuse its columns and broadcast time and space, hiding behind the veil of anonymity. If they are free from scruple, these sources are able to wield power and influence without responsibility — promoting official agendas and special interests, attacking and, at times, scandalising opponents and opposing views, planting self-serving stories and, from time to time, plain disinformation.

Since the justification for the demand of anonymity and confidentiality is rarely questioned by reporters, and since the deals struck routinely between reporter and privileged source to grant confidential status are rarely monitored and supervised properly within the newsroom, the misuse of sources by journalists, and what is even more damaging, the misuse of journalists and the news media by privileged sources have assumed epidemic proportions. This is where clear, precisely formulated, and well-publicised editorial guidelines are badly needed in Indian newsrooms.

Investigative journalism of quality and relevance is valuable in itself, in what it can do for ordinary folk and for society, typically holding up truth to power. But it can also play an instrumentalist role in re-energising and revitalising the field of professional journalism that often seems to be tired, losing steam, and shedding value. In India and South Asia, the news media are still in growth mode, but there are indications that the global trends will catch up with us sooner than we think. Imagine what a regular flow and, over time, given our human resources, an explosion of high-quality investigations, carried out in the public interest on subjects that matter, can do for the vitality and social value of reporting. Imagine what this can do for trust in, and engagement with, professional journalism and the news industry in our part of the world.

This article is an adapted excerpt from the author’s Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture 2016, given at the Convocation of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, on May 3, 2016. The full text is >available here .

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