Is investigative journalism doomed?

by Ave

In the 21st century journalism is not quite what it used to be during the days of Fleet Street. This is true all over the world, but especially prominent in the United Kingdom. New media and internet are changing the face of traditional journalism, and some even fear they might replace it. One of the prime examples of professional journalism at its best has always been investigative journalism. It is natural to fear that with the change in the media world, investigative journalism might get replaced with citizen journalism as well. But is that really the case?

Investigative journalism is among the most expensive forms of journalism. It requires time, well educated and experienced professionals and usually a big budget for travel costs etc. It has been practised mostly in big and established newspapers and television. Today with the recession forcing budget cuts almost in every field of life, journalism is not better off either. Quite the opposite, actually – with the internet and web 2.0 changing the face of journalism and with the recession favouring in most cases free publishing online, it does not seem to be a good ground for serious, long journalism.

In today’s world, time is also one of the big issues. The internet enables 24-hour news that are updated as often as things happen in the world. Immediacy and the need for up to date information are the key words in the 21st century’s network society (theory introduced by Manuel Castells). Investigative journalism does not seem to cater for those needs, because of its longer, highly professional profile.

Our society feeds on information today. Transparency is essential in a democratic society and mostly provided by the media, especially journalists. From this aspect it seems logical to assume that investigative journalism, dealing with more serious issues and subjects, would be in full bloom. Why is this not the case? Or why does it not seem to be the case? When people think about investigative journalism, first examples of it that probably spring to mind are the Watergate scandal from the past, revealed by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. A good example from the present would be the scandal of parliament members’ expenses in the United Kingdom revealed by Heather Brooke.

It is true that journalists doing investigative stories have to struggle with the expenses and probably have a very good justification for their work. What I mean by this is that fifteen or twenty years ago it was a lot easier for journalists to “go out on a mission” to put together an extensive investigative story than today. Newspapers and media corporations used to have a separate investigative department, whereas now they have mostly been cut because of the expenses.

Many of the big names still active today have also noted the change there (Paul Lashmar, Terry Messenger among some of them). The justification and idea pitching has to be a lot stronger for spending time on doing an extensive investigative story. There is less money, less time, but it also seems that in reality there are more topics to write about.

There have been major changes in the world that have triggered the need for research and investigations. The need for information and transparency gives grounds to looking into politics, environmental issues, human rights, trade, health and so forth.

As mentioned earlier, there is less money put into and available in journalism. However, new areas in need of investigating have emerged because of the major changes in the society, nature and economics of the world. Quite ironically, those new areas of investigation are worthy of looking into, for one reason, because the biggest flow of money.

It sounds like a conflict of interests – people want and need to know, but yet they are willing to spend less money than ever on getting the guaranteed good quality information. This does not seem like a good ground for practising investigative journalism by far. However, some good professionals still keep the flag up high and do high quality journalistic work, providing valuable insights into current issues.

Felicity Lawrence has revealed the disgusting “behind the scenes” of our food production. It is important to reveal what has not been put on the labels of food people buy every day. Paul Lewis exposed the actual corruption of our police forces when they tried to cover up killing an innocent man during the G20 protests in London. Paul Lashmar with his team revealed how corrupt British businessmen tried to organise a coup d’état in Equatorial Guinea, but failed. All the things mentioned here are of foremost importance to bring into daylight because they all affect our society and world.

It has been said that media (and more precisely journalism) is the “watchdog” of the government. It is not only the watchdog of the government, but also all other departments that run our everyday lives, control it, and provide for it. Areas where most of the money moves today need to be kept an eye on, who else would do it but good professional journalists? Because of the industrial revolution and other rapid developments our planet is in great danger, but a lot of people fail to acknowledge that. Politicians all around the world need to have the journalist “watchdogs” behind their back to reveal dodgy businesses and so forth.

What scares me the most as a journalism student is that the conflict of interests – money versus the need for information, but provision of information needing money again (vicious circle?) will get the best of professional journalists. As long as there are journalists around who will still struggle to find out truth and reveal wrongdoings despite the growing difficulties in doing it, the world will be okay. The scenario of the web 2.0 with its user-generated content taking over traditional serious journalism is a worrying idea. This far it has not happened, because the public can still value professionally gathered and researched news. It seems as if journalists just have to substitute money with motivation and pursue the higher truth despite the obstacles thrown their way.

The state of investigative journalism today is not in great danger, but it has filtered a lot. We do not get that many stories perhaps as we used to, but the information revealed today weighs considerably more. It is reassuring to think that good journalistic practise still has the power to change the ways of the government, as we saw from the expenses scandal of parliament members. While not getting as many big investigations, the ones that we do get are of higher value, and perhaps of greater importance. Quality over quantity? Not necessarily, but it is a necessary adjustment in the current economic state at least.

Despite being a student of journalism and thus having to have more faith in the profession by default, some possible future scenarios seem grim. We can hope for the best and the bests to prevail, but only as long as people acknowledge the need for investigative journalism. Right now there is no need for serious worries. I hope.

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