With the public outrage over phone hacking, the spectacle of Leveson, and the furore over The Sun’s printing nude pictures of Prince Harry, there has been some debate of the role of the press in the UK, and whether investigative journalism is now in terminal decline.
Traditionally it has been the job of reporters to question those who hold positions of power, and to hold them to account on behalf of society. This role as a watchdog has been cherished by journalists since the origins of newspapers, and reporters were described as ‘the Fourth Estate of power and the most important of them all, by Edmund Burke in the Eighteenth Century.
Investigative journalism fulfils an important social function, providing the public with the factual information about the institutions of power that govern their lives. Without journalists providing this otherwise unobtainable information, citizens would not be able to make rational economic or electoral decisions. Investigative journalism can be best defined as acting in the public interest; detecting or exposing crime, or serious impropriety; protecting public health and safety; preventing the public from being misled; and protecting the freedom of expression itself.
Investigative journalism is in decline in the British media, especially on television, which was for many decades a world leader in this form of reporting, with programmes such as World in Action, Panorama and The Cook Report. However the decline in ratings for current affairs generally has led to fewer resources and opportunities for investigative journalism, and led to replacement programmes which critics have dubbed ‘investigative journalism lite’.
Since the 1980s, there has been an increased emphasis placed on the profitability of news outlets. This has had a profound effect on investigative journalism, as in the past reporters sought stories which were newsworthy in their own right and this dictated whether a story was thoroughly investigated. Now journalism serves the market place, and it is market concerns that control the content and operations of reporters. Investigative journalism is expensive, and many outlets have shunned this type of reporting in favour of less costly and populist news stories. This shift has had a negative effect on reporting and stark consequences for democratic society, as journalists neglect the watchdog role of the news media, instead concentrating on the commercial concerns of their organisation.
Journalists are under immense time and financial constraints. Time and efficiency are vital in modern investigative journalism; a reporter may have a brilliant investigation, but if all the information cannot be gathered and translated into copy for a financially viable cost, it is not likely to be approved by management. The Guardian’s Nick Davies suggests that the economic constraints are now so severe that the modern reporter cannot possibly meet the journalistic standards of accuracy or the truth seeking imperative, and that most journalists today are reduced to simply regurgitating press releases or public relations ‘spin’.
The convergence of media in recent times has created a climate of confusion for news organisations. They are struggling to understand how to adapt to the changing requirements of their consumers, and which strategies to adopt as new technologies offer a variety of different platforms for disseminating news. This has led to different divisions of media conglomerates competing against each other in some instances, and when one platform becomes a profitable forum for content, it is adopted by traditionally different media types. Therefore a news consumer is likely to find a newspaper, for example, will have a web-site which will not only carry text from their publication, but videos which were once the preserve of broadcasters.
The internet has become the ‘go to point’ to find information, for the public as well as reporters. This has had a massive effect on journalism in general, and to a certain extent has removed the power as a gatekeeper that was once the preserve of news organisations. It is now possible for those who wish to disseminate information to the public, to do so using web based distribution, thereby bypassing the filtering of the gatekeepers. The internet has had some positive effects on investigative journalism, notably in providing information for, or to base investigations on. The emergence of sites like Wiki-Leaks has meant that previously hidden information has become more readily accessible, and on the surface might appear to threaten traditional reporting. However, the site’s creators have realised that the volume and crude nature of the data they hold is difficult to interpret, and they have formed partnerships with traditional media organisations, to utilise the skills of investigative journalism to process the information and create accessible stories for public consumption.
Investigative journalism has led to some of the most important news stories in modern times and has proved the fourth estate title claimed by journalists is still valid, even if such stories are less frequent. Perhaps the most famous investigative story is that of the Watergate scandal, a story which has become so well known that the ‘gate’ suffix is often added to large exposes ever since. Another more recent example of the value of investigative journalism is the MPs expenses scandal, which culminated in the publication of embarrassing and in some cases illegal claims made by British members of parliament in The Daily Telegraph during the summer of 2009.
Journalism is a job which has responsibilities; to provide the public with information, to verify the truth of that information, and to hold the powerful to account. These responsibilities are essential to maintain a functioning democratic society. As Watergate and the MPs expenses scandal highlight, there is a constant necessity for journalists to seek and expose those who abuse positions of power; however investigations on the scale of Watergate would be unlikely today, and the MPs expenses were pursued by an individual campaigner.
Investigative journalism is expensive, but it is definitely not a luxury. It is vital to safeguard our political and civic society, and is the only line of defence against the erosion of democratic institutions; its decline should cause great concern. It may be that the internet may eventually compensates for this decline, but it will still need investigative journalists to make wider society aware of corruption, and to fulfil the watchdog obligations of the media.