Investigative Journalism

What Is Investigative Journalism, and How Does It Work?

While definitions of investigative reporting differ, the primary components are broadly agreed upon within professional journalism groups: systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, typically involving the discovery of secrets. Others point out that it frequently makes extensive use of public documents and data, with a strong emphasis on social justice and accountability.

Story-Based Inquiry Magnifier

“Investigative journalism means exposing to the public topics that are concealed–either purposely by someone in a position of authority, or accidently, behind a chaotic mass of facts and situations that cloud understanding,” according to a UNESCO manual on investigative journalism. It necessitates the use of both confidential and public sources and documents.” Investigative reporting is defined simply as “critical and in-depth journalism” by the Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism organisation VVOJ.

The Panama Papers are a set of documents that have been made public. The Boston Globe’s investigation on the Church’s systemic sexual abuse. Watergate. These are only a few examples of investigative journalism that spring to mind. The stories are shocking, expose something new, and, more often than not, spark change — albeit slowly.

But what distinguishes these sensational reports as investigative journalism?

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: all else is public relations,” wrote British writer George Orwell. While any journalism, including day-to-day breaking news, necessitates some kind of investigation, investigative journalism is distinguished by extensive in-depth study that might take months or years to complete.

These reporters look into a tip that could lead to the discovery of corruption, a study of government or business policy, or a spotlight on social, economic, political, or cultural trends. Unlike traditional reports, which are sparked by materials provided by an organisation — such as a government or NGO statement — investigative reporting is usually the result of a reporter’s initiative. Perhaps he receives an anonymous email containing hundreds of dubious files, or perhaps a long-established contact informs her of a corporate conspiracy rumour. In any event, the goal of investigative journalism is to bring to light topics of public concern that are otherwise hidden, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

If a community would be disadvantaged if this information did not become public, or if it would benefit, either materially or through informed decision-making, from such knowledge, that is a reasonable guideline as to what defines “public interest.” Information that enriches one community can sometimes be detrimental to another. Forest dwellers, for example, may be able to get higher pricing if they know the market value of the trees that logging firms wish to cut down. The logging industry, understandably, would not want such information to become public since tree prices would rise. Stories of public interest do not always touch the entire country, but when they do, they are referred to as being of “national interest.” Unfortunately, governments frequently use that term to legitimise unlawful, harmful, or unethical behaviour, or to dissuade media from reporting on major issues.