Investigative Journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters go in-depth to investigate a single story that may uncover corruption, review government policies or of corporate houses, or draw attention to social, economic, political or cultural trends. An investigative journalist, or team of journalists, may spend months or years researching a single topic. Unlike conventional reporting, where reporters rely on materials supplied by the government, NGOs and other agencies, investigative reporting depends on material gathered through the reporter’s own initiative. The practice aims at exposing public matters that are otherwise concealed, either deliberately or accidently.
Investigative journalism requires the reporter to dig deeply into an issue or topic of public interest. ‘Public interest’ refers to a quality whereby a community will be disadvantaged by not knowing this information, or will benefit (either materially or through informed decision-making) by knowing it. Sometimes, information that benefits one community may disadvantage another. For example, forest-dwellers can demand better prices if they know the market value of trees that logging companies want to fell. Of course, the logging industry does not want this information revealed, as tree prices will rise. An entire country need not be affected by the story and indeed, ‘public interest’ is often differentiated from ‘national interest’. Latter term is sometimes used by governments to justify illegal, dangerous or unethical acts or to discourage journalists from reporting on a significant problem.
Investigative journalism is not instantaneous. It develops through recognised stages of planning, researching and reporting, and has to adhere to accepted standards of accuracy and evidence. The base of an investigative story is the proactive work of a journalist and, where resources permit, his or her team. After receiving a story tip, journalists develop hypotheses, plan additional research, decide on the relevant questions, and go out to investigate them. They must compile evidence by witnessing and analysing answers for themselves, such that they go far beyond simply verifying the tip. The final story should reveal new information or assemble previously available information in a new way to reveal its significance. A single source can provide fascinating revelations, access to insights and information that would otherwise be hidden. But until the story from that source is cross-checked against other sources – experiential, documentary and human – and its meaning is explored, it does not classify as investigation.
Investigative reporting calls for greater resources, team work and more time than a routine news report. Many stories are the result of team investigations. But this poses problems for small, local and community publications with limited time, money, staff or specialised skills. A journalist may need to seek grants to support an investigation and learn to tap the skills of individuals outside the newsroom to help with specialist expertise.
Congolese Journalist Sage-Fidèle Gayala puts forward the arguments for and against team work:
‘It can be productive to work in a small team, where you have established that each participant has a useful specialisation. One can do the investigation on the ground, another can specialise in research and compiling documentation and the third in writing up the story. A team has a good chance of working quickly and breaking a story in a timely fashion. But we must also recognise that many newsrooms in the countries where we work are not clean. Newsroom players can be drawn in many ways into the traps laid by industry, business or policy-makers, whether these involve threats or “buying” journalists. Even many of our newspapers themselves have dubious origins, having been given start-up funding by one interest group or another. Editors are primary targets, and sometimes the main offenders, and when working in such a context a young journalist will have great difficulty in completing an investigative project.’