If referring to the skills detectives employ, the answer is ‘yes’, journalists are detectives. Every investigative story starts with a question. The journalist researches the question to formulate a hypothesis about its answer and social meaning. He or she then does more research: following paper trails, conducting interviews that may sometimes feel more like interrogations, and putting together a mass of evidence – some of which is extremely detailed or technical.
Journalists apply recognised standards (related to those used in a court of law) as to what counts as valid evidence and whether it adds up to conclusive proof. Because laws of defamation, like blasphemy, exist, the standard of a journalist’s investigation and fact-checking should not differ from those of a detective putting together a prosecution case.
Sometimes, what really should be asked is: ‘Is it ok for investigative journalists to behave like detectives, including working undercover and using techniques such as hidden microphones and cameras?’ The answer here is more complicated. Investigative journalists – including some of the best – do use these techniques. But it is worth remembering that the scope of a detective’s undercover work, and the rights of citizens being investigated by the police, are usually governed by legal framework. Journalists rely on their own ethics and are not exempt from privacy laws. So, in order to ensure ethical journalism and to avoid prosecution, investigative journalists need to carefully consider each situation before they act in this way. Hidden cameras and recorders only add to a store of raw evidence and do not substitute for analysing, checking and contextualising this evidence and constructing a meaningful story. A huge amount of evidence is available in publicly accessible documents, if you simply know where to look and how to put it together.
While investigative journalists and detectives are similar in many ways, they also conduct work that differs. Sometimes the purpose of journalistic investigations is not to prove guilt but simply to bear witness. Detectives stop when they can prove who committed the crime. Investigative reporting goes further than simply finding an answer. It gathers the right facts and gets the facts right. It reveals the meaning of the story, and shows a pattern in events, actions or evidence. Thereby, investigative stories explain the context and subtleties of an issue, rather than simply pointing a finger at the accused. It is by reaching this degree of depth in their work that investigative journalists can minimise concerns about their objectivity.
Certainly, investigative reporting, which has been called ‘the journalism of outrage’, does not seek to produce an artificially balanced account of two sides of a story. Instead, this practice is more concerned with being certain about the story that will be presented. There should be no equivocating about ‘We may be wrong’ or ‘We might be misinterpreting’. If such doubts still exist, the investigation has not gone deep enough, and the story is not ready to be published. There are never only two sides to a story. And balance in an investigative story comes from explaining these many facets and conveying not only what happens, but why. A detective leaves the explanation of mitigating circumstances to defence lawyers; an investigative journalist explains the full context.
In another sense, investigative journalists also act as scientists. Their methods require keeping an open mind until they have amassed enough evidence to support a story idea. That means not ignoring contradicting evidence, and being receptive to changing conclusions if evidence points in a different direction. In all those ways, journalists’ work resembles the scientific process where researchers put forward a hypothesis and test it to know whether it is correct.
Investigative journalists are also managers. On big, long-term projects that involve deep research, investigative journalists need to work with other team members and experts to stick to the story plan. For that, these individuals need to master clear communication and teamwork.