The skills of a journalist and a detective overlap. Every investigative story starts with a question. The journalist forms a hypothesis. He or she then does more research: following paper trails, conducting interviews that sometimes resemble interrogations, and putting together a mass of evidence — some of which can be 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 of defamatory laws, the standard of a journalist’s investigation and fact-checking should not differ greatly from that of a detective putting together a prosecution case.
But perhaps the underlying question is this “Can investigative journalists behave like detectives, by working undercover and employing equipment such as hidden microphones and cameras?” The answer here is more complicated. Some journalists do, and many award-winning works of the past are the result of such techniques. But it is worth remembering that the scope of a detective’s undercover work, and the rights of citizens under investigation by the police, are usually governed by a legal framework. Journalists abide by a code of ethics, and are not exempt from privacy laws. So, in order to ensure ethical journalism and 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 cannot substitute analysing, checking and contextualising this evidence, and constructing a meaningful story. Plenty of evidence is available in publicly accessible documents, if you know where to look and how to put it together.
While investigative journalists and detectives are similar in many ways, the end goal of their work 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. Other times, investigative reporting does not result in an accused wrongdoer, but reveals a pattern of events. In this way, investigative stories explain the context and subtleties of an issue, rather than simply pointing a finger at an 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 disclaimers such as ‘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 taking into account contradicting evidence, and changing their conclusions if the evidence points to a different direction. Investigative journalists are also managers. On big, long-term projects that involve deep research, they 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.