Journalism is one of the pillars of democracy. Indeed, some of the main tasks of journalists are to ask uncomfortable questions, to hold those in power accountable for their actions, and to inform the public of any misconduct and ill-doings of people or corporations capable of affecting our lives. Journalists are intrinsically driven to uncover as many hidden facts and relationships or dependencies that are swept under the rug since these harm society or certain groups in it.
The Watergate investigation is one of the most famous examples with a nationwide impact on the history of American journalism. In 1972 two journalists from the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncover a series of crimes related to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. The unraveling of the story starts with the investigation of a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic Party, but leads to a national scandal and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Consequently, long-lasting mistrust of the American government and a public expectation of political transparency followed, resulting in an improvement of democracy in the US.
A recent but equally notable example is the story of the Panama papers. In this case, reporters from over 80 countries and more than 100 media outlets collaborated for months to uncover the story hidden in more than 11.5 million leaked documents from the Panamanian financial company, Mossack Fonseca. They proved that wealthy people from all walks of life, politicians, corporation leaders, bank trustees, and celebrities set up shell companies in an effort to evade taxes, sanctions, and the public eye. These discoveries resulted in numerous resignations of high-ranking officials all over the world.
If we look closely, we will see that investigative journalism is different from news reporting or press-conference coverage. It involves a more systematic approach. This means not only asking and finding answers to the five W questions: what, where, who, when, and why, but also digging deeper and unraveling the connections between results and reasons until one gets to the bottom of the story.
Take, for example, Exxon and how the people in charge of the company were aware of climate change as early as 1977. Despite this, the leadership of the company had spent decades denying global warming. Additionally, they falsified scientific evidence in an attempt to convince the public that climate change is a hoax. To uncover the whole story, research journalists from the nonprofit, InsideClimate News, interviewed former employees and federal officials and sifted through the company's internal documents and data for eight months (Hall, 2015).
In investigative journalism, sometimes known as watchdog journalism, it often takes weeks or months to uncover a story. Investigative reporters cannot simply regurgitate information gathered from news agencies or other sources. They often begin their research with a hypothesis of what is going on, after which they set out on a quest to prove this hypothesis. To accomplish this, they need to dig deep into public data and records, follow sets of documents, and more often than not, track the money traces. Public records are often buried or hidden under a lot of insignificant data, and the reporters' job is to make sense of them and lay them out for the public.
Watchdog journalism typically focuses on hot topics such as organized crime, corruption, and social justice, and protects the interests of the most vulnerable members of society. It should be distinguished from a leak or whistleblower journalism, in which journalists only make obscured facts public. True investigative reporters use the facts as leads, to delve into the story so that they can describe the whole picture in context. Last but not least, they follow up on their stories. The life of a story does not end with its broadcast. Follow-ups are needed to shed light on important issues and report the impact of initial stories, thus, helping to improve the practice of journalism as well as contribute to a more just society. Have the wrongs been righted? Have the appropriate institutions taken action to penalize or correct the injustices?
Being an investigative journalist is a risky job and may be as dangerous as wartime reporting, if not even more so. The first victims of aspiring dictators, corrupt governments, and rotten judiciaries are often independent media outlets and impactful journalists. There are many pieces of evidence that journalists are being silenced around the world. Reporters and their families are intimidated, threatened, persecuted in courts, physically attacked, pressured to quit, fired, kidnapped, imprisoned, and even killed. Such as Daphne Caruana Galizia, an independent Maltese journalist, who revealed corrupted politicians, or Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist who specialized in exposing tax fraud with links to Slovak politicians, both of them brutally murdered in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
In some cases, whole media outlets are bought to silence professional and socially conscious journalists. This happened with Bulgarian International Television (BIT) which was founded in Chicago in 2013 and gave voice to many prominent journalists, who continued their careers there, such as Ralitsa Vassileva, a former CNN spokeswoman. In 2015, the TV channel began broadcasting not just to Bulgarians abroad but also to people living in the country. As a place for in-depth analyses, research, and reporting, BIT quickly earned a reputation for being independent, honest, outspoken, and unyielding to political or economic pressures. In 2016, BIT received the annual award 'Bulgarian Media of The Year' for its independence and objectivity. However, in 2017, some controversial programs were taken down, followed by BIT procurement by "Interactive TV Systems Bulgaria" enterprise in the end of 2017. Shortly after, in the early 2018, the new owner halted all broadcasts, claiming they needed to renovate and restructure the TV program. The media never broadcast anything again, and the company behind it was declared bankrupt in 2019. This put a definite end to BIT's short but remarkable presence.
In recent years, investigative journalists, as well as other media practitioners had to overcome another hurdle too - the economic uncertainty and the downsizing of many communication channels. In 2019, more than 2,000 people working in the media sector in the US lost their jobs, and globally, other media outlets had to follow suit to survive. The reasons for these major layoffs were purely financial. Staff cuts were experienced by all the giants, such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Online media outlets turned out to be not such high revenue machines, and the income from advertisement was not sufficient to sustain the wide variety of them. Consequently, a lot of local news channels were taken over by non-profit local news stations such as Texas Tribune or Voice of San Diego.
Those events made the overall picture of journalism look rather grim, and many experts predicted that investigative journalism might soon be extinct. However, quite surprisingly, the opposite happened. Watchdog reporters are alive and kicking all over the world. Many prudent media editors did their best to protect their investigative reporters from sacking. Moreover, as Schiffrin (2017) discovered while doing research for her book Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World “The amount of data now available online, the ability of journalists to use the Internet to connect and share information is a major aid in cross-border reporting. In addition, fresh news operations of every sort seem to be popping up, eager to promote investigative reporting.”
In support of her statement, there has been a surge of novel sources of funding in the form of crowdfunding projects, and financial aid provided by philanthropists and nonprofit donors, while at the same time, experienced journalists have established investigative journalism organizations such as 100 Reporters, Global Investigative Journalism Network, Forum for African Investigative Reporters, Investigative Reporters and Editors, The Institute of Nonprofit News, SCOOP, ProPublica, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Overall, even though the future of media outlets may be uncertain and money streaming into the sector is not a given constant, there will always be work for journalists with an investigative urge to expose injustices and speak truth to power around the globe.
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