A fascinating article by Mark Feldstein in the last issue of the American Journalism Review offers a timely reminder: the rumours regarding the death of investigative journalism have been premature. It might be long dead in the USA, it clearly has not been doing too well in Western Europe of late, but the gospel may well be coming from other places. Feldstein offers a tour de force of investigative stories which provoked political and popular developments in Eastern Europe, South East Asia and other hotspots in the developing world.
Feldstein mentions the murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, alledgedly in connection with his exposés of corruption by then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his family. This attempt at shooting the messenger led to a rise, rather than a decline, in the number of investigative journalism outlets and reporters in the country. A similar increase of interest in journalistic exposures is registered in the Philippines, China, Latin America, and in the Arab world during and after the Arab Spring of 2011.
But while journalists in other countries are looking up to the West’s ethos of transparency and political etiquette and are sworn to clean the political stables in their countries of personal and institutional corruption, the West seems to be turning a bored and cold shoulder to this fine journalistic tradition. Feldstein quotes Mary Walton from an AJR article in 2010: ”Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether.”
Investigative journalism is considered, in the West, to be expensive to produce. The hours, weeks, sometimes months a reporter invests in thorough research, the expenses involved in travel, technology, interviewing witnesses and following leads and the danger of possible litigation are all strong deterrents for editors. In a world in which a newspaper, let alone a news broadcaster, is seen more and more as a “product” and a form of “entertainment”, they are at risk of being poised to provide the “consumers” only easy to digest news. Would Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been allowed nowadays to peruse their Watergate investigation for nearly a year? An investigation which set a standard and created a legacy for a generation of journalists. In a recent Washington Post article by Leonard Downie Jr. analysing the affair 40 years on, in light of the dangers posed to “Muckraking”, as this brand of journalism is known in the US, leaves room for doubt.
Have we become complacent? Has our hunger for immediate news from the ground overtaken our thirst for in-depth, fearless investigative reporting? Do we prefer to watch one of those long, confessional, seemingly “informal” interviews with a prime minister making coffee in his kitchen and talking about the perks of raising his small children than reading an incisive probe into the sources of his political funding?
The awakening of investigative journalism in the second world seems to be driven by popular support, by a public desire to find out what the politicians and businesses are hiding, by a healthy sense of doubt and a quest for new, cleaner governance. They often operate at great risk. 17 investigative journalists were murdered in Russia in the last decade for their exposés. We see such phenomenon in other countries. Last week we had the story of Uri Blau, who is about to stand trial in Israel for his reporting, and others, in different countries, some of them enjoying the image of Western democracies. A whole generation in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe is looking for inspiration from the uncompromising journalistic ethoses of the West just as so many media vessels in the West are letting those ethoses drop.
There are quite a few organisations who strive to stop the deterioration of investigative journalism in the West. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in City University, London, for example, is dedicated to “bolster[ing] original journalism by producing high-quality investigations for press and broadcast media with the aim of educating the public and the media on both the realities of today’s world and the value of honest reporting.” In the US the Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 1977 and the Center for Public Integrity was set-up in 1989. Other regional centres, often university based, are budding, but those organisations are more an evidence of what’s lacking in commercial media, than an evidence of interest in ground shaking exposures.
Maybe it is our turn to start looking up to the brave investigative journalists of Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt, the Philippines, India, Peru, Russia and China, just as they are looking up to the founding fathers of contemporary journalism in the West. Most of us have less to lose, but not necessary less muck to rake than they do. Their lack of complacency, their faith in the power of journalism to create better societies and mobilise public discontent with corruption, and their hope of shaping a new, more just, world, could inspire us too.