One day a few months ago, during a protest that immediately caught the attention of camera crews, a reporter for a major news network stood in the foreground as buildings burned, rioters rioted and loud calls for social change echoed around him.
At one point, the correspondent grabbed a man walking past him, a bystander, and asked him for his thoughts about the day’s events in his city. The man’s response underscored his purpose for being on the scene. He believed that a wrong had been done, that someone should be held responsible and that the rioting was a manifestation of the anger and frustration many people were feeling in the aftermath.
Watching the scene unfold on television, in real-time and punctuated by the occasional profanities people shouted in close proximity to the camera and microphone that were recording every bit of this event in a virtually cinema verite style, it had to become apparent to anyone who’d followed the media throughout their lives that the reportage was a masterful bit of work, placing oneself and a photographer in the middle of a danger zone.
It may have reminded older viewers of the safari jacket-clad reporters they watched years ago as they reported from such far-off places as Vietnam or the Persian Gulf. In those days, their stories were shot on film and edited for later broadcast. This was live and in the moment.
It can, of course, be detrimental to one’s well-being to place him or herself where the action is for the purpose of relating dramatic incidents that are happening at arm’s length. But that’s what reporters do, and what many journalism students aspire to do.
There’s a combination of ambition, bravery and idealism that infuses many stories told through the media. At one time, investigative journalists had to track down leads and submit them to heavy questioning using a pen, tablet and telephone and wearing out a lot of shoe leather. Ultimately, the objective was to tell a story that captivated audiences, made them think and expose situations that impacted their lives, like government corruption.
Times have changed:
Times have changed. Journalists still investigate, but the ability to maintain a free press and effectively question society’s power structure requires a bit of technological understanding.
In recent years, major digital social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others have affected and influenced public discussion and completely changed the paradigm. Blogs and citizen journalism have expanded the definition of what constitutes reporting. And in the meantime, surveillance has transformed our sense of privacy and security flaws have put businesses and our personal data more at risk.
In addition, many media outlets and the journalists they employ are now faced with increased public scrutiny and a heightened level of distrust as reporting and commentary are presented side-by-side, often without a clear delineation between them, and as a result people are now claiming “fake news” reporting.
In an age when news sources come from many places and a few major news organizations have even been caught — and have been forced to admit to — manipulating news stories via biased reporting and creatively edited video or audio content, it is incumbent upon every journalist to seek out, analyze, and determine reputable news sources based on the criteria they have always applied – objectivity, command of the facts, attribution, and sourcing.
Comparing then and now:
Let’s go back a few decades to another era, one in which investigative reporters were held in high esteem as credible sources of information. During the pre-Internet days of the 1960s through the early 1990s, there were fewer news outlets divvying up viewership, and the journalists who provided the public with thoroughly researched and reported investigative stories earned their reputations by working tirelessly to report the truth.
In those days, Eric Malling, a Canadian investigative journalist, began paving a path for himself and others who would follow suit. He started reporting in the print media during the 1970s, moving a few years later to the television environment, where he would remain until the late 1990s. During his long and storied career, Eric Malling uncovered many interesting scandals and shed light on systematic corruption that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Because of his diligence and tenacity, he delivered countless stories that not only earned strong viewership, but also, in several cases, impacted history.
As an example, Malling reported on misdoings at a variety of Canadian companies and even busted the CIA’s alleged propaganda campaign that led to the Angolan Civil War in 1975. During his one-hour documentary on Gerald Bull, he reported on Bull’s role in the illegal export of artillery shells from Canada to South Africa during apartheid. In another example, Eric Malling uncovered the “tunagate” story, where the Federal Minister responsible for Fisheries, John Fraser, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had overruled his own health inspectors and allowed the sale of tainted StarKist tuna.
He even had the temerity to put together and broadcast an interview with famed hockey personality Don Cherry challenging Cherry’s disparaging remarks about immigrants. Given some of the issues discussed about immigration today, Malling was in a way ahead of his time.
Eric Malling wasn’t alone, though. North American and, specifically, Canadian journalism was in a different place at the time, and Malling, of course, was one of several investigative reporters who made their mark by bringing their audiences stories that they likely would not have seen or heard elsewhere.
Today’s approach builds off yesterday’s, and adds new modalities:
There is still solid, fundamental news coverage out there if you seek it out, and the pressures on journalists matter because the news media play an important role in our democratic health. They inform us, educate us, and hold the powerful to account.
In any case, the old ways of single-newsroom investigations have given way to a new twenty-first century model in which newsrooms are cooperating and sharing information to expose systemic wrongdoing. In fact, some television stations have partnered with other media outlets to create new alliances aimed at improving the gathering and delivery of news. Through these efforts and the use of data software, journalists are improving their investigative reporting by adding new toolkits and skills to their wheelhouses.
Also, because of technology, today’s journalists have the entire world at their fingertips, which creates substantial new efficiencies. Back in Malling’s day, no one had access to the Internet, mobile devices, online resources, email, or any of the other tools that are now taken for granted in newsrooms across Canada, North America and the world. A few decades ago, many reporters received information via archaic newswire machines that slowly printed text on rolls of newsprint. Today, text messages are the rule, and they’re instantaneous.
Denise Malan, senior training director for Investigative Reporters & Editor says, “Data is an important source for journalists to incorporate into their reporting process. It can help give context to stories by showing the scope of a problem, pinpointing examples to illustrate an issue and uncovering questions no one else is reporting on.”
You still have to invest the time, though:
Even with the use of new technology, which gives journalists quick access to information, investigative reporting still takes time.
Though Malling reported during a time where the use of technology was just coming into focus, his journalism ultimately led to greater public awareness of an issue, changed public policy or even landed the corrupt in jail.
Fast forward to today and investigative journalism still takes on many of the same characteristics of the past, with a sprinkle of technology intermixed. Journalism students now learn the dos and don’ts for conducting confrontational interviews and are taught about opportunities to incorporate social media for getting information and investigating quickly.
This presents a new challenge for today’s (and tomorrow’s) journalists. While they still invest significant time in investigating stories, making calls, conducting interviews, and figuring out ways to package and present their work to most fully engage and interest their audiences, they also must be aware that their audiences are now in a variety of places. The feature story that gets broadcast or printed must also be posted on social media, microblogged and tweeted. In a sense, journalists have added the role of copy editor to their job descriptions. Consider that it’s not always easy to condense the essence of a substantial story into a few lines of compelling copy to post with a link on Twitter, in an attempt to motivate your followers to click the link and read the full story.
Audience members now play active roles in newsgathering:
The good thing, though, is that many journalists are leveraging these new media tools to gather, distribute and reinvent the news cycle, all without losing their journalistic integrity. There’s also been a major increase in engagement and dialogue between reporters and their audience members, who are often invited to serve as story sources. Note when a tornado hits a town, many television outlets will use viewer-submitted phone video clips to accompany their stories. In a sense, that provides everyone in the audience the opportunity to be part of the newsgathering process.
Amanda Lamb, a reporter in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains how visitors and viewers contribute to the news reporting for her station:
“Absolutely, our viewers/website visitors often send up pictures and video from various newsworthy events way before we get a crew on the scene. We also routinely now use these photographs and video in major stories that impact a large part of our coverage area.”
Oftentimes, with social media, journalists aren’t breaking news, but responding to it. Ellyn Angelotti of the Poynter Institute, says that doesn’t mean that journalists can just sit back and wait for Twitter to feed them inspiration. Rather, they need to be thinking about how social media can affect their reporting before, during and after the story goes live.
The ability to communicate is still necessary:
Although journalism in the digital age has certainly made it easier for reporters to gather the facts, but even so, they still need to uphold the same values they always have – ones that place integrity, honesty and facts above all else – no matter the channel.
They also need to be effective communicators. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively, both interpersonally (as when seeking and conducting interviews) and in front of the camera or in print, if you’re an online reporter, is still an essential quality. Journalists need to be able to use the language, write succinctly and tell stories with aplomb. This might seem like a lost art in these days of tweeting headlines, but be assured that it’s as important as ever. You can communicate dynamically and effectively regardless of the medium, and still do it in a way that respects the language and leverages it appropriately to make your point.
So there you have it. Investigative journalism, unlike many remnants of the past, is still very much alive on television, online and in the print outlets that still remain (but gradually continue to disappear). The audience has begun to skew younger, and with that change the physical manifestation of news delivery media continues to change. At the end of the day, though, we still rely on smart, savvy, hard-working journalists to keep us informed.