The investigative journalism skeptic’s manifesto

I’m an “investigative journalism” skeptic. And I’m right until the promoters of investigative journalism prove me wrong.

Let’s start with the latter. Associating “investigative” with “journalism” is almost equivalent to slapping “artistic” on “films.” It’s tautological. Good films are necessarily artistic as much as good journalistic pieces are naturally investigative. Therefore, those who insist on making the distinction have to justify it as we, the skeptics, invest our doubt-infested minds in less “investigative” endeavors.

Because of this (false) implication of distinction, I’m skeptical of so-called investigative journalism. If “investigative journalism” required a distinct set of skills or approaches, one would have an easier time accepting a distinct term for it. But it does not.

An “investigative” piece is a feature story with an asterisk — an asterisk denoting that that “feature story” was different from regular ones in scope but not in kind.

Ask the two journalists who penned what is probably the most important “investigative” series of stories ever written (those that uncovered Watergate and forced a president to resign), and they are unlikely to use the term, or at least to use it comfortably.

In an interview, Carl Bernstein (one of the two Watergate reporters) said he, unlike “a lot of people” was not concerned about the “state of investigative journalism,” noting that newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post (where he used to work) continue to do excellent reporting and serve public interest.

Then the legendary reporter goes to the heart of the problem with “investigative journalism”:

“What bothers me… [is that] there’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of ‘investigative journalism’ that never really existed. You know, The Wall Street Journal still does some terrific things. It’s a question of having resources committed over a long period of time to knock on a lot of doors, to talk to a lot of people, and have a management that is committed to that. And the real question is whether we’re going to have enough such managements on the old platforms and the new so that this form of very important work can flourish.” [Italicization added.]

So there we have it. It’s about more time and more resources to “knock on a lot of doors” and “to talk to a lot of people.” In other words, so-called investigative journalism is what good reporters do anyway but on a larger scale, if provided with time, resources, and backing from management.

Thus understood (as a special breed of regular journalism rather than a different beast), “investigative journalism” used to be called something else that is more accurate: long-form journalism. The latter term highlights what Bernstein talked about — namely, that that type of in-depth and often long features are only about doing more of what feature writers do, not about doing something altogether different.

The problem with the term, however, goes beyond its inaccuracy. It’s a red-herring. It may convey the wrong impression, especially to aspiring reporters who are making their first steps in journalism. I’ve seen this myself in a recent training program for science journalists in Beirut, Lebanon. Because of a single session on “investigative journalism,” at the end of the five-day meeting everyone was determined to do investigative pieces.

No problem with that — except that it may be unrealistic and thus counter-productive. First, how many publications does the world have that (like, for instance, the New Yorker does) lets its reporters go on several-months journalistic treks to come up with in-depth accounts? Not many. Second, public interest is probably as much served by the daily trickle of serious features as by twice- or thrice-a-year pieces of “investigative journalism.”

Finally, investigative journalism (as is often the case with anything we turn into a fetish) is becoming a cottage industry of sorts. As more funding agencies and donors discover “investigative journalism” and start to channel some of their money into training programs and seminars about “investigative journalism,” all of a sudden “investigative journalism” experts are sprouting all over the landscape.

For this cottage industry, it amounts to a blasphemy to say that all so-called investigative pieces are feature stories with more doors knocked and more people talked to. That industry is hurting journalism because it distorts the essence of the craft — as simply based on regular listening to and reporting from all kinds of people (in power or not).

And every now and then, a story will only be complete or an angle fully explored through talking to more people and spending more time on research. So what do we call the result of such endeavors? Good old journalism.