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.

Biased for Science

President Obama was characteristically adroit with language when he declared on March 9th that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” The decision was to undo some of the restrictions on federal funding to stem cell research imposed by Obama’s predecessor in 2001. To that, half a dozen editorials responded with praise — as did, of course, most in the science community.

That was not how I received the news. The celebratory mood eluded me. Which is pretty strange coming from someone who makes a living by writing about science and its products. I thought I would always be cheering anything that raises awareness, discussion, or even questions about science, for that is how public demand for science (and thus science writers) increases.

In other words, despite my intuitive bias for science (common among the science writing class) I thought science in this particular debate was only part of the story.

In Obama’s stem cell research announcement the core of the matter was not science, but rather science policy. After all, both those for and against human embryonic stem cell research recognize the potential of such research. The disagreements are not over science, rather over moral, value, and even practical questions.

For instance, there is disagreement over the moral status of the embryo. Then there is the question of whether curing intractable illnesses could justify utilizing embryos. Also, in terms of practicality, how about the “less morally problematic alternatives,” such as blood cord and adult stem cell lines?

Thus a statement like Obama’s “we [will] make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology” is misleading — as many conservative commentators have pointed out.

The risk is that we science writers — given our instinctive bias for science — may step into the trap. The scientific debate over stem cell research (were there one) would take place on the pages of Scienceand Nature. The debate about funding research and the like, by contrast, is a reflection of a society’s moral norms, mode of government, and practical considerations. We therefore will be better served if we don’t hasten to frame this as a debate of a “war” between good (science-lovers) and evil (science-haters) — never mind Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science.

True, it’s always the right thing to “restore” anything to its “rightful place.” But in certain complicated issues such as stem cell research, the rightful place of an enterprise is not something divinely or historically determined, but rather a translation of a society’s collective decision at a point in time. To frame the stem cell research issue otherwise would probably be unwise (of journalists) or disingenuous (of politicians).

The P-Word, Thomas Kuhn, and I

In a way, you can blame it on Thomas Kuhn. It was he who introduced too beautiful and brilliant a term in the early 1960s: paradigm shift. A term that writers of all sorts, particularly about business and information technology, have had no shame abusing since. Myself included. [I can’t help thinking that if the editors of Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had known that the term would be such a hit, they would have probably made it the title of the book.]

So I was reminded of my secret guilt about Kuhn’s term late in October, while attending the first conference for Arab science journalists, in Fez, Morocco. In the Q & A that followed a panel on “Finding Science Stories in the Arab World,” a man in the audience made a comment to this effect: “This sounds to me like all you [Arab science journalists] do is market or publicize Western science and Western paradigms. Unless the departure point in your work is an Arabic and Islamic paradigm of science, he added, your efforts amount to little.

The “P” word again!

Quick as ever with unsolicited opinions, I volunteered a response. I said that “Western science” was a problematic term to begin with. The conclusions of a paper in Nature are equally valid, and replicable, in China and Egypt, by a Buddhist or a Muslim researcher. Science is, after all, culture-blind and verifiable. On the question of an Islamic paradigm for science, I believe I said that it was probably easier at this point in the development of Arabic journalism to train reporters than to produce scholars versed in philosophy of science. Then I sat down, content with my authoritative reply.

My contentment did not last long, though. First, several Muslim scholars have argued, fairly convincingly, that there is indeed a different Islamic paradigm of science. In Islam and Science, Muzaffar Iqbal writes that the Islamic view is that there is a unified human knowledge domain where knowledge of the worldly is tributary to knowledge of the divine. So we know God better, for instance, by investigating how trees grow or why dinosaurs disappeared. In other words, the secular-sacred dichotomy, deeply established in Western thought, may actually not have an equivalent in the Islamic worldview.

I’m not sure I completely agree with this, but I don’t know enough to suggest a counter-argument.

Second, to what extent do the paradigms we subscribe to (if unconsciously or unwittingly) affect our work and how we go about doing it? For example, I’ve written several articles about science initiatives in the Arab Gulf; would I have written them differently had I had a different, well, paradigm? But science policy features might not be a good test. How about when you are reporting on “hard science”? Will a reporter with the unified-knowledge paradigm approach a story about cloning differently from one who prefers for the secular and the sacred to stay separated?

Or is it that the whole talk about paradigms is nonsense, as Karl Popper would probably put it. Popper’s view of science was not that it developed according to paradigms that evolved over time. Rather, science was quite the same thing always. If it is falsifiable (or refutable — that is, can be proven wrong), it is science.

No doubt these are major questions. It is good to grapple with them — though I can’t say we must (for an excellent preview on these issues, please take a look at Lesson 5 of the online science journalism course). Still, I shall pay special attention to Popper’s ideas, at least as a red alert when I feel the urge to use the “P” word yet again.

A counter-productive association: science journalism in the developing world

According to my blue-and-orange, dutifully annotated business card, I’m a “freelance science journalist.” And judging by the the number of business cards I’ve “lost” over this past year alone, I’ve made this claim about 200 times.

My understanding was that nobody really bothered much about what is written on business cards (I myself look blankly at business cards given to me, and often see amorphous colours that I scarcely try to decipher when I go home).

I was wrong.

Some people actually read whatever scribbling is there on business cards — often to my own detriment. With their keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds, they look at my blue-and-orange artifact and questions start to bubble up. “So you’re actually a science journalist? Hmm … And you live in Doha? Good, good.” A minute later: “So what do you actually write about?” I start about my oft-repeated (and thus well-rehearsed) story about Doha being a “very exciting” place now with all the collaboration projects with American academia. The following line of questions is often more direct, especially if the questioner is a colleague: “Thought there was not much going on in the Arab world in terms of science and stuff. But do you think these [latest] projects are for real?” Or, “So do you work on something else? I mean, do you work solely as a freelance science writer?”

Instinctive human curiosity aside, one widespread, intuitive (though inaccurate) idea underlies most of these questions. That notion is that science journalism is only interested in reporting about the products of science (research, inventions, patents, etc.). Therefore, the Arab world, which is evidently lagging behind in science and research, is no place for science journalists (much less a place for freelance writers to make a living, or as an American colleague put it, to “make a non-living”).

Science and science journalism have evolved, but the images of the products of science have lingered: laboratories and binoculars; choke-full blackboards with chalked-up mathematical formulas end-to-end, colorful 3D renderings of galaxies and orbit systems. The problem is that these images reinforce the “paradigm” from which they are derived — and this paradigm is becoming in fact counter-productive.

If science journalism is restricted to covering products of science, that would pretty much exclude most of Asia and Latin America and almost all of Africa. These would be regions where, according to the limiting definition, science journalism could hardly, or could not, exist.

My understanding of science journalism, for better or worse, is that it is a much broader umbrella (particularly in countries where science products are nearly as rare as the freelancer’s paychecks). First, it may be true that, like politics, all journalism is local. But the definition of local, in the era of globalization, is different. Local is increasingly defined not by geography, but by interest. So a typhoon in Florida or Texas is of interest to the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. The reason: global warming, which is believed to contribute to severe weather phenomena, is very much on the minds of Alexandrians who have heard gloomy reports about what climate change might do to their coasts.

Second, science journalism is not only about “what is,” but also about “what could be” and “what should be.” This is where science policy comes into play. After all, even in countries lagging in science, there are always attempts to turn things around. The kind of stories that result here are not “hard-core” science, but they might still be highly informative and useful to readers.

Third, science journalism can inspire universal hope. The example that comes readily to mind is the two bright young men who turned a basic — but brilliant — idea from the realm of academic publishing into one of the greatest inventions of our time: Google. Tell their story to an Egyptian or a Haitian engineering student, and you are guaranteed to get a very positive response.

So what I’m trying to say is that, with a little bit more serious thinking, science journalism in the developing world (where science is not at its best) can actually thrive. To achieve this, most of the burden would fall on the shoulders of science journalists, especially in not allowing the lack of “products of science” derail their careers.

As for me, my hope is (besides following what I preach) that my blue-and-orange artifacts will less and less land in the hands of people with those keen eyes and fact-check-ready minds.