Investigative journalism is the product of independent work by reporters and editors, which reveals a public or social issue that would otherwise remain unknown. Reporters produce original investigations for newspapers, magazines, books, broadcast outlets, newsletters, and news websites. The process of investigation may take days, months, or years and include reviewing public documents, conducting multiple interviews, surveying public opinion, analyzing databases, or the like. Investigative reports are usually comprehensive and much longer than other news stories.
Investigative reporting goes beyond official statements and meetings of government, business, and other institutions to reveal information these groups would keep secret from the public. The reports expose abuse of power, corruption, criminal activity, human rights violations, miscarriages of justice, or official neglect. Some investigations have an ideological perspective and aim to bring about the reform of government, business, or institutional policies and programs. Reporters have conducted these investigations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and western European democracies since the late nineteenth century, but the practice has spread elsewhere in the world since the 1990s. In 2002, more than 300 journalists from 44 countries attended a conference on investigative journalism.
In the United States, the public has generally shown strong, widespread support for investigative reporting since at least the early 1980s (Opt & Delaney 2000). Anecdotal evidence suggests similar support in other countries. In the former Soviet Union, when a little-noticed weekly magazine exposed government corruption in the late 1980s, its circulation jumped from 260,000 to 4.6 million. In Venezuela, a 1995 book exposing corruption in the judicial system became a national bestseller and sold so quickly that copies were difficult to find.
US journalists founded Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE), in 1974 to provide training and encouragement for investigative journalists. Since the late 1980s, IRE has helped reporters in other countries establish similar groups. By 2006, organizations modeled after IRE had formed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and other countries. In 2003, 50 investigative journalism organizations from more than 30 countries established an international network, Global Investigative Journalism, to share resources.
Investigative journalists may go undercover, employ hidden microphones and cameras, use the surveillance techniques of private detectives, stage sting operations, or hire accountants and scientists to conduct analyses. After computer analysis became common in the 1980s, journalists could investigate trends in government programs by probing tens of thousands of entries from electronic databases.
In Honduras, reporters searched a US General Accounting Office database to reveal US military aid to their country that government officials refused to acknowledge. In the United States, reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer examined 1,200 court case files and talked to hundreds of individuals in 1973 to document harsher sentences for blacks and poor defendants as well as judges who were overly lenient. In Thailand, a TV journalist talked to more than 100 individuals to show that police had wrongly charged a man with murdering children on a school bus.
Investigative reporting may act as the conscience of society (Ettema & Glasser 1998). By naming the names of perpetrators and identifying victims, investigative reporters contribute to a dialogue about public virtue that can encourage a community or society to demand improvements. Investigations have revealed unfair tax laws and mismanaged school systems, exposed illegal pollution and police brutality, and documented unfair business practices and City Hall corruption. Investigative reporters have helped spur governments to free wrongly convicted inmates, topple corrupt politicians, enforce health and safety regulations, and pass new laws.
The traditional view of investigative journalism suggests what some researchers call the mobilization (or muckraking) model: the media reveal a wrong, which stirs the public to demand correction, which leads government to respond (Molotch et al. 1987). Other studies show that investigative reporting sometimes spurs public policy changes regardless of whether public opinion demands change. Reform sometimes takes place because investigative reporters discuss the problems with policymakers before publication of their stories (Protess et al. 1991).
The most famous episode of investigative reporting in the United States was the Watergate scandal during the mid-1970s. Reporters from the Washington Post revealed crimes in the White House, ultimately resulting in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Jose G. Burgos, Jr., writing in an underground Manila newspaper, exposed corruption within the ruling regime in the Philippines, leading to the oustingof dictator Ferdinand Marcos in late 1985. Investigative journalists in Belgium revealed inept police work that undermined public confidence in the country’s justice system in the late 1990s. Investigative reporting can have undesirable consequences. Even when done well, investigations can undermine public confidence in, and lead to cynicism about, social and political institutions. When done poorly, investigations can focus public attention on insignificant concerns. A 1997 study of prime-time TV newsmagazines found that only one in ten investigative stories dealt with traditional subjects of investigative reporting (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2006): economics, education, foreign affairs, the military, national security, politics, or social welfare. The other nine reported on behavior, celebrities, consumerism, health issues, or personal lifestyle.
Investigative reporting faces many obstacles. In open democracies, most government documents are available, because of laws such as the US Freedom of Information Act mandate public access. In less democratic countries, government and business secrecy impedes access to records. In some countries, targets of investigations can file lawsuits to take revenge on reporters for publishing stories. In authoritarian regimes, reporters have faced imprisonment or murder. Violence against investigative reporters remains relatively rare in Europe and North America but continues to be a threat elsewhere. Drug dealers and mobsters, as well as political extremists, have killed dozens of investigative reporters in the United States, Ireland, Colombia, Mexico, Russia, and Iran, among others.
- Aucoin, J. L. (2005). The evolution of American investigative journalism. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
- Ettema, J. S., & Glasser, T. L. (1998). Custodians of conscience: Investigative journalism and public virtue. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Greenwald, M., & Bernt, J. (eds.) (2000). The big chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
- Molotch, H. D., Protess, D. L., & Gordon, M. T. (1987). The media–policy connection: Ecologies of news. In D. Paletz (ed.), Political communication: Theories, cases and assessments. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Opt, S. K., & Delaney, T. A. (2000). Public perceptions of investigative reporting. In M. Greenwald & J. Bernt (eds.), The big chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, pp. 811– 02.
- Pilger, J. (ed.) (2005). Tell me no lies: Investigative journalism that changed the world. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.
- Project for Excellence in Journalism (2006). Faux investigations. At http://ccj.p2technology.com/node/168, accessed August 1, 2007.
- Protess, D. L., Cook, F. L., Jack, C., Doppelt, J. C., & Ettema, J. S. (1991). The journalism of outrage: Investigative reporting and agenda building in America. New York: Guilford.
- Shapiro, B. (ed.) (2003). Shaking the foundations: 200 years of investigative journalism in America. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.
- Weinberg, S. (1992). Telling the untold story: How investigative reporters are changing the craft of biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.