Online Investigative Journalism

The web presents journalists with new horizons.
Democracy is founded on a number of principles, including the accountability of elected representatives and civil servants to the people. Ideally, a host of mechanisms should guarantee this, but even the best systems may be abused. Experience shows that when wrongdoing does take place, investigative journalists are among those best placed to expose it and ensure that justice is done.

-- The international anti censorship organisation Article XIX (Article 19: 2000)

Daily reporters are deluged with transitory events which sometimes obscure the larger issues; the gaffes, media releases, staged photo opportunties and hot house intrigues of parliamentary politics. Pressed by deadlines, hemmed by the size of the news hole and isolated from research facilities, daily journalists are frequently forced to ignore the stories behind the news. In doing so, journalists can be seen to fail to make politicians accountable.

Journalism could be said to be non fiction writing (news) which relies on identifiable sources. Investigative Journalism might be defined as finding important news someone does not want the public to know. Journalists, as Article 19 suggested, have professional and ethical responsibilities to look beyond what they have been told by those in authority. Investigative Journalists can as a result be seen as custodians of the public conscience.

New Tools on the Net

Investigative journalism combines basic journalism reporting skills with more advanced research methods.

The Internet offers investigative journalists new tools for reporting; qualified access to global communities of interests which may provide alternate sources to those in authority. In doing so, it presents opportunities and problems for investigative reporters. Meanwhile, it impacts on production processes with radio, television and text journalism practices converging through digitisation on the internet; towards a new hybrid profession, ejournalism. With faster computers, newer compressed programs and wider bandwidths, internet publications will rapidly offer more sophisticated, interactive variants of the older media.

Such investigative reporting need not be expensive or beyond the reach of ordinary journalists. But it does require greater commitment than daily journalism. Daily news reporting can be relatively quick, clean and have clear objectives. Investigative journalists must transmit complex information to a very wide public; applying illustrations, audio grabs, computer generated graphics, and library footage appropriate to their selected medium.

The Internet has become a new source for investigative reporters. It allows non linear alternatives in journalism style. It offers opportunities for independent publishing.
But in doing so it eclipses earlier notions that journalists can be defined as merely those employed by mainstream mass media.


Internet delivered Email, voice and video links allow contemporary reporters to maintain global links with their editors and participate in editorial conferences where stories are discussed. Text, vision and audio items are created in digitised files which may be easily transmitted to base by telephone, satellite link or radio broadcast. The huge and cumbrous portable live broadcast facilities used by CNN to cover the Gulf war are already being replaced by laptops, modems and satellite phones.

Modern news writing devolved from a clipped pyramidal style developed for economic transmission of stories from remote locations via the telegraph. That style influenced the choice journalists made when they constructed stories; eg. The quote sought in interviews, the illustrations selected and the headlines. These usually unstated production requirements became a learned part of a pervasive newsroom culture.

The Internet allows the polished digitised product to be published globally; wherever computers are linked to the telecommunications grid. Deadlines can become meaningless as material can be filed quickly and maintained on the web indefinitely.
Censorship has been made more difficult as web publishers proliferate. Journalist organisations such as the British based Association of Investigative Journalists established websites to create an outlet for reports mainstream conventional media might seem reluctant to publish:

The decline in investigative journalism, and individual outlets for such serious reporting, is a pernicious form of implied censorship; the presence of light entertainment or consumer journalism in place of, say, a programme such as World in Action means that the issues that would otherwise have been presented to the public in such programming are effectively barred from public consumption. Part of our task is to challenge such censorship in all its forms.

In short, the web provides a continuing role for journalists acting as mediators of information; professional writers who assemble identifiable cultural packages for mass consumption.

Truth Seeking

Investigative journalism may seek to serve the public interest by telling stories of outrageous private misbehaviour by public officials. Journalists may not be secular saints. However, moral outrage should not justify questionable behaviour by reporters. There are sound practical reasons for this approach. If they are to have any credibility, journalists who seek to expose wrong doing must themselves be seen to understand ethics. Public relations practitioners may try to discredit reporters by diverting the debate to attacks on the way the story was produced. Politicians may use the privilege of parliament to defame their critics.

Clearly sourcing is critical to journalism which assumes to be investigative reporting.
Investigative stories are constructed on a series of sources. A misquotation can bring the whole structure down, leaving the journalist, editor and publisher vulnerable to legal action. Under these circumstances, sourcing must be accurate, contextual and systematic. The web offers thousands of accessible sources for journalists. Avenues of online investigations might include:

·Official Government Sources
·Data Bases

Journalists are presumed to play a critical role in the democratic process. Yet politics can become a scripted event where spectacle can overwhelm substance. Spin merchants may seek to create a series of television friendly vignettes, where critical questions are discouraged and performances are enhanced. Journalists can then become seen as minor players in the same unfolding drama they are attempting to

This blurring of such roles is evident both in domestic political reporting and the coverage of international events.

But should this process necessarily reduce reporters to being little more than reviewers? Should journalism practitioners explore new methods of news gathering; ones which are beyond the reach of the spin merchants seeking to dominate reportage?

The Internet may provide alternatives here for pressed reporters. The computers and modems which they increasingly use to file their stories from field, might just as easily be used for news gathering. Online investigative reporting could then offer a more substantial solution to contrived press release realities.

The Internet is already shaping the ways journalists communicate, construct their stories, publish their material and interact with their audiences.

Time remains a critical factor in the creation of quality journalism. Reporters can be expected to continue to strive to beat deadlines and competitors, allowing little margin for reflection.. The web however, presents journalists with new opportunities to offer more than mere reviews of official media releases.

(Extracted from Ejournalist
Volume 1, Number 1, 2001)
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