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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds Hello. The news industry creates a vast amount of output daily. We see headline after headline, story upon story. They cover a vast multitude of topics and issues that are mostly connected with ongoing events and news. It is, therefore, important that we clearly define what separates news from investigative journalism. Having said that, it is important at the outset to recognise that some journalists simply don’t like the term “investigative journalism.” They firmly believe that all journalism should involve some kind of investigative element. Others think it represents a hard kind of reporting, tough reporting, that’s more akin to police work than journalism.

Skip to 0 minutes and 59 seconds In recent years, however, both practitioners and academics have arrived at a more comprehensive and fluid definition of what investigative journalism is and they would argue that nearly all stories, which lend themselves to being classed in this genre, share certain quite clear characteristics.

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds First, investigative stories are usually that which have been the product of the journalists’ own labours. In other words, no one has handed them the story on the plate, so to speak. The most famous example of this was the Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate break-in. That project saw its two young reporters, the famous Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, go out and track down witnesses and key documents as part of their own inquiries. They did their own investigation, shoe-leather reporting it was called, because they literally wore out their shoes going from door to door to find witnesses. Secondly, investigative stories tend to involve a tale that someone wants hidden. These kind of topics are potentially explosive.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds They can lead to court cases, official inquiries, and even arrests. They are not stories that are readily available and easily accessible, nor are they stories dictated by a news agenda, the news cycle. They matter because the output of the investigation makes them matter. The Sunday Times’ Insight Team’s pursuit of the thalidomide story, for example, which looked into morning sickness treatment, which causes terrible birth deformities is a clear example of this kind of investigative journalism. Third, investigative stories are stories which matter. They must impact a substantial amount of people. The inquiries into MPs’ expenses by various news organisation is an example of this. Why?

Skip to 3 minutes and 7 seconds Well, because we all have Members of Parliament who represent us, how they manage the financial affairs matter to everyone. Fourthly, investigative stories should theoretically draw attention to an issue which has been hiding in plain sight, but has been overlooked, because it challenges accepted conventions. Investigations into miscarriages of justice, involving the Birmingham Six, for example, by Granada Television’s World in Action series or the recent Panorama TV investigations by the BBC into the abuse of the disabled in care homes are two clear examples where investigative journalism challenged accepted versions of events and revealed terrible wrongs, which were being perpetrated literally in our midst. Now, it’s important to note that not every investigative project will meet all four parts of this criteria.

Skip to 4 minutes and 8 seconds But it is important to be aware of them and to apply them, when you are trying to define whether your story qualifies as a viable investigative journalism project. Thanks.

What do you define as investigative journalism?

In this video, Dr O’Neill provides definitions of investigative journalism, historical evidence of the practice, and guides participants through the field using a selection of case studies.

The news industry creates a vast amount of output daily. We see headline after headline, story upon story. They cover a vast multitude of topics and issues. For the most part, they respond to both ongoing events and breaking news events. The worlds of politics, economics, society, entertainment and sport dominate the news headlines. The daily battle for editors producing media for all platforms – from print to digital – is to balance their coverage against what people might want to know and what the news professionals feel they need to know.

This is a constant challenge for all journalists. The continually evolving nature of digital technology, and its impact on the gathering and publication of news, means the way that we source, research and develop investigative stories has changed. But the pressure to get it right and tell the public what they don’t know – but should know – remains the same. No wonder the legendary editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, used to call his publication ‘The Daily Miracle.’

Defining ‘investigative journalism’ is not as easy as it might seem. Journalists are never shy about expressing their views and opinions on subjects that they feel strongly about. Some journalists, for example, feel that ‘investigative journalism’ as a separate category of the practice is far too over-hyped and almost a tautology. They would argue that all journalism should be investigative. Others believe that the whole phrase is too Hollywood-influenced and that investigative journalism is really hard, solid reporting.

In recent years however, both practitioners and academics have arrived at a more comprehensive and fluid definition of investigative journalism. They would argue that nearly all stories which lend themselves to being classed in this genre share certain clear characteristics.

First, they tend to be stories which deliver revelations and clear developments beyond the reporting of events occurring. BBC TV’s Panorama’s investigation Trail: Behind Closed Doors: Elderly Care Exposed into care homes for the mentally-ill, for example, was a vital and powerful story which was not tied to any particular date in the calendar. It was a story that demanded to be investigated and told at any time.

Second, they are often stories which are ‘off-diary’, which means that they are not covered because they are already in the diaries of the news editors and linked to pre-arranged events. The phone-hacking investigation by The Guardian’s Nick Davies, for example, only occurred because he had a tip-off. He did not anticipate it at any given time or foresee its consequences.

Third, the stories are largely the result of the journalist’s own hard work. On other words, no-one has handed the entire, completed story to them on a plate. During the classic ‘Watergate’ investigation, the two Washington Post investigators, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, carried out their own door-to-door, face-to-face interviews with subjects who they had tracked down themselves. This is a classic example of what’s called ‘shoeleather’ journalism – because it’s hard on your feet!

Fourth, investigative projects must be relevant to a substantial section of the population. The classic Sunday Times Insight Team ‘Suffer the Children’ investigation into the Thalidomide story affected many women since it involved a toxic drug meant to reduce morning sickness but instead caused appalling deformities in newborns.

Fifth, these kind of projects must also aim to impact the law in some way – for example, striking down a bad law or stirring debate about an ineffectual law which makes them meaningful. Granada TV’s World in Action ‘Birmingham Six’ investigation exposed horrendous miscarriages of justice and challenged the assumption that the British legal system was one of the safest on the planet.

Sixth, they often feature investigations which utilise innovative techniques like ‘Freedom of Information’ requests, data scraping, and data mining. These all yield stories which are not obvious or immediately present themselves. Heather Brooke’s work on the Westminster MPs expenses story lifted the lid on the corrupt nature of this issue and ended up with resignations and criminal court proceedings.

Seventh, and finally, the best investigations should also engage with audiences after the initial publication and continue to reflect the direction the story moves via multiple digital platforms. Investigations often have several chapters to them – the first broadcast or presentation of an investigation can sometimes just be the beginning, not the end, of a story. The revelations about high-profile phone hacking cases and the sexual abuse cases involving celebrities and other well-known figures in the UK show how the initial wave of investigations can kick-start a longer and sometimes more explosive process.

Please post your thoughts in the discussion below.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde