Why Democracy Needs Investigative Journalism

By Silvio Waisbord
Author Watchdog Journalism in South America: News, Accountability, and Democracy

Although today's business pressures and the threat of expensive lawsuits make some news companies nervous about supporting investigative reporting, it remains a strong force in U.S. and Latin American journalism -- and one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy.

In the 1970s, reporters played critical roles in revealing what became the most serious U.S. political scandal in the post-World War II period. Washington journalists pursued the clues left at a petty burglary in the Watergate office building, following them all the way to the White House. The reportage led to congressional investigations and the ultimate resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The performance of the press during Watergate was held as the mirror that reflected the best that journalism could offer to democracy: holding power accountable. It became a trend in American newsrooms. The profession enjoyed high credibility in the years that followed, and a remarkable increase in journalism school enrollment occurred.

Almost three decades later, the situation has changed. Investigative journalism does not seem to be the brightest star in the firmament of American news. If the tone of the press was self-congratulatory in the post-Watergate years, pessimism about the state of American journalism is currently widespread. Observers have often argued that increasing media ownership concentration and the drive to sensationalize news coverage have sapped the vigor that investigative reporting requires. Business pressures also deter investigative reporting. Its demands for a great deal of time, human and financial resources frequently conflict with profit expectations and production cost controls. Also, the fact that stories might result in expensive lawsuits makes news companies nervous about supporting investigations.

Notwithstanding these factors, there has been no shortage of investigative stories produced in the past decade. Major urban newspapers in the United States have produced articles that have revealed corruption, injustice, and environmental mismanagement. Local and network television news frequently produce investigative stories, which generally focus on diverse types of consumer fraud, in areas such as health care, social services, and home mortgages.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Investigative reporting is distinctive in that it publicizes information about wrongdoing that affects the public interest. Denunciations result from the work of reporters rather than from information leaked to newsrooms.

While investigative journalism used to be associated with lone reporters working on their own with little, if any, support from their news organizations, recent examples attest that teamwork is fundamental. Differing kinds of expertise are needed to produce well-documented and comprehensive stories. Reporters, editors, legal specialists, statistical analysts, librarians, and news researchers are needed to collaborate on investigations. Knowledge of public information access laws is crucial to find what information is potentially available under "freedom of information" laws, and what legal problems might arise when damaging information is published. New technologies are extremely valuable to find facts and to make reporters familiar with the complexities of any given story. Thanks to the computerization of government records and the availability of extraordinary amounts of information online, computer-assisted reporting (CAR) is of great assistance.

Democracy and Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism matters because of its many contributions to democratic governance. Its role can be understood in keeping with the Fourth Estate model of the press. According to this model, the press should make government accountable by publishing information about matters of public interest even if such information reveals abuses or crimes perpetrated by those in authority. From this perspective, investigative reporting is one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy. It is linked to the logic of checks and balances in democratic systems. It provides a valuable mechanism for monitoring the performance of democratic institutions as they are most broadly defined to include governmental bodies, civic organizations and publicly held corporations.

The centrality of the media in contemporary democracies makes political elites sensitive to news, particularly to "bad" news that often causes a public commotion. The publication of news about political and economic wrongdoing can trigger congressional and judicial investigations.

In cases when government institutions fail to conduct further inquiries, or investigations are plagued with problems and suspicions, journalism can contribute to accountability by monitoring the functioning of these institutions. It can examine how well these institutions actually fulfill their constitutional mandate to govern responsibly in the face of press reports that reveal dysfunction, dishonesty, or wrongdoing in government and society. At minimum, investigative reporting retains important agenda-setting powers to remind citizens and political elites about the existence of certain issues. There are no guarantees, however, that continuous press attention will result in congressional and judicial actions to investigate and prosecute those responsible for wrongdoing.

Investigative journalism also contributes to democracy by nurturing an informed citizenry. Information is a vital resource to empower a vigilant public that ultimately holds government accountable through voting and participation. With the ascent of media-centered politics in contemporary democracies, the media have eclipsed other social institutions as the main source of information about issues and processes that affect citizens' lives.

Public access

Access to public records and laws ensuring that public business will be conducted in open sessions are indispensable to the work of an investigative journalist. When prior censorship or defamation laws loom on the horizon, news organizations are unlikely to take up controversial subjects because of potentially expensive lawsuits. Consequently, democracies must meet certain requirements for investigative journalism to be effective and to provide diverse and comprehensive information.

The Ethics of Investigative Journalism

Every team of investigative reporters pursues a story under different circumstances, so creating an all-purpose ethical rulebook is problematic, though certain standards have become generally accepted. The legal implications of reporters' actions are, by far, more clear-cut than ethical issues. Ethics, instead, deals with how to distinguish between right and wrong, with philosophical principles used to justify a particular course of action. Any decision can be judged ethical, depending on what ethical framework is used to justify it, and what values are prioritized. What journalists and editors need to determine is who will benefit as a result of the reporting.

If journalism is committed to democratic accountability, then the question that needs to be asked is whether the public benefits as a result of investigative reports. Whose interest does investigative journalism serve by publishing a given story? Does the press fulfill its social responsibility in revealing wrongdoing? Whose interests are being affected? Whose rights are being invaded? Is the issue at stake a matter of legitimate public interest? Or is individual privacy being invaded when no crucial public issue is at stake?

Most discussions about ethics in investigative journalism have focused on methodology, namely, is any method valid to reveal wrongdoing? Is deception legitimate when journalists aim to tell the truth? Is any method justifiable no matter the working conditions and the difficulties in getting information? Can television reporters use hidden cameras to get a story? Can journalists use false identities to gain access to information?

On this point, an important factor to consider is that the public seems less willing than journalists to accept any method to reveal wrongdoing. Surveys show that the public is suspicious of invasion of privacy, no matter the public relevance of a story. The public generally seems less inclined to accept that journalists should use any method to get a story. Such an attitude is significantly revealing in times when, in many countries, the credibility of the press is low. The press needs to be trustworthy in the eyes of the public. That is its main capital, but too often its actions further undermine its credibility. Therefore, the fact that citizens generally believe that journalists would get any story at any cost needs to be an important consideration. Exposes that rely on questionable methods to get information can further diminish the legitimacy and public standing of the reporting and the journalists.

Ethical issues are not limited to methods. Corruption is also another important ethical issue in investigative journalism. Corruption includes a variety of practices, ranging from journalists who accept bribes, or quash exposes, or pay sources for information. The harm to private citizens that might result from what's reported also needs to be considered. Issues of privacy usually come to the forefront, as investigative journalism often walks a fine line between the right to privacy and the public's right to know. It is usually assumed that privacy applies differently to public figures than to average citizens.

There are no easy, ready-made answers to ethical issues. Codes of ethics, despite some merits, do not offer clear-cut solutions that can be applied in all cases. Most analysts agree that journalists must remain sensitive to issues such as fairness, balance, and accuracy. Reporters continuously need to ask ethical questions throughout different stages of the investigations, and be ready to justify their decisions to their editors, colleagues, and the public. They need to be sensitive to whose interests are being affected, and operate according to professional standards. (Editor's note: see following article)

Investigative Reporting in Latin America

Contemporary Latin America offers a variety of examples why democracy needs investigative journalism, and how the latter contributes to democratic governance. Without exceptions, investigative journalism has gained strength in all countries as democracy became consolidated throughout the region in the last two decades. Relegated to partisan and marginal publications in the past, it has lately gained acceptance in the mainstream press. Many reasons account for the affirmation of investigative reporting, particularly the consolidation of democratic governments, substantial transformations in media economics, the existence of publications committed to revealing specific abuses, and confrontations between some news organizations and some administrations.

As in other regions of the world, the main value of investigative journalism for Latin American democracies is that it contributes to increasing political accountability. This is particularly important considering that the weakness of accountability mechanisms has been identified as one of the most serious problems that the democracies in the region are confronting. Institutional lethargy, ineffectiveness, and lack of responsiveness to legitimate public needs have often been cited as major weaknesses. The existence of news organizations committed to investigative reporting has become extremely important. Even when other institutions have failed to follow up press exposes or conduct their own investigations, the press has kept allegations of illegal or unethical conduct alive and, in some case, eventually forced legislative and judicial bodies to take action.

Investigative journalism has an unmatched power to link officials to certain crimes, but it may also create a mistaken public perception about the existence of wrongdoing. This is a double-edged sword. Reporting wrongdoing brings public attention to presumed crimes, but it can lead to rushed judgments about the responsibility of individuals, without intervention from institutions constitutionally designed to investigate and reach legal verdicts. Here ethical responsibility is, again, extremely important: unsubstantiated accusations made by the press can have damaging effects on the reputation of individuals and institutions.

Government corruption has been the central focus of press investigations in Latin American democracies. Other subjects (e.g. corporate venality and illegal labor practices) have attracted significantly less attention. Numerous polls indicating that corruption consistently ranks among the highest three concerns in the population throughout the region may suggest the impact of investigative journalism in turning government wrongdoing into a priority issue.

The Latin American case suggests, then, that the existence of investigative journalism is important in its own right. The extent and balance of the investigative agenda is also relevant. The press directs the attention of citizens and lawmakers to specific issues. Many social and governmental arenas need attention in contemporary democracies. Investigative journalism is most effective when it casts a wide net on a variety of issues.

Silvio Waisbord is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism
and Mass Media at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey.

Back to top | Global Issues, April 2001