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