Investigative Journalism under Investigation.

Investigative Journalism under Investigation.

Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism is a time-honored tradition that goes back at least as far as the 1880s, when photojournalist Jacob Riis captured the plight of slum dwellers in New York City with an early version of the flash camera. Investigative journalism is designed to call the rich and the powerful to task for transgressions they’d prefer to leave swept under the rug. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post on Watergate, Bethany McLean of Fortune on Enron: just two of the scandals broken open by the media, in the spirit of public service.

The Center for Investigative Journalism contains the following in its mission statement:

“Certainly, investigative reporting remains one of our democracy’s most important tools for providing citizens with the information they need to hold powerful people, governments and corporations accountable. When conducted with seriousness, fairness and tenacity, investigative reporting motivates policy makers and the public to act, hopefully, for positive social change that benefits everyone.”

Investigative Journalism: Context and Practice by Hugo De Burgh; Routledge, 2000: “An investigative journalist is a man or woman whose profession it is to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available. The act of doing this generally is called investigative journalism and is distinct from apparently similar work done by police, lawyers, auditors and regulatory bodies in that it is not limited as to target, not legally founded and closely connected to publicity”.

A sacred trust indeed.

If only the task of journalism were as simple as finding out the truth and reporting it. In reality, even if he has the facts, a journalist faces constant ethical challenges in reporting them, everything from:

– “How much information should I divulge to someone I’m interviewing?” to:

– “Should I correct his grammar when I quote him?” to:

– “Is this person’s need for privacy outweighed by the public’s need to know this information?”

In addition to questions of ethics, a journalist must make aesthetic decisions every time he sets pen to paper, pulls out a microphone, or points a camera. Obviously he wants to make the truth as interesting and coherent as possible, and so he makes choices: what to tell, what not to tell, and how to present it. In a job where competition is high and mere minutes can determine whether or not you get the scoop, split-second decisions with high consequences are all in a day’s work. Even the most idealistic reporter may make a few mistakes.

As difficult as it is to report “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” this is what journalists strive for and what their audiences expect them to pursue. News organizations safeguard public trust in their integrity by formulating guidelines such as these:

– avoid conflict of interest

– talk to both sides of a controversy

– present information neutrally and in context

– be quick to report mistakes

Here’s what the Canadian Broadcasting Service has to say in its guidelines for investigative journalism:

“This is a particularly sensitive type of journalism, which can have a powerful effect upon the public mind and, consequently, upon the livelihood and well-being of individuals and the viability of public institutions and private enterprises. It therefore calls for heightened skills and the maintenance of strict standards of accuracy. Investigative journalism should not be conducted without adequate resources and the time needed for exhaustive research.”

The “New Journalism”

During the 1960s and 1970s, a technique arose called “The New Journalism” by Tom Wolfe (The New Journalism, an anthology, ed. with E. W. Johnson, 1973). According to this new method, the reporter utilizes the techniques of fiction writers but the facts being reported remain non-fiction. Examples of such writers include Wolfe himself, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and others, whose publications appeared in high-brow magazines rather than newspapers. This journalism utilizes various literary devices to provide elements of character and atmosphere without introducing details which cannot be supported historically.

Take, for example, Stephen Glass, a very young reporter who wrote brilliantly for The New Republic, until he got caught fabricating details left and right (1998). Now he writes novels. After veteran war reporter John Hersey faced his own temptations to fabricate, he invented this now-famous warning: “There is one sacred rule of journalism. The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.” Today, scholars such Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies continue to sharpen the line between fact and fiction. Elaborating on the subtle distinction Hersey was trying to make, Clark writes, “If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in.” The result, he says, is subjective journalism, but journalism nonetheless. However, “When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the reader.”

Have the filmmakers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus and the writers of The Jesus Family Tomb crossed the line?

If so where?

(Please feel free to leave your comments below.)

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