Watchdog vs. investigative reporting

Flickr photo by joedutyIn an age when almost any kind of story can be trumpeted as “investigative,” it’s worth asking what really distinguishes  investigations from everyday reporting. Wally Dean, director of training for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, says investigations are a higher level of watchdog journalism. While watchdogs serve as independent monitors of power, he says, investigative journalists look into abuses of power.

So what are the characteristics of a true investigative story? Here’s a starter list:

  • Original reporting
  • Depth, with details, documentation and data
  • Multiple, diverse sources
  • Explores the why
  • Establishes motives and consequences
  • Exposes wrongdoing
  • Shows evidence
  • Has an impact (often in the form of action)

Investigations need something else–serious commitment from both journalists and news organizations. An investigative story requires the investment of time and resources. It also involves risk. Investigative journalists put their reputations on the line; news organizations risk their credibility and possibly damage to their bottom line.

By that definition, a lot of what’s called investigative journalism really isn’t. A story about a government auditor’s report or a study by an advocacy group doesn’t demonstrate any digging and may be based on incomplete evidence. A good anecdote, even if it’s true, isn’t always the sign of a larger problem. It’s up to an investigative reporter to prove it and to show why it matters.

Unfortunately, many newsrooms don’t support real investigative reporting because of the costs. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. On the contrary, as the Washington Post reports, nonprofits are filling the gap. And the good news is, they’re hiring.

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