The internet is profoundly changing the world of journalism in many ways. Given two of these changes, the rise of citizen journalism and the declining support from media institutions for investigative reporting, it is important for citizen journalists to develop deep digging research skills. This will allow them to help spread and increase the amount of investigative journalism being undertaken.
Investigative journalism cuts through the spin, covers important stories that would otherwise never be revealed, and finds lapses in other reporting. By going the extra mile to bring understanding to what is happening in the world, this genre of reporting is a vital part of the media. Without it, the news is merely a mouth piece for the most powerful in our society. It is important to find ways to make sure investigative journalism survives and flourishes.
Organizations are being built that try to make investigative reporting sustainable. They are building charities and foundations that can fund deep digging reporting by talented professional journalist. Yet dwindling funding is only one part of how journalism is changing. Institutions, formal and informal, need to be built that can help bring investigative skills to not just professionals, but citizen journalists as well. This article will look at what has brought us to the situation we find ourselves in today, and ask how citizen journalists can become investigative reporters as well.
THE IMPACT OF THE INTERNET
In several compounding ways the internet has destabilized the newspaper. The most prominent change is that in a world of Craigslist, Kijiji and Google AdSense, the classified ad is dying. Classified ads once provided a significant portion of a newspaper’s revenue. Another loss of revenue stems from more and more news being read online. Subscriptions to newspapers are dropping, and advertisers reach fewer people by placing an ad in the paper; online advertising can’t raise nearly as much money as print can.
With less funds coming in, newspapers spend less money on unique content, such as investigative reports, and pick up more pre-made stories from news wire services such as Associated Press, and Reuters. This solution may play well in the short term, but in the long run it just further undermines the newspaper’s reader base. Online users have no reason to read a particular newspaper’s stories if they are just copies of what dozens of other newspapers are printing. The value to readers of unique content is rising, just as newspapers are spending a decreasing amount upon it.
Broadcast journalism has so far been less affected by the rise of the internet. But as user bandwidth continues to increase, the changes that have hit newspapers may well affect broadcasters in similar ways.
THE ATTACK WAS ALREADY UNDERWAY
Long before the rise of the internet, media consolidation, corporate business models and massive lawsuits were already leading to an attack on investigative reporting. In the 1990’s large corporations began suing media companies that revealed damaging stories, for hundreds of millions- even billions- of dollars. Some lawsuits were based on reporting which was arguably incomplete, unethically obtained or done in questionable ways. At other times the mere threat of a billion dollar lawsuit was used to silence the reporting of legitimate investigations. The owners and managers of media conglomerates preferred to settle law suits rather than risk a significant loss of funds, even if it meant backing down on important stories.
In an article entitled Investigative Journalism Under Fire, Marisa Guthrie eloquently points to several examples of media companies backing down to threats. She describes a “watershed moment'' in which the tobacco company “Philip Morris sued ABC News for $10 billion over a 1994 report...that uncovered the then-shocking evidence that cigarette manufacturers manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers hooked. The network, which was being acquired by Disney at the time, declined to fight Philip Morris in court and instead settled for a reported $17 million; it capitulated in a widely derided on-air apology...”
As these massive lawsuits became more common, corporate leaders saw that putting money and resources into investigative reporting did not have good cost benefits. The prestige that might come from putting out ground breaking news reports, clearly did not out weigh the risks of losing money, at least in the eyes of those making the decisions.
NEW MODELS EMERGE
There are many groups working to find new ways to fund investigative journalism. Most notable are nonprofit groups like theCentre for Investigative Reporting, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica. These groups seek out money from foundations and private donors, and use the money to pay a staff of investigative journalists. They then team up with existing media institutions like NPR, The Nation, and 60 Minutes, to co-produce stories.
Another model is the one taken on by the Danish consumer watchdog group DanWatch. They also collect funds to hire journalists, but instead of co-producing stories, they investigate stories that match their mission statement, and then create media packages on them, which often get picked up by groups like the BBC. They operate with an understanding that journalists are over worked, and are more likely to cover a story if it is accompanied by photos, videos, and audio.
Both of these models respond to the funding crisis that is hitting investigative reporting. However, creating new sources of funds responds to only one of the ways that the media is changing.
THE RISE OF CITIZEN JOURNALISM
The ways journalism is affected by the internet go far beyond tearing down the old funding models that journalism depended upon. One of the biggest changes is the rise of citizen journalism: Bloggers have come to see themselves as an important part of the media; Independent journalists have found new platforms to let the world see their reporting; And the growing ranks of laid off newspaper writers haven’t all given up on their trade, many of them continue reporting on the internet. A wide variety of people are taking up the mantel of covering the news.
On one hand citizen journalists are unpaid, and lack the credibility and reach that many professional journalists have. They often don’t have the skills and resources that their paid counterparts have at their disposal. But on the other hand, they are fueled by passion, they don’t have the same confines that paid journalists do, and they are powerful in their decentralized nature and sheer numbers.
It would be tragic if professional journalism ever withered away, but citizen journalists are here to stay. Their ranks and influence will only grow. Professional journalists should find ways to collaborate and work with citizen journalists in uncovering the news.
BUILDING SOMETHING NEW
How will investigative reporting fare in an age where citizen journalism is taking a larger and larger roll? What has been created to make sure investigative reporting spreads and flourishes in an age of citizen journalism? Institutions, formal and informal, should be created that can step up to the challenge of developing skills and talent in non-professional journalists. This will allow them to conduct in-depth investigations and communicate their findings effectively to large numbers of people.
Many investigative journalists came out of the newspaper world learning from the daily experience of digging into leads, and having to put out a story everyday. As the newspaper withers, other ways to develop these talents must be developed.
There are any number of ways to build and spread the skills that are important in investigative reporting. These could include mentorship programs, web tutorial videos, training organizations, networks, and resource websites. There are dozens of concrete skills that can be developed from using the telephone and the internet to dig up hidden information: from to filing freedom of information requests, and crunching information in databases; the list could go on and on.
The time is ripe for citizen journalist to be given clear routes to learn these skills and develop talents in investigative reporting. Finding ways to make sure that investigative journalism spreads in the coming decades, rather than declines, is important to our world.