# 356: Investigative Reporting

Russ-Mohl, Stephan (2003). Journalismus: Ein Hand- und Lehrbuch, 148.

Story behind the Passage

Yesterday, I had the privilege of being “interviewed” by a very experienced reporter. No, it was not for some kind of publication. We know each other and we basically talked about personal matters but in the course of the long and intense conversation, I really felt her investigative reporter skills. I had no chance to get away with half-hearted answers. Neither could I somehow beat around the bush. She never interrupted. But when she did ask the next question, it was not just a follow-up question — it was like digging deeper holes into what was being said before. And, to make this very clear, this is really outstanding. Not only did it really lead to clearer answers for myself, it also triggered a deep reflection process afterwards.

One topic we also discussed and on which she is the expert was journalism. I see what is happening in the media landscape as an observer from outside, a “user” as people would say nowadays. But she has been seeing the entire media transformation from inside. Not surprisingly, however, we are both seeing one thing: the quality of reporting has gone down because of all the financial pressure. And we both know that this business, the business of publishing, is one of the hardest businesses in the world. This is the same everywhere. Still, the consequences are more or less invisible, I think, and the vicious cycle is that the worse the coverage gets, the less people are going to be able to even notice how bad journalism has become in many ways.

When I say “bad,” I usually mean bad quality and without much brain. Just copying and pasting content from other sources and writing in a way that three other people need to run corrections does not make much sense to me in the end. This is bad journalism, i.e., empty of any insights, paired with bad or no journalistic skills. But we see this in all industries. Again, it might just be that I am getting old but my fear is not only motivated by worries about quality in some aesthetic sense. It is related to the political function of journalism in a democracy. If people do not actually research anymore, not only because they lack the time but the skills and the permission of their bosses at the newsdesk, then we can expect the democratic states to really fall apart. And the same applies to civil society.

My Learnings

“Auch wenn der Alltag oft anders aussieht — die normative Vorgabe bleibt: Journalismus sollte stets nachforschen.“ / “Even if daily work looks different — the normative requirement remains: journalism should always investigate.“ Before I say more about this sentence, I have to highlight that this book is from 2003. I bought and read it during my journalism studies. So, of course, there was technology already and economic pressure, but it was still a different world if you compare it to the spread of social media and the end of “traditional” journalism today. Still, the author already contrasted the reality of daily work with the somewhat illusory norm. And norms are something which I am quite concerned with, as you know.

People often argue about the sources of norms. Where do they come from? Who invented them — cultural traditions, authorities, religion? And the different origins already give much reason for debate. I am more concerned with the question of impact here, really, not even with the specific content. Norms are never implemented a 100%. Still, they can at least be aimed at. If there is no agency even claiming these norms anymore, journalism really is in trouble. But the dependency which comes from the economic pressure to basically keep everyone dependent also leads to the fact that people speak up even less. Again, some might not even notice what is wrong. Others might not dare open their mouth. In the worst case, the consequence can be that even those whose job it is, or once was, to be investigative keep quiet.

It is interesting to see that even in this short passage, the comparison to the U.S. is made. Every journalism or media student learns early on that the two systems, i.e., European and Anglophone/Northamerican journalism, are different. For example, the separation and declaration of different text formats is more transparent, e.g., the one between report and opinion. But especially in the U.S., there is also this somewhat historical legacy of investigation paired with a sense of “play” in a way. It is this challenging part of culture which makes people be terribly concerned with unveiling injustice and making it public. People who are not into the U.S. that much might really wonder nowawadays how what they see about Trump and others on TV goes along with my description. But traditionally, this investigative spirit has grown and the history of muckraking in the 20th century severely contributed to the literary epoch of realism.

I do not know if journalists still learn how to be investigative nowadays. I am afraid, they do not. If they are not taught to ask challenging questions in school, and if their professors never really worked in journalism — who could teach them later on the job if hardly anybody hardly anybody is actually going out in the world to do research anymore? This, after all, is what the passage is based on: investigation means research in the deepest sense of the term, even deeper than some university researchers might think is possible outside academic boundaries. And research starts by asking questions — questions that go deep and are as sharp as a knife. That, at least, needs to be experienced and polished in the course of an entire career. I hope, our country will still have such really investigative journalists in the future.

Maybe, my friend should teach them?

Reflection Questions

1) Do you think journalists will play a crucial role for democracy in the future or has their role been replaced by other forces?

2) Has economic pressure changed how you do your job in the recent years? In how far?

3) Norms need to be enforced in order to materialize — which forces in civil society play a major role in detecting and publicly revealing crime and injustice in your country?