What is the Worth of Investigative Journalism?

Priti Patnaik

By Priti Patnaik

Posted on: 25 January 2017

The need for investigative reporting has seldom been more acute. Even as investigative journalism thrives by way of cross-border collaborative projects such Panama Papers, pessimism about the profession itself continues. James T. Hamilton’s Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, is a helpful guide for those of us positive about the future of investigative journalism.

The book gives a bird’s eye view of the ecosystem of investigative reporting – the people who make it work, the oil it needs to run well, the nuts and bolts of what is needed to keep the machine going and the forces that make it harder to work.

This review is aimed at distilling key insights from the book and providing a brief description of how more developed and mature media markets such as the US have dealt with sustainable funding for investigative reporting. The book is for serious media entrepreneurs, particularly those considering the non-profit model and others looking to set up investigative teams.

It opens with the raison d’etre of investigative journalists, “Fraud, and its unravelling, can both build a business,” and goes on to demonstrate the various challenges that journalists and their funders face in uncovering fraud.

Hamilton, the Hearst Professor of Communication and the director of the journalism program at Stanford University, raises a fundamental question, “Who’s paying the bill for those who investigate the operation of democracy?” He also asks who hires investigative reporters to police the operation of institutional power.

“Democracy is not a person, foundation, group or agency and it does not act as a hiring agent for journalists.”

What the book addresses

Largely, the book tries to map the economics of investigative journalism – demand, supply, choices, costs and returns. It looks at indicators including investigative stories, awards for journalism and congressional hearings to document the extent of the success of investigative reports.

The author constructs a new data set based on the thousands of submissions to the awards by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) between 1979-2010. IRE is a grassroots non-profit organisation and its awards are one of the most prestigious badges of honour for investigative journalists. The book draws insights out of this extensive mapping of work in the IRE community and beyond.

The data shows what kinds of stories were reported, what was the impact of these stories was and how these stories were produced and supported. For anyone looking for granular details will come away impressed. There are lots of interesting tables and charts including top stories by topic, policy agenda coverage (stories covering the operation of a policy against stated goals), stories categorised by medium and by the kind of sources and track record of media owners in investigations via their news outlets. The information is also classified according to the impact of the stories categorised as individualistic (people getting fired), deliberative (resulting hearings, audits) and substantive (changes in law).

One of the chapters documents the life’s work of Pulitzer-winning reporter Pat Stith and addresses the impact a single reporter can have during 40 years of investigative reporting. In a chapter called ‘Accountability and Algorithms,’ the author lays out how computational journalism can sustain accountability journalism, which is sure to interest data geeks, reporters and funders.

For readers who wish to get a peek into the world of investigative newsrooms, how stories are produced, what the compulsions are, who supports these in-depth investigations, the book has a couple of chapters looking closely at these issues. If you have watched Spotlight and were intrigued, this book will answer some of your questions.

This piece was originally published at The Wire and is reproduced with due permission. You can read the complete story here


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