This is part 1 of the VVOJ publication: Investigative Journalism in Europe (2005): introduction.
Any European journalist asked to mention two American investigative reporters, comes up with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, although there may be some in the younger generation who think they are movie characters. But most European journalists asked to name two European investigative reporters, who are not from their own country, will remain silent.
There is very little cross-border knowledge in Europe about journalism in general and about investigative journalism in particular. This is completely understandable, because most Europeans cannot read each other’s newspapers or understand each other’s radio or television programmes. The European Union alone has 21 official languages and an additional 27 recognised minority languages; the native languages of millions of recent immigrants are not even included. And remember Europe is a lot bigger than the European Union…
That most Europeans do not understand each other’s media is largely, but not only, a matter of different languages. It is also down to different nations, different public opinions and different cultures. Even if they master a foreign language, most people — and most journalists — do not take notice of national or regional news media from other countries. While this may make sense from the point of view of the private life of those involved, it is a pity from a professional point of view.
Professionalisation profits from scale. It is a process that needs a community of professionals. And for the good journalists to become better, they need other good colleagues to exchange information with and to challenge their views. In the field of investigative journalism, such a community of professionals existed and still exists in the United States and in several other countries. Recently, this kind of community has started to emerge on a global scale. In 2001, the first Global Investigative Journalism Conference took place in Copenhagen, followed by a second one in 2003. At the latter, a Global Investigative Journalism Network was founded. The Vereniging van Onderzoeksjournalisten (VVOJ), the Dutch-Flemish organisation of investigative journalists, hosted the third global conference in Amsterdam, in 2005.
These global conferences have shown that journalists can learn a lot from experiences of colleagues in other countries. The context in which they work may differ, but a lot of the problems and challenges are the same or at least similar. However, what is missing so far is a systematic overview of such experiences that goes beyond the story of the individual. This research project aims to fill this void, at least in part.
Structure of this book
This book is a result of a research project that carries the same name: Investigative Journalism in Europe. It is an initiative of the VVOJ, partly meant to support the preparations for the third Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2005 in Amsterdam. However, the project has more offspring: presentations have been and will be given at conferences and other events and an online database of investigative projects is being developed.
This book consists of four parts and two appendices.
The first part is an introduction that explores the terrain — what are we talking about when we discuss ‘investigative journalism in Europe’ — and describes the scope of the research project. It includes accounts on methodology and sources, as well as remarks on the limitations of this research project. Much attention is paid to defining ‘journalism’ and ‘investigative journalism’, because these terms turn out to have different meanings and practices in different times and places.
The second part consists of twenty reports, which describe the current state of affairs in investigative journalism, including a sketch of the historical contexts in as many European countries. Most of the authors of these reports can be considered experts on the countries they cover. They did additional fieldwork to supplement their local knowledge.
The third part is an analysis of the situation in these twenty countries. It attempts to raise questions on similarities and differences and when possible and appropriate, hazards an answer. On the one hand, this should be a reflection on investigative journalism as conducted in Europe, on the other hand it also serves practical purposes, especially in the professionalisation process of journalists in the Old World. This part closes with a section on implications for journalists that seek trans-national cooperation.
The fourth part consists of descriptions of 198 investigative projects that were recently conducted in the twenty countries under investigation. The aim is to give an impression of the actual scope of investigative journalism in Europe. They contain the names of the journalists that did the investigations, as well as those of the media that published the stories that evolved out of the research. These project descriptions will be available in a searchable online database as well.
Finally, one appendix lists the two hundred persons interviewed for this research project and the second appendix contains short biographies of the authors that contributed to this book.
In the previous paragraphs, the terms ‘journalism’ and ‘investigative journalism’ were used without further explanation, as if their meaning is obvious to everyone. In reality, this is not the case. There are many different definitions of what (investigative) journalism is and what it should be. This is not merely an academic debate, but it involves the self-definition and the self-image of the journalists involved.
For example, take an editor of a corporate magazine published by a multinational company: is he a journalist? Or someone that interviews and selects people for shows like the Oprah Winfrey show, where people talk about their personal problems: is he a journalist? A more recent phenomenon is a blogger. Is he a journalist? In all these cases the question may be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or even with maybe: it depends how narrowly or how widely one defines journalism. The corporate editor may consider himself a journalist, but a newspaper reporter may perceive him as a PR person and not as a colleague. He serves the company, not the public, the newspaper reporter would probably say, while the corporate editor would reply by stating that he serves both. Who is right in this case depends on the question whether serving two different, sometimes even opposing, parties is included in one’s conception of journalism.
New media watcher Steve Outing avoids answering the question in a general sense whether bloggers are journalists: ‘Among the millions of people now publishing blogs — and among the relatively small number who blog professionally and/or have built up huge audiences — some act as journalists, some do not. Some bloggers see themselves as journalists; some do not.’ One of the most famous bloggers, Glen Reynolds, blogging under the name Instapundit was quoted in Outing’s article. He stated that his approach to the information he comes across is profoundly different from how a traditional journalist would set about it. Reynolds said he would publish immediately. He would not contact other sources, such as experts, because they would be among members of his audience and would react to his contribution. Checking the story has become part of the publication process — and it is done by readers — instead of something that happens before publishing. That makes it different from traditional — i.e. mainstream American — journalism. Whether one considers it journalism, non-traditional journalism, bad journalism or no journalism at all, depends on how important checking a story before publication is in one’s conception of journalism.
These simple examples underline the fact that definitions of journalism can differ and as a consequence the determination of who is a journalist and who is not differs as well. One can disagree on such a definition. Such disagreement may not be without consequences: a political party deciding whom it will give access to press facilities during its political convention, decides who can report live from the convention and who cannot. Last year, for the first time both political parties in the United States gave access to bloggers at the political conventions where they elected their presidential candidates.
In the United States, journalists may appeal to the First Amendment to refuse revealing their confidential sources. In 2005, Apple Computers tried to force bloggers to reveal who their sources were that leaked information, which Apple considered trade secrets. Their sentence and possible imprisonment depends on whether they will be recognised as a journalist.
So definitions of journalism matter and may have important consequences. Also, one may substantially disagree on these definitions, even in court. This calls for a few pages on the definition of ‘journalism’, and ‘investigative journalism’ in particular. One more reason is that a good and explicit definition of investigative journalism was necessary for the fieldwork of this project. If one discusses the subject with foreign colleagues, there has to be a mutual understanding of what one is talking about: if not, we are comparing apples with oranges in the overall analysis.
In this section we shall concentrate on defining ‘journalism’, in the next section ‘investigative journalism’ will be dealt with.
There are three fundamentally different approaches to defining journalism: empirical, normative and analytical. In the empirical approach one looks at what journalism is in the eyes of relevant persons and organisations. Usually their ideas are practical in their circumstances, but they may be inconsistent or illogical. The normative approach addresses what journalism should be. Because journalism has, in the eyes of many, a moral component, normative aspects cannot be discarded in a discussion on what journalism is. An analytical approach seeks to define journalism in such a way that the similarities and differences with neighbouring disciplines such as science or literature become apparent. These three approaches all have their worth and to come to grips with what journalism is, one has to consider all three of them. However, if one wants to look at differences and similarities between (investigative) journalism in various countries, a uniform analytical definition is required, while empirical and normative definitions may differ per country. After a discussion of these three approaches, we shall be able to formulate an analytical definition of journalism.
First, the empirical approach. This approach makes it very easy to define journalism: journalism is whatever people generally recognised as journalists do when they say they are doing their jobs. This may seem like circular reasoning, but it is not. This is because this approach necessitates a decision on who is a journalist and who is not, it often has many practical consequences. Such decisions are being taken every day. They concern practical matters, like who has access to press facilities in Parliament, in court or in a sports stadium; but they may also be of legal nature, like who is allowed to refuse to reveal his sources in court, or who is entitled to journalist union membership. So thousands of organisations decide whom they recognise as journalists. Hardly any of them ever discusses what journalism is. Their decisions affect people, not what these people do.
Of course the phrasing ‘generally recognised as journalists’ leaves room for dispute. In some countries one needs a government license or similar accreditation to work as a journalist, or to be allowed to present oneself as such. This is not only the case in non-democratic countries. For instance, in Belgium one is punishable with a fine if one presents oneself as a professional journalist (‘beroepsjournalist’) without the formal requirement, in this case membership of the association of professional journalists. A foreigner wanting to report from the United States needs a special journalist visa, which involves the formal recognition of the foreigner as a journalist by the United States of America.
The development of the Internet as a popular means of distributing information has fuelled the discussion on who is a journalist and who is not. New categories of reporters have emerged, like ‘citizen reporters’ and ‘bloggers’. The question whether they are to be considered journalists, and whether they consider themselves to be journalists, remains open.
Secondly, there is the normative approach. As remarked above, strictly speaking this concerns a different question: not ‘what is journalism’, but ‘what should journalism be’. It is important to be aware of this distinction, because many discussions about what journalism is, are blurred by arguments on what it should be. In this respect it is not uncommon to hear phrases like ‘real journalism is’, while what is meant is: ‘journalism ought to be’. Because journalism has a specific ethics — the content of which may vary — normative components are unavoidable when discussing what journalism is. By its nature, journalism is in part a normative activity.
This is not the appropriate occasion for an in-depth treatise on what journalism should be, for that is not what this research project is about. But because of the normative nature of journalism, any effort to define it in a more analytical way is futile without referring to normative aspects. Therefore, normative aspects will return in the following paragraphs, where we will deal with the analytical approach.
Whereas the empirical approach is dominated by decisions of organisations on who is a journalist, and the normative approach by discussions among journalists themselves, the analytical approach is influenced by media scholars and — to a lesser extent — by journalists reflecting on their profession. To grasp this approach one has to plunge into the literature.
One will soon find out, however, that short, clear and sound analytical definitions of journalism are extremely rare, if not non-existent, in the current literature. In a review essay, the American media sociologist Michael Schudson remarks that ‘journalism simply never became a major topic of study among historians or social scientists’. Journalism schools have never developed a research tradition as a companion to professional training — unlike law schools or medical schools.
Serious studies of journalism may be rare in the Unites States; they are even rarer in Europe. As Hugo de Burgh writes in the (British) book Investigative Journalism, Context and Practice: ‘Journalism is studied and written about much more in the USA than in Europe’ and ‘British and other European academics working on journalism are few and far between’. This is why this introduction to a book on investigative journalism in Europe will refer relatively more frequently to American sources.
There are several reasons why serious literature on defining journalism is rare. For one thing, journalists do not read much scholarly literature on journalism. On the contrary, they tend to disqualify it as irrelevant to their work. Which in turn does not stimulate the quality and relevance of scholarly work either, as this is obviously served by good relations with the object of its study.
Not only do journalists not want to read about what journalism is, they do not even want to think about it. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book The Elements of Journalism: ‘In the United States in the last half a century or so the question “What is journalism for?” has rarely been asked, by citizens or journalists. You owned a printing press or a broadcasting license and you produced journalism. In the United States, journalism has been reduced to a simple tautology: It was whatever journalists said it was.’ (Our empirical definition) They quote Maxwell King, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, saying: ‘We let our work speak for itself.’
Now this may no longer be sufficient, if it ever was. The public is becoming increasingly sceptical toward the media; newspaper circulations are dropping, as are the viewing rates of news programmes. ‘Whether it is secrecy or inability, the failure of journalists to articulate what they do leaves citizens all the more suspicious that the press is either deluding itself or hiding something’, write Kovach and Rosenstiel.
In recent years, a couple of analytical books about journalism have been published that actually reached an audience of journalists, maybe because the authors had already earned a reputation as a journalist, such as Kovach and Rosenstiel. Fortunately, they provide some clues that may help us to define journalism. Kovach and Rosenstiel formulate a goal and nine principles of journalism: the elements of journalism. The goal and principles are very normative in their nature, but they can be used in a more analytical approach.
Such an analytical approach should enable us to distinguish journalism from other activities that are similar to journalism in one way or another. To mention a few: literature, politics, law, accountancy, religion and science. They all produce stories. In that sense they are neighbouring traditions. In some countries it is not unusual to be a journalist and a writer, or a journalist and a lawyer, or a journalist and a politician, a journalist and a priest, or a journalist and a scientist. What then makes journalistic stories distinct from those by the other professions?
The first two of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s nine ‘elements of journalism’ are key : ‘Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth’ and ‘Its first loyalty is to citizens’. Seeking the truth sets journalists apart from writers and politicians. Writers deal with fiction, politicians with wishes. That does not imply that truth is irrelevant for them, but it is not their core business. But the others share the obligation to the truth, although the priest may say that he does not seek it, as he already knows it. Loyalty introduces a further distinction, however. Lawyers’ first loyalty is to the law, just like for judges and police for that matter. Priests’ first loyalty is to God. Accountants definitely serve the public, in the sense that their audience is the public, but the field they cover is much more limited than that of journalists or scientists. Scientists serve an audience of peers, although some of their work also reaches a wider public.
Most scholars and journalists that have given journalism more profound thoughts, usually deal with a particular kind of journalism: news reporting for the general public. This is the kind of journalism that forms the core activity of newspapers, news bulletins on radio and television, general interest newsmagazines and current affairs programmes. Traditionally, these target a readership or audience in a particular city, region or country, starting from the idea that the readers, listeners or viewers have to be informed in such a way that they can realise their citizenship in that particular city, region or country. For instance, the published information may help them to make a choice at elections. In this context, the citizen serves our definition well, but we shall later see that this central role of the citizen creates some conceptual problems.
The British scholar Hugo de Burgh distinguishes journalism from the work done by police, lawyers, auditors and regulatory bodies by its legal foundation: journalism lacks this, contrary to all the other professions that he mentions. But he does not mention scientists, whose work also lacks a legal foundation, but still differs from journalism. This difference goes beyond the theoretical, as we shall see in some country reports: some journalists explicitly state that they do not conduct particular investigations, because they think the issues at hand are the responsibility of (social) scientists. Nevertheless, journalists and scientists sometimes look into the same matters, and even use the same methods. But they differ in their outlook. Take a graph with a lot of data points and a trend line: the scientist will generally be interested in the trend line, and if he can, get rid of the disturbing outliers. A journalist, however, does not think the outliers are disturbing: he writes stories about them. Scientists, as a rule of thumb, are interested in the general, journalists in the exception. Scientists’ work is explicitly cumulative, contributing to an ever-growing body of knowledge in a particular discipline. In that sense their first loyalty is to a knowledge community of peers, not to non-contributing citizens.
If we combine these views it will lead us to a concise analytical definition of journalism: Journalism is truth-seeking storytelling, primarily serving citizens, without a legal foundation. This definition at least describes journalism and it sets it sufficiently apart from neighbouring storytelling traditions.
As announced earlier, the central role of the citizen creates some conceptual problems, which will be elaborated on in the following paragraphs. This will not lead to a different definition, but the discussion will address some issues one has to bear in mind when thinking about journalism in an international or even global context in the twenty-first century. These issues can be considered footnotes to our definition.
In a global context, citizenship is a fuzzy concept. Citizens exist within a state; the citizen and the state are two sides of a coin. So if one defines journalism in relation to citizens, one associates journalism with the state. This close connection is implicit and explicit in many texts and declarations. Take for example the term ‘the fourth estate’, used to describe the press in the United States. What is meant is the fourth estate of state power, after the traditional three distinguished by Montesquieu that have found their way into most constitutions: the legislative, the executive and the judicial power. Another example: the (American) Society of Professional Journalists concludes its code with: ‘Adherence to this code is intended to preserve and strengthen the bond of mutual trust and respect between American journalists and the American people.’
This role of the citizens is not really disputed among journalists, yet it creates problems. In three different cases the kind of conceptual problems caused by the ties between journalism and the state and its citizens will be illustrated: journalism before the emergence of citizenship, journalism in times of conflicts between states, and journalism after the decline of citizenship.
First, we shall address the question of journalism before the emergence of citizenship. If journalism by definition serves citizens, then there cannot be any journalism if there are no citizens, for instance because there is no functional state. In early and mid eighteenth century America — that is before the Declaration of Independence, when there was no de facto state in most of North America, as Britain did not have an effective control over its American colonies — several authors published critical accounts of what was going on in society, thereby exposing hitherto unknown facts and addressing wrongdoings. In The Journalism of Outrage David Protess mentions several examples of such publications, which were meant to fuel the public debate. Maybe these publications were not journalistic, because there was a lack of citizens in a formal sense. But if this is not considered journalism, it was at least proto-journalism. On the other hand, there may have been no state and thus no citizens, but there was certainly public debate. These publications can be considered journalism-in-the-making, like there was citizenship-in-the-making.
This is in striking contrast with the situation in contemporary Europe. Although the European Union has a Parliament, a court and a score of other agencies that tend to be associated with statehood, it is not a full-fledged state. It does not have a head of state, it does not have citizens, and moreover, it does not have a public opinion. Of course British, French, German, and other journalists write about the European Union, but they do this within their own national contexts, in their national media. There are no European newspapers or general interest magazines. There is no European news programme on television. There is no European journalism. Here the relation between state and journalism does seem to make sense: no state, no citizens, no journalism; no citizens-in-the-making, no journalism-in-the-making.
The concept of ‘citizen’ implies some sort of democracy. In traditional, pre-modern states the people were subjects of the king or whatever other sovereign ruler, they were not citizens. It is clear that newspapers existed in France under the ancien régime and in other European countries before the dawn of democracy. But can we call their content journalism? The answer is negative if we define journalism in the context of citizenship. But as in eighteenth-century America, we may speak of proto-journalism. Some of the authors definitively had the intention to be critical and to develop citizenship.
The same question may be asked about newspapers in contemporary totalitarian states, or more generally, in countries without freedom of the press, for instance in Eastern European countries before 1989. The people who worked for newspapers there were commonly recognised as journalists, also in the West. They obtained accreditations for all sorts of events and their unions were members of the International Federation of Journalists. But it is very questionable if their work would serve Kovach’s and Rosenstiel’s purpose of journalism: ‘to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing’. Kovach’s and Rosenstiel’s approach is well rooted in American history, but does not have much eye for the rest of the world.
Secondly, we shall address the question of journalism in times of conflicts between states. If states, and thereby their citizens, have taken sides in a conflict, then tension arises between the first obligation of journalists — the truth — and their first loyalty — the citizens. This is a common problem for journalists all over the world, also in countries with solid legislation in the field of freedom of the press. Even American media are reluctant to criticise their country’s executive when it is at war. Take the history of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: several media published declarations in which they stated that with hindsight they had not been critical enough about the evidence that had been presented on the existence of these weapons that were never found.
Unwanted truths are difficult to deal with, especially when the citizens that journalists claim to serve don’t want them. Publishing the truth inevitably leads to accusations of unpatriotic behaviour or worse, although history’s final verdict may well be very different. We may conclude that the close connection between journalism and the state and its citizens interferes with journalism most when the state itself is at stake. A direct consequence of this state of affairs is that the truth becomes the first casualty of war.
Thirdly, we shall address the issue of journalism after the decline of citizenship, in a nation state that has eroded due to the process of globalisation. The state is a territorial unit. But globalisation has created a world society that ignores national boundaries with its multinational businesses, communication networks, market relations and personal lifestyles. States have more means than ever, yet they are losing power. The number of other relevant actors is growing steadily. Numerous authors have described this process, for instance the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in Was ist Globalisierung? (‘What is Globalisation?’)
Of course the ‘citizen’ has always been just one of the many roles a person has, but as people develop more and complex ties with people beyond their geographical area, other roles gain importance at the cost of citizenship. People develop more diverse and conflicting loyalties. This is a problem for the state, and its politicians, who lose legitimacy because of this process. But it constitutes a problem for journalism as well, for also its fate is tied to the geographically demarcated state. Virtually all newspapers in the world are national, or regional or local, but in the latter cases they are always distributed and read within national boundaries. Even neighbouring countries with a common language like the Netherlands and Belgium do not have newspapers that cross the border. Television does not differ much.
Emerging technologies play an important role in this respect as well. By its nature the Internet is a global distribution channel. On it communities evolve that are disassociated from geography and traditional territory-based politics. These communities seek information and they generate information. It seems that there is work for journalists here, but not in the form of a journalism that is defined as primarily serving citizens.
The ties between journalism and the state and its citizens have been profitable for journalism, but they have started to hurt. The galling bonds between journalism and the state are especially relevant for a book on investigative journalism in Europe — as there is no European journalism — and a Global Investigative Journalism Conference, where participants, although working in national or sub-national contexts, seek cooperation and exchange with colleagues abroad. Many conference participants have somehow experienced that their national media infrastructures are not up to the gargantuan task of reporting on the issues that bother the world today, but they also realise that suitable infrastructures are not even available in blueprint. They are pioneers and they know it.
What they seek, although they may not define it that way, is something like ‘global journalism’, which is disengaged from local and national forms of citizenship. Earlier, we mentioned that definitions of journalism that tied journalistic activity to citizenship were rooted in general news reporting. However, there are other styles or domains of journalism. Especially in the magazine world there are numerous publications that are not targeted at citizens all at. They focus on people in an entirely different role, such as ‘woman’, ‘amateur gardener’, ‘parent’, ‘photographer’, ‘food marketer’ or ‘nurse’. People who write for these magazines are generally considered journalists, yet ‘the citizen’ is an irrelevant concept in their work.
A small minority of these magazines, but still probably thousands of them, have a truly international readership. Maybe they can offer a model for the further development of traditional ‘general news’ journalism of newspapers, general interest magazines and news programmes on radio and television into an activity that is less intertwined with the state. The aim of this model would be to further the watchdog role of journalism on a global scale: thereby creating ‘global journalism’, which would appeal to a global-citizenship-in-the-making. However, there are hardly any serious academic or other publications on this kind of journalism, there are most certainly fewer than articles on general news journalism. There is so much we do not know about our own profession.
The definition that was formulated earlier in this section: Journalism is truth-seeking storytelling primarily serving citizens, without a legal foundation, can still serve as a sensitising concept, as long as one takes the problematic aspects of the role of citizens into account. For the time being, the lack of journalism on a global scale is a shortcoming of journalism itself. One cannot expect a definition to compensate for this failing.
Defining investigative journalism
In this section we shall focus on defining ‘investigative journalism’. Of course ‘investigative journalism’ is ‘journalism’, but what makes it ‘investigative’? This question is a topic of vigorous debate, not in the least among investigative journalists themselves.
The VVOJ regulations state: investigative journalism is critical and in-depth journalism. The following section describes what others have said on this subject, and why the VVOJ definition is both analytically sound and practically suitable for an international research project.
We shall start this section with a look at the literature on investigative journalism, thereby generally following the historical outlook of most publications. Then we shall deal with some common issues that are addressed in much of the literature, like whether investigative journalism is by definition about scandals, or about information that someone is trying to keep secret. We shall try to ignore history and develop a definition that is valid regardless of time and place. Finally we shall deal with some linguistic aspects: how does one translate ‘investigative journalism’? Of course the latter question is paramount if one is to interview respondents in different languages, as was done for this research project.
‘Everyone knows what investigative journalism is’, Hugo de Burgh writes in the second paragraph of the introduction to his book on the topic. Later on, it turns out to be not as easy as that, because he returns to matters of definition several times and also refers to definitions proposed by others, which are not always in line with his own. Gene Roberts starts the foreword of David Protess’ The Journalism of Outrage with: ‘One of the problems in writing about investigative reporting is: How do you define it?’
Of course we can formulate an empirical definition of investigative journalism in analogy to that of journalism in the previous section. Investigative journalism would then be ‘what investigative journalists do when they say they are doing their job’. Whereas this works very well with journalism in general, because decisions on who is a journalist and who is not are practical ones, it is pointless for investigative journalism, because deciding who is an investigative journalist and who is not is hardly ever a practical decision that is made. It is a judgement without consequences. Usually this question is just a matter of debate among journalists themselves. The rest of the world could not care less. Exit the empirical approach.
A normative approach to investigative journalism does not so much fail, it just does not add anything. As far as normative rules for investigative journalism are about ethics, they are not really different from the general ethical rules for journalism. The various codes of conduct for journalists do not make exceptions or formulate additional guidelines for investigative journalists.
There certainly are discussions among journalists about what investigative journalism should be, but if one sets the ethics aside, these discussions usually are analytical discussions in disguise: they are about what constitutes investigative journalism, about what elements should be represented to define a particular work of journalism as ‘investigative’. The idea behind these discussions is that the epithet ‘investigative’ may be considered a label of honour: it is a ‘higher form of journalism’, which requires additional criteria above the ones for journalism in general. We shall deal with these criteria in the analytical approach.
The irrelevance of the empirical and the normative approach leaves us in need of an analytical definition of investigative journalism. What we are looking for is a definition that adequately describes what distinguishes ‘investigative journalism’ from other kinds of journalism, even from ‘ordinary journalism’, for that matter. As difficult as it is to find concise definitions of journalism, as easy it is to find definitions of investigative journalism. Almost any book on investigative journalism contains a definition, or a discussion on defining investigative journalism. So much for the good news, the bad news is that these definitions differ widely. This is understandable: while journalists hardly dispute what journalism is, they vigorously disagree as to what constitutes investigative journalism.
As American literature on investigative journalism is at least as prolific as American literature on journalism in general, many analytical definitions of investigative journalism refer to American journalism history and to the so-called muckraking era and the Watergate affair in particular. They have their roots in the American culture of investigative journalism, like the journalism definitions tied to citizenship are rooted in the culture of American news reporting. These American definitions may not suffice in the end, but they are a good start to explore the issue.
The muckraking era starts at the beginning of twentieth century America. It led to many outstanding pieces of investigative reporting, such as Ida Tarbell’s ‘History of Standard Oil’ (McClure’s, 1902) and Graham Phillips’ ‘The Treason of the Senate’ (The Cosmopolitan, 1906). Even fiction played a role: Upton Sinclair’s account of the meat industry — The Jungle (1906) — was published as a novel, although it was based on participating observation and it revealed many verifiable facts.
What these authors had in common was a drive to expose systematic wrongdoing on a substantial scale. Their drive was based on morals, but they chose to reveal facts as a method. Their stories were widely read and considerably annoyed the men in power, both in politics and in business. It was president Theodore Roosevelt himself who used the term ‘muckrakers’ for the reporters who dug up shit. While it was meant as an invective, reporters soon took it as an honour to be called a muckraker.
The moral drive of the original muckrakers was often based on a clear political stance. For instance, Graham Phillips campaigned openly for direct elections of senators. At that time senators were elected by state representatives. Upton Sinclair did not hide the fact that he was a socialist and he campaigned for better labour conditions. Their contributions have to be seen in the context of the ‘progressive era’, during which many reforms were formulated and implemented, partly triggered by the publications of journalists.
The American journalism professor David Protess sees the emergence of muckraking at the turn of the twentieth century as the more or less coincidental convergence of two developments: the increasing demand for information by a increasingly literate public and a fierce competition between different media. In 1916, there were 2,461 newspapers in the United States, the largest number ever. Apart from the newspapers, there were numerous general interest magazines. Their number peaked in 1910. That combination of factors had not occurred before and would not occur again until the sixties, according to Protess.
The muckrakers were often actively involved in reforms. Several of them were regular guests at the White House for instance, among them Upton Sinclair. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt was so convinced of the positive contribution of the muckrakers that he ordered all governmental officials to cooperate with Lincoln Steffens’ investigation of federal corruption, Protess quotes from C.C. Regier’s Era of the Muckrakers.
Such examples underline that it is too simple to consider the reforms during that time a result of the muckrakers’ publications. Muckraking and reforms were consequences of similar developments in society; they were influenced by the same social and political climate. There was a demand for critical and factual stories, not only from the public, but also from the government.
After 1910, things started to change. The growth of the number of newspapers levelled off and competition between them diminished. The percentage of one-paper cities rose almost by half in ten years’ time. Companies withdrew advertising from muckraking publications. Some of them, like American Magazine and Everybody’s, were forced into bankruptcy. Others, like McClure’s, were taken over by large corporations and subsequently softened their content.
In the presidential election of 1912, many of the muckrakers supported one of the candidates. Journalistic competitors became partisan rivals, Protess states. With Woodrow Wilson’s victory, leading muckrakers joined the administration to press for changes inside the government. As fast as it had arisen, muckraking faded away.
The muckrakers’ rhetorical style and their moral stance served as examples for later generations of investigative journalists, in the United States but to a substantial extent also elsewhere: they let facts convince the readers, and they addressed wrongdoing. These authors were hardly explicitly moral in their writings. They did not convict the ‘bad guys’ they portrayed; they usually were not sarcastic in their descriptions. But their stories were intentionally moral by implication: the stories often exposed wrongdoing or unfair treatment, usually by large companies.
The detached rhetorical style of the muckrakers is understandable in the context of the media they worked for. Most of their stories were first published in a then relatively new medium, the commercial mass magazine, like McCall, McClure’s, The Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s, The Arena and The Outlook. Because of the commercial character of these magazines, the stories had to be well written and personal. And they were. The muckrakers hardly ever wrote about the deeper causes of the situations they described. They wrote stories, not theories. And because they were ‘only’ journalists, their opinions were not considered important in the public debate. They were not politicians, scholars, clergymen or leaders of social movements. The irrelevance of their opinions forced the muckrakers to stick to the facts. And the commercial context of the publications and the libel laws forced them to present the facts correctly. The magazines hardly ever lost any lawsuits for publishing incorrect.
Documents played an important role in the work of some muckrakers. Ida Tarbell for instance, spent much of her time researching archives. Documents often contain the ultimate facts. They speak for themselves, literally, without a journalist between them and the audience. They are the textual equivalent of photographs, which in the eyes of many have a truthfulness of their own.
The two factors that, due to their concurrent occurrence in the beginning of the century, stimulated the emergence of muckraking appeared again in the sixties, according to Protess. They generated a new wave of investigative journalism in the United States. An early sign of recognition for this was the introduction in 1964 of the category ‘investigative journalism’ in the Pulitzer prizes. Initially, investigative journalism was mainly to be found in alternative publications, but gradually the new investigative reporting found its way to newspapers and the major television networks. An important issue reported on in these stories was corruption in government agencies. Whereas in the muckraking era commercial companies were the villains, their place was now taken by government employees and politicians.
Watergate gave investigative journalists celebrity status in 1972. Thereafter, journalism schools were crowded with ambitious young students who wanted to become Woodward and Bernstein. They became icons, not only in the United States, but all over the world. The movie All the President’s Men (1976), with two of the most famous actors of that time, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, will definitely have contributed substantially to the newborn status of muckraking. As Robert Greene writes in the foreword to the first edition of The Reporter’s Handbook: ‘The place: Boston. The time: a rainy Friday night in 1976. Some 600 college students have elbowed their way into a small auditorium to hear a panel discussion on investigative reporting. One of the panellists asks how many of the students intend to become investigative reporters. More than 300 raise their hands. The catalyst was Watergate.’
So much for American history. Although it does not generate a definition of investigative journalism by itself, it can be used as a heuristic tool for developing one. Any sound definition should at least include the above-mentioned obvious and famous examples of investigative journalism. By analysing their similarities, we may be able to formulate some criteria for journalism that can be called ‘investigative’.
The major stories of the American history of investigative journalism have several aspects in common. First, they were moral by implication in the sense that they addressed wrongdoing: the stories often portray obvious villains and victims. Second, they usually dealt with social problems or other particular wrongdoings that could be addressed with reforms or policies. Third, they often — but not always — exposed things that some person or organisation tried to keep secret. Many definitions of investigative journalism refer to these three aspects.
These aspects will guide us to a widely cited definition, which was used by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) among others. Robert Greene formulated the definition in the foreword to The Reporter’s Handbook, a publication of IRE as such: ‘It is the reporting, through one’s own work product and initiative, matters of importance which some persons or organizations wish to keep secret. The three basic elements are that the investigation be the work of the reporter, not a report of an investigation made by someone else; that the subject of the story involves something of reasonable importance to the reader or viewer; and that others are attempting to hide these matters from the public.’
Watergate is a classic example of investigative reporting, Greene continues. Another major story of those days, the Pentagon Papers, is not. The disclosure was certainly of vital importance to the public, and the US government definitively tried to keep the documents secret, but the government had conducted the investigation that led to the Pentagon Papers, not the press. The documents had been leaked. ‘The publication of the Pentagon Papers clearly was not investigative reporting’, Greene concludes.
Although widely cited, this definition is not undisputed. We shall briefly examine the main points of criticisms forwarded by some eminent journalists. Some authors have tried to address these issues by defining a different kind of journalism, adjacent but slightly different from investigative journalism. Before we arrive at our own definition, we shall look into some of the linguistic pitfalls that one has to deal with when discussing investigative journalism in a multi-lingual context.
Green’s definition is criticised on two points: the moral aspect and the condition that someone tries to keep the information secret. Other authors are more general in their criticism, objecting to the term ‘investigative journalism’ itself.
Not only Ettema and Glasser, but also Protess go to considerable lengths to show that the moral component is essential in investigative journalism as they see it, even if the reporters themselves say that they are ‘just reporting the facts’. Protess criticises definitions that are like Greene’s: ‘These definitions, although accurate, fail to capture the full flavour of investigative reporting. Investigative reporting is “the journalism of outrage”. More than a news-gathering process, the journalism of outrage is a form of storytelling that probes the boundaries of America’s civic conscience.’ Unsurprisingly, he stresses the exposure of wrongdoing. According to him, it is the motive of investigative reporters to initiate changes in society: ‘They seek to improve the American system by pointing out its shortcomings.’ Notice the explicit orientation on the nation-state and its citizens.
He points out that investigative reporters hardly ever advocate changes explicitly, but that a moral stance is often hidden in their narrative: ‘Villains’ hats are black, not grey. “Corrupt”, “wasteful”, “greedy”, “lazy” and “scandalous” commonly pepper the investigative narrative. Just as muckrakers intend to engender empathy for victims, they mean to provoke anger against villains.’ Note that the acronym for Investigative Reporters and Editors is IRE — ire meaning anger.
Ettema and Glasser write on investigative reporters: ‘Their stories call attention to the breakdown of social systems and the disorder within public institutions that cause injury and injustice; in turn, their stories implicitly demand the response of public officials — and the public itself — to that breakdown and disorder.’
Where Protess, De Burgh, and Ettema and Glasser stress the moral aspect of investigative journalism and want to limit the term to reporting covering wrongdoing, to stories about villains and victims, some eminent journalists wholeheartedly disagree with them. Gene Roberts — in the eighteen years that he was the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the newspaper won seventeen Pulitzers, after he left it only won one in twelve years — prefers to avoid the term altogether because of its connotation with scandals: ‘One of the reasons I don’t much use the term ‘investigative reporting’ is that it misleads and confuses. To many people, investigative reporting means nailing a crook or catching a politician with his pants down. This, I think, is too narrow a definition. […] At the Inquirer, investigative reporting means freeing a reporter from the normal constraints of time and space and letting the reporter really inform the public about a situation of vital importance. It means coming to grips with a society grown far too complex to be covered merely with news briefs or a snappy colour graphic.’
Paul Williams, one of the founders of Investigative Reporters and Editors, was more or less on Roberts’ side when he wrote: ‘The beat reporter’s job is to report that something happened. The investigator’s challenge is to find out why, and tell why it may happen again. His job is to pull things together.’ There is no need for scandals or wrongdoing, or for actors wishing to keep something secret. Note that Williams strongly disagrees with IRE’s definition as put forward by Greene in The Reporter’s Handbook.
Even more so than the moral aspect, the question whether investigative journalism by definition exposes information that others try to keep secret is widely disputed. Some defend it vigorously; others deny that secrecy is necessary.
Some even point out that the most important condition for investigative journalism is that someone is trying to keep something secret. The authors of the book Investigative Journalism (published in 1976), David Anderson and Peter Benjaminson, were quoted by Protess as stating: ‘investigative reporting is simply the reporting of concealed facts’. And Hugo de Burgh writes: ‘A common definition of investigative journalism is ‘going after what someone wants to hide’ although not everything that someone wants to hide is worth going after.’
On the other hand, James Steele, one of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, does not agree with this at all. He was quoted in James Ettema’s and Theodore Glasser’s Custodians of Conscience as saying: ‘If you simply bring something to the light that has not been known, it’s my feeling that you’ve done your job.’
This debate is not limited to the United States. Anders Löwenberg, one of the founders of the Swedish association of investigative journalists, closely follows Greene in his definition. However, Torbjörn von Krogh, one of Löwenberg’s co-founders of the Swedish association, does not agree with him on the point of secrecy.
So far we have dealt with criticism of elements of Greene’s definition. Some authors reject the whole idea behind it: they state that investigative journalism is a tautology, because all journalism is investigative journalism, or at least it should be. John Pilger is one of them, as far as the normative part is concerned. ‘All reporting is investigative, because news gatherers seek facts’, Curtis MacDougal writes in his book Interpretative Reporting (quoted by Protess). When interviewed about investigative journalism, journalists often put this kind of arguments forward. But they all know that in the real world journalists often simply report on what someone said at a presentation or press conference, or on what they saw when they were witnessing an event. Of course this has always been a primary element of their task as well: reporting on what has happened, to be there and to serve as the eyes and ears of the readers, listeners or viewers.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, said in an interview with Hugo de Burgh: ‘All journalism is investigative to a greater or lesser extent, but investigative journalism — though it is a bit of a tautology — is that because it requires more, it’s where the investigative element is more pronounced.’ Jonathan Calvert, investigative reporter with The Observer, is more explicit, also in an interview with Hugo de Burgh: ‘Some stories you make five calls on, some twenty. When you are making a hundred, that’s investigative journalism.’ In this sense one could also formulate quantitative criteria for investigative journalism.
However, according to Ettema and Glasser there is a qualitative difference as well between what ‘ordinary’ journalists do and what investigative journalists do: ‘Although daily reporters can merely accept many claims as news, whatever their truth may be, investigative reporters must decide what they believe to be the truth.’ Many statements of politicians, bureaucrats and business officials make day-to-day news, not because they are necessarily true, but because these persons made them. The words of the President are news because the President spoke them. De Burgh reasons along a similar track when he writes: ‘Whereas news deals very rapidly with received information, usually accepting what is defined for it by authority (ministries, police, fire service, universities, established spokesmen) as events appropriate for transformation into news, investigative journalism selects its own information and prioritises it in a different way.’ Of course this distinction is by no means absolute, De Burgh stresses.
It is clear that there is reporting that involves extensive research and non-obvious selection of information, but does not reveal a scandal or exposes information that someone is trying to hide. Some authors would call this kind of reporting investigative anyhow, in disagreement with Greene. Others have tried to save Greene’s definition by introducing various other terms for this kind of journalism. These newly coined genres could then be considered neighbours of investigative journalism. Examples are: analytical reporting, interpretative reporting, and precision journalism. We shall briefly look into these adjacent genres.
Hugo de Burgh distinguishes news reporting from analytical reporting: ‘News reporting is descriptive and news reporters are admired when they describe in a manner that is accurate, explanatory, vivid or moving, regardless of the medium. Analytical journalism, on the other hand, seeks to take the data available and reconfigure it, helping us to ask questions about the situation or statement or see it in a different way.’ According to De Burgh’s definitions many broadcasts of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Panorama are not investigative — they do not reveal something that someone is trying to hide — but analytical. In the words of Panorama’s Clive Edwards: ‘Panorama is telling you about things that you do not know enough about. Even a relatively innocuous subject such as house prices will be treated such as to show you the way they are affecting society and to bring to your attention the problems caused by the situation that most people take for granted. We are trying to get to the bottom of exactly what is happening, the forces behind it.’
Interpretive reporting is a term Ettema and Glasser use for reporting that for instance is more ‘concerned with revealing large-scale patterns of discrimination’ than pinpointing individual villains. The term refers to stories that show what is happening in society that was hitherto unknown or not explicit. There may well be a moral aspect involved, or even a scandal, but this cannot be attributed to the wrongdoing of a particular person or institution. It is reporting that takes the step from individual cases to social patterns, and in that sense is somewhat closer to social science in its outlook, and often in its methods, because identifying patterns usually requires some sort of statistical analysis.
Applying the methods of social science in journalism is the topic that Philip Meyer put on the agenda in the early seventies when he coined the term ‘precision journalism’ in his book of the same title. He advocates ‘to push journalism toward science, incorporating both the powerful data-gathering and -analysis tools of science and its disciplined search for a verifiable truth’. His plea only concerned methods, not the content. Social science methods may be used to reveal wrongdoing, but also to reveal patterns that were unknown, but nobody’s fault.
Evaluating the critique on definitions like Greene’s and the proposals to address this critique by coining new terms for different kinds of journalism that are in some way at least very similar to investigative journalism, it is striking that the arguments involve moral and political aspects, aspects concerning sources or the object of investigation, and aspects concerning the actual work of the reporter — often simultaneously. This may seem very complete, but it is also very complex. That’s why distilling the arguments from these different domains — morality, politics, sources, objects of investigation, and the actual work of journalists — may clarify a lot.
We can make this separation by looking at the process of investigative journalism. A journalist investigates a particular matter, and then publishes about it, and this publication may have particular political or social effects. Following this process, we may define investigative journalism in three different ways: relating to the input, the output, and the role.
Definitions of investigative journalism that refer to the output describe the nature of the publications involved, such as exposés. Note that not all investigations lead to exposés and not all exposés stem from journalistic investigations (such as the Pentagon Papers), but many authors are not very strict in this respect.
Definitions of investigative journalism that refer to the role describe what happens in society, or in politics in particular, before, during or after the investigation, or as a consequence of investigative journalism. In this kind of definitions there is ample room for outrage, advocacy, appealing to citizens or politicians to invoke reforms. Here the motives of sources and reporters play their parts. Why is someone leaking, or why does he remain silent?
Definitions of investigative journalism that refer to the input describe the activities of the journalists involved. These definitions relate to the news- gathering process. They are about making five phone calls or a hundred, and about taking the word of an authority for granted or not. Such definitions say nothing about the outcome of the process. A possible outcome may even be that there is no story: after all, a thorough and lengthy investigation may check a story to death. However, according to an input-related definition this does not make the work of the reporter less investigative.
One of these three approaches is not necessarily better than the other two. It all depends on the aim of the analysis that required a definition of investigative journalism. In communication studies, output-related definitions often make sense, because many of the communication processes that are studied start with a publication. They are the raw material for research. In political science, role-related definitions are often preferred, because by them journalism can be given a place in the political process. When studying the inner workings of journalism, however, input-related definitions are most suitable, because they deal with what journalists actually do.
Because the VVOJ is an association that advocates professionalism in journalism, and because the aim of this research project is — in part — to support that, an input-related definition of investigative journalism will fit our needs best. The VVOJ’s own definition mentioned in the beginning of this section fulfils this requirement very well.
The VVOJ repeats this definition on many occasions, to clear up any misunderstandings that may arise about the meaning of the term ‘investigative journalism’. The founders of the VVOJ deliberately chose a broad definition, to avoid becoming part of a discussion on who is a ‘real’ investigative journalist and who is not. The association’s regulations state:
Investigative journalism is critical and in-depth journalism.
Critical means that journalism works not just as a service-hatch for ‘news’ that already existed, but that news is being created that would not have existed without this journalistic intervention. This may happen by the creation of new facts, but also by interpreting or connecting already known facts in a new way. In-depth means that a substantial journalistic effort was delivered, be it in a quantitative sense — the amount of time spent on research, by consulting many sources, etcetera — or in a qualitative sense — formulation of sharp questions, new approaches, etcetera — or in a combination of the two.
Referring to this definition the association distinguishes three kinds of investigative journalism that, incidentally, may overlap.
We started this section with some highlights of the history of American investigative journalism, and we expressed the hope that these would lead us to a useable definition of investigative journalism. The result of this exercise was Greene’s definition. The dispute this definition generated involves several distinct domains. By separating these domains, we could conclude that an input-related definition was required for our purposes. The VVOJ definition suits that requirement well.
But before taking the final decision on a definition of investigative journalism for the purpose of this research project, we have to see whether the VVOJ definition is adequate in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural context.
So far this discussion was almost exclusively based on Anglo-Saxon, usually American sources. In this context, terms like investigative journalism, analytical journalism and the like have a particular meaning, connotation and history. But if one discusses investigative journalism with foreign colleagues in other languages than English, other terminology will have to be used. This is more than a matter of mere semantics, seeing that French journalists speaking French will use French concepts that refer to French journalism traditions. This is no different for German, Swedish, Italian, etcetera, journalists. Even before starting this research project, it was obvious that these traditions differ substantially. This introduces new difficulties in defining what we are talking about, as some examples will illustrate.
In the Netherlands there is a word that more or less covers the term ‘investigative journalism’: onderzoeksjournalistiek. This is a common concept among journalists and also in wider circles. But it is not the only relevant concept. When the oldest journalism school in the country, in Utrecht, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1991, it organised a conference on what we currently would probably call onderzoeksjournalistiek. But then the conference, and subsequently the book that was published as a result of it, had the title onthullingsjournalistiek, which could be translated as ‘exposé journalism’. The definition of onthullingsjournalistiek in the book was very similar to the definitions of ‘investigative journalism’ in the aforementioned American literature: a form of newsgathering in which the journalist investigates sources systematically and optimally, aimed at revealing (often consciously) concealed information. Note that this definition refers to both input and output, while the term itself refers exclusively to output: the exposé or onthulling. The authors considered onthullingsjournalistiek to be a better term than the more input-oriented onderzoeksjournalistiek, as the latter was seen as a tautological concept, in line with some of the authors mentioned above.
Silvio Waisbord uses the term ‘watchdog journalism’ in his book Watchdog Journalism in South America. Although the book is written in English, it refers to local journalism traditions in South America that are very dissimilar to those in the United States: ‘South American journalists reject the understanding of investigative reporting in terms of specific methodological requirements that sets it apart from other journalism.’ He sees ‘watchdog journalism’ as a broader concept: ‘reporting that brings attention to wrongdoing through reporting information that some implicated parties want to keep hidden.’ Much of this kind of reporting is not based on extensive investigations by journalists, but on documents and other information leaked by members of competing elite factions — the so-called denuncismo. Such stories are often based on only one or two sources.
Exposing wrongdoing in this region has long been an activity of the alternative press, which explicitly rejected the American concept of objective journalism and instead crusaded in the name of various ideological causes. So the whole American concept of journalism in general and investigative journalism in particular does not match the South American journalism traditions. For Waisbord, the consequences of reporting are far more important than the methods. Role and output are dominant in his concept; input is an absent factor.
In France, the most obvious equivalent of ‘investigative journalism’ would — at first sight — be journalisme d’investigation. But as will become clear in the chapter on France, this concept refers to a different kind of journalism than Americans tend to think of when they use the term ‘investigative journalism’. It more or less follows the work of the prosecutor. So it relates to input, to what journalists do, but is much more limited in its scope than the usual conception of ‘investigative journalism’. Other concepts exist in France, such as journalisme d’enquête and reporting on les affaires. But neither of them really fit the American concept of ‘investigative journalism’. Journalism traditions in France are simply very different from those in the US or Britain, as has been underlined by the publications of Mark Hunter and Jean Chalaby.
The Swedish language had a term that corresponded very well with ‘investigative journalism’: undersökande journalistik, which is also an input-related term. Yet when in 1989 a group of Swedish IRE members wanted to organise a conference on investigative journalism in Stockholm, they had serious doubts about this term. According to them it had too much of an air of big scandals and macho reporting by tough guys. It would not appeal to women and was too narrow in its scope. That’s why they coined a new term: grävande journalistik — ‘digging journalism’. This concept was meant to be more down to earth and input-related as well. It referred to what reporters do: dig.
A year later they founded an association of ‘digging journalists’: Föreningen Grävande Journalister. The introduction of the term has been quite successful. Nowadays grävande journalistik is a common concept in Sweden.
When a group of Dutch and Flemish journalists joined forces in the autumn of 2001 to found an association of investigating journalists, they were confronted with the same question as their Swedish counterparts were twelve years earlier: to stick to a well-known term with all its connotations, some of which were unwanted, or to coin a new term. In the Netherlands especially, the term onderzoeksjournalistiek was less macho-laden than its Swedish equivalent, maybe because there simply was less of a tradition of such journalism. In contrast to the Swedes, they chose not to abandon common terminology, but to add the specific and non-common definition to the term ‘onderzoeksjournalistiek’ (investigative journalism) described above.
The VVOJ deliberately chose an input-related definition, which describes what journalists do. It is the journalistic investigation that makes investigative journalism investigative and nothing else. It seems a useable definition in Sweden and France, especially if one explains what is meant by it, as described above.
That it was important to work with such an explicit definition became clear in a research project carried out by the VVOJ in 2002. In this project, 107 journalists from the Netherlands and Flanders were interviewed about investigative journalism in their newsroom or in their freelance work. On many occasions, journalists held the view that investigative journalism by definition covers crime and corruption. Only after introducing and explaining the sense of the wider VVOJ definition, did they recognise that they were actually involved in investigative journalism themselves. The results of this project were published in the VVOJ report Onderzoeksjournalistiek in Nederland en Vlaanderen (in Dutch).
As the VVOJ definition had already proven its use in a multi-cultural context — the differences in journalism culture and culture in general between the Netherlands and Flanders are much bigger than people usually think they are — it therefore made sense to use it in this research project as well. The researchers had to explain what we were talking about anyway because local journalism traditions differ widely.
In order to conduct a research project called Investigative Journalism in Europe, one not only has to define ‘investigative journalism’ but one has to define ‘Europe’ as well. Just as deciding on who is a journalist and who is not, the decision on which countries belong to Europe and which do not, is primarily a practical matter. The fierce debates in several countries about the possible future EU membership of Turkey form one example, but also in other international bodies such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, decisions were taken on which countries to admit. However, not only states make this sort of decisions: for the Eurovision Song Contest and the European championships in various sports, similar choices have to be made. And many multinational corporations have a European division, so they have to decide which countries this division will serve.
The classical geographical definition of Europe covers the area between the Atlantic and the Ural, and between the Barents Sea and the Mediterranean. Two countries straddle these European borders: Russia and Turkey. As there was no particular reason to prefer a ‘small’ Europe, this project includes Russia and Turkey.
For practical and financial reasons, as well as for reasons of relevancy, it was necessary to make a further selection. The first step was to discard all countries with fewer than one million inhabitants. Furthermore, we wanted to cover at least the largest European news markets, the Low Countries and some countries from Western and some from Central and Eastern Europe. Sponsors made some of the choices for us, by earmarking their contributions. Also, the available knowledge of members of the VVOJ and willingness to take part in the project influenced the final selection. The countries covered are the whole of Western Europe plus Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey.
Research questions, methodology and sources
To be able to draw conclusions about the state of investigative journalism in Europe several questions need to be answered. They can be divided into three tiers.
The first tier is a simple inventory: Who, what, where? For each country included in the project an overview is required of the media that regularly conduct investigative projects, of the journalists that are involved in these projects, and of the subject matter of these projects. It is important not only to look at the major national media, but also at regional and local media, as well as trade publications. Print, including books, and broadcast media will have to be considered.
The second tier concentrates on the individual level of the journalist and his or her medium. What sort of methods and techniques are being used? How are investigative projects embedded in the newsroom? What sort of problems do journalists run into when they conduct investigative projects, both externally — e.g. related to access to documents — and internally — e.g. related to beats and management in the newsroom? It is also important to get an idea why these media and these journalists conduct these investigative projects, and why they use the methodologies they use. Which role do politics play in journalism for these actors? Questions about how one learns to be an investigative journalist also belong to this second tier. For instance, what is the role of the schools, of professional associations, and of international cooperation?
The third tier raises questions on an aggregate level. What are the differences and similarities between countries and between different kinds of media in Europe concerning the amount of investigative journalism they do, how they do it, why they do it, what topics they investigate and what sort of problems they are confronted with? Is it possible to discern particular patterns and to explain them?
The research into these issues could constitute a long-range research programme. Therefore, this project can only really give a first draft of answers.
The research methods used in this project can be related to the three tiers mentioned above.
For the questions in the first tier the main source of information in most countries will be interviews with key informants. Key informants are people who are supposed to have a good overview of investigative journalism in their country, for instance editors of specialist journalism magazines, board and staff members of organisations of investigative journalists, and journalism professors. Interviews were conducted face-to-face. In some countries, collections of documents could be used in addition to the interviews: if awards for investigative journalism existed, the lists of entries for these awards offered an initial overview of the landscape of investigative journalism in that particular country.
To be able to create a rich and annotated list of projects that had been carried out in each country, it was sometimes necessary to complement the interviews with the key informants with short surveys amongst journalists who have actually done the projects. These surveys are especially meant to gather in-depth information about the projects, for instance about the methods used and about newsroom context in which they were developed. Such surveys could be done by email or by phone. The goal would be to get about ten annotated recent projects from each country.
For the second tier, more in-depth information was required from particular journalists and from particular newsrooms. The main source of information were interviews with reporters and editors working for news organisations that were regularly involved in investigative journalism, as well as some freelance journalists that regularly did larger investigations. Interviews were done face-to-face in all cases but a few. Because of the potential cultural differences, personal interaction was necessary.
The interviews were be supported by a literature study if relevant publications were available from journalism books and magazines or scholarly publications.
The interviewers were familiar with the definition of investigative journalism used by the VVOJ and the pitfalls one may encounter when defining this kind of work. They all are active journalists themselves, with experience in investigative reporting. The VVOJ preferred to recruit the interviewers from its membership base: this guaranteed that they had a common conceptual framework, and that they were accessible for briefings. And insomuch as they had different cultural backgrounds, these are differences the association is familiar with.
The interviewers were very familiar with the countries they were to cover. Some of them work or worked there as a correspondent for the Dutch media, some of them studied there. Others had family ties or other special relations in ‘their’ country. In all countries but Finland and Bulgaria, the researchers were at least able to read and understand the local language. Most of the interviews were conducted in the respondent’s native language. It was left to the researchers whether they wanted to tape the interviews or not, depending on their customary way of working as experienced journalists.
The fieldwork for this project, including the interviews, was conducted in 2004 and early 2005.
The country reports and projects lists formed the raw material for the general part of the book. Desk research on relevant literature supplemented the findings and supported the analysis.
General data about each country in the ‘at a glance’ tables were taken from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Trends in Europe and North America 2005. The data about corruption and transparency were taken from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2004. The data on freedom of the press were taken from Freedom in the World 2005, published by the NGO Freedom House.
Data about numbers of newspapers, their circulation and business model were taken as much as possible from World Press Trends 2004, a publication of the World Association of Newspapers. This way uniform standards were used for total circulation per 1,000 inhabitants as well as for the circulation of the largest individual newspapers in each country. As World Press Trends does not provide data on individual smaller newspapers, these were taken from various national sources, usually from a national institute for circulation measurement. For the sake of readability we did not include separate references for all these figures. The author of the chapters on Russia and Ukraine considered the circulation data of individual newspapers in these countries too unreliable to reproduce. The author of the chapter on Bulgaria considered the differences in circulation figures mentioned by different sources too big to big to be reliable. Therefore, detailed circulation figures are absent in these chapters.
The assessment of journalists’ knowledge of English, their political involvement, and the involvement of politicians in the media and of newsroom hierarchy came from the researchers themselves on the basis of their experience in the particular country. Unions provided the percentage of female journalists in some countries, but in others nothing more than the researcher’s estimates was available. The same is true for journalists’ education.
Data on the associations of investigative journalists came from the associations themselves. However, in most countries such associations do not exist.
Comparative studies on investigative journalism hardly exist. There are some bilateral studies, e.g. comparing investigative journalism in France to that in the United States, and comparing investigative journalism in Sweden to that in the United States. Silvio Waisbord’s study on watchdog journalism in South America covers more countries, but on a different continent. This means that we had to start more or less from scratch.
This is the case both theoretically and empirically. As was discussed in this chapter, the more analytical approaches of journalism in general are rare, and of investigative journalism even rarer. ‘Analysis of investigative journalism hardly exists’, Hugo de Burgh writes in his introduction to Investigative Journalism, Context and Practice. Apart from this analytical vacuum, substantial comparative empirical data on investigative journalism are non-existent. There is some comparative research on journalism, notably the surveys done by David Weaver and colleagues — published in The Global Journalist — but these cover a much wider range of topics and countries and only in a few of the countries covered by our research.
The VVOJ had conducted a research project into investigative journalism in the Netherlands and Flanders in 2002. For this study, 107 journalists at 77 different media were interviewed. In these small countries this scale was sufficient to make some careful quantitative estimates on how many journalists are actually involved in more substantial investigations in the Low Countries. It was the first time that such estimates could be made. To achieve a similar result in twenty countries, at least two thousand interviews would be necessary, and probably more, because in the larger countries a hundred interviews would not do as there are many more relevant media. This was and is way beyond the reach of our possibilities. So we knew in advance that we had to be satisfied with more limited results. This study, therefore, does not aim to quantify investigative journalism in Europe.
It was clear from the outset that differences between European countries when it comes to investigative journalism would be big, but we did not know how big. This report is — as far as we know — the first that addresses this question. That is why the results should be considered a first exploration of the matter, and by no means as the final word.
References for the general chapters of this publication can be found at the end of Part Three: Analysis.