The Investigative Journalism Fable

For the last three months, the focus of my posts has been the federal election. Now that it is past, I will be writing about other topics. I’ve resumed work on my book about private sector management narratives. I’m now working on a chapter about the media. Here is a draft of a section outlining the fable of investigative journalism. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Investigative journalism has a comprehensive heroic fable, which has a sequence of well-known and clearly-demarcated steps. A front-line, possibly neophyte, journalist covers a story and finds there are aspects of it that are incongruous or scandalous and begins to dig more deeply into it. The journalist becomes convinced that this will be an extremely important story because the problems or scandals are immense and, when revealed, will capture the public’s attention. The journalist also recognizes that writing this story will advance his career enormously. Because investigative journalism is very costly in terms of time spent doing research and not initially publishing anything, the journalist must convince his editor, and likely the managing editor, to reallocate his time to focus on the big story.

The journalist researches the story using standard tradecraft such as documentary research and interviews. Some of the research may go beyond standard tradecraft to involve acquiring leaked documents and doing off-the-record and “deep background” interviews, possibly under unusual circumstances. The journalist thinks she is alone researching this story, but she is aware that the competition may soon find out about it. In essence, the journalist has what she recognizes is a temporary monopoly on the story and wants to publish before the competition does. In addition to the threat of competition, the journalist is concerned that the people and institutions he is researching may want to stop him writing the story, either through legal action, such as threatening to sue for defamation, or through threats of physical retaliation. Threats of retaliation may not only be directed at the individual journalist but at her institution, for example threatening to withdraw advertising. The threats to the institution will require the publisher to get involved as well, and the journalist must hope that both the editor-in-chief and the publisher are supportive.

The journalist’s initial moment of victory comes when she has the story and is able to convince her editors that her research supports the story. The initial publication attracts considerable attention. If the revelations are surprising, if not sensational, the institutions and individuals may attempt to discredit the story, or sue the publishing institution. Media competitors, embarrassed at being scooped, may initiate their own research with the intent of discrediting the institution that scooped them. Assuming that the story withstands these challenges, agents in the social and political realm may attempt to take action. Some stories could lead to consumer boycotts, others to legislation.

The three-level heroic outcome is that the journalists receive awards, for example a Pulitzer Prize, and career advancement, such as a promotion to columnist or editor; the publication is rewarded with recognition, an enhanced reputation, and a larger audience; and society is better off because it has taken action to correct the injustice, right the wrong, or solve the problem that the investigative journalist discovered and revealed.

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