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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Reasons to End Investigative Reporting?

It's been coming for a while. Now Jon Stewart has confirmed it: mainstream media - especially broadcasters - are moving away from investigative reporting.

The reasons for this are not complicated: investigative reporting costs money and usually doesn't attract audiences. Or more deliberately, it doesn't attract advertisers.

NPR had a solid unit a few years ago and plucked some talented journalists from CBC Radio to beef it up.

A few months ago, NPR began dismantling the unit, while still proclaiming that it was committed to the craft.

NPR partnered with the Center for Public Integrity and PBS' Frontline and broke some serious stories.

So why abandon what looked like a deeply civic and desperately needed, form of original journalism?

Three reasons:

First, having a "special status" group like an investigative unit inside a traditional newsroom culture breeds suspicion. Editors and managers tend to worry that resources will be taken away to support the new grouping. Investigative reporting will always have to fight to stay part of the news operation.

Second, people who are attracted to investigative reporting tend, in my experience, to be loners - even somewhat anti-social. And in that clubby newsroom environment, they just don't play well with others. By keeping to themselves, they exacerbate their outsider status.

Third, management may initially like the idea of an investigative unit. But if the unit does its job well, there will be lawsuits, or the threat thereof. Management worries that corporate reputations could fray as legal costs go up.

And speaking of costs, the spreadsheets will show that investigative reporters produce far less content per reporter than the beat reporters who get into the paper or on the air every day. Investigative reporters may have something to show in a month from now. Maybe longer...

Until there is a study that shows media companies that investigative reporting is both good journalism and good business, the bottom liners in newsrooms - and not the journalists - will be defining what constitutes important and necessary information.

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