It is common to say that “On the whole, journalism will be fine even as the media industry is disrupted – but the investigative part of journalism may not fare so well.” Indeed, I took something like that stance in my May, 2009 post on where the information ecosystem is headed and even more directly in an earlier piece that month. However, I’ve changed my mind in an optimistic direction, and now believe:
There are still some things we need to do to preserve and extend the societal benefits of investigative reporting. But they are straightforward and very likely to happen.
Specifically, I recommend:
- Public-spirited law-oriented types should do a better job of popularizing tips for how to get information out of government (Freedom of Information Act and all that). And back it up with more pro bono or charitably-funded legal assistance – not just for specific causes, but for general corruption investigations as well.
- I’m sure quite a bit of that is happening, but it should be much more visible and active.
- Domain-specific websites should be created and promoted that seek out and call attention to negative stories in their particular areas, especially for specific industries or geographical regions.
- A lot of those exist targeted at specific large companies people have grudges against, but otherwise they’re much too hard to find.
- Reporters need to be in the habit of seeking out stories first uncovered by other people.
- They do this already, but they need to get better.
Below, at considerable length, is why I think those developments are both necessary and sufficient to carry the tradition of investigative journalism forward into the new media era.
For there to be public benefit from reporting, three things generally need to occur:
- Disclosure or discovery of the raw facts. Without that, you don’t have reporting or news.
- Analysis or interpretation. This stage can be optional when the purpose of news is entertainment, societal bonding, or whatever. But it’s pretty central to investigative journalism.
- Distribution and popularization. It doesn’t do much good to uncover an important story unless people notice and care about it. Old media, with its emphases on writing, curation, and physical distribution, almost defines itself by this stage. (E.g., “paper” is part of the word “newspaper.”)
Disclosure and discovery come in two main forms:
The serendipity part often seems to work well in the new media. Let’s go to some examples.
- Wikileaks is a hugely successful case – people send Wikileaks documents or other files (a process that only makes sense with modern technology), and Wikileaks posts them.
- Note: There was an article yesterday about “internal strife” at Wikileaks – but the gist turned out to be that Wikileaks, already highly influential, could be doing even more than it already is.
- Michael Arrington found out about a meeting of major angel investors – perhaps originally via a tweet – and kicked off a major technology industry news story now known as “Angelgate”.
- An anonymous tipster spent 2 ½ hours IMing with me to reveal the true cause of the JP Morgan Chase site outages.
- Motivation: Because s/he felt Chase’s technology organization was being unfairly maligned by prior coverage.
- Why me: Because my previous speculative post about the JP Morgan Chase outages had shown up in the search engines and looked pretty credible.)
- Result: Enough accurate tech details of a major consumer embarrassment to create a “teachable moment,” even though the concerned parties were trying to cover them up.
- An assisted living/nursing home in Dublin, Ohio called Friendship Village misbehaved toward my parents and me. I blogged about the problem, and it’s in the search engines now. If this turns out to be a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident, they’ll have some deserved trouble.
The story on the spadework side is more mixed. For example, there’s evidence I did as good a job on the JP Morgan Chase story as conventional media could today – Computerworld ran a story based on my post, without being able to uncover a single detail I hadn’t already found. But perhaps in the old-media-economics days, perhaps Computerworld would have had the resources to try harder and find something I didn’t. (E.g., I screwed up and didn’t actually get the details of the specific Oracle bug.) A bigger problem is outlined in this story on the uncovering of massive corruption in the California town of Bell. To wit (emphasis mine):
The new media ecosystem, in which citizen bloggers, small news outlets and big old-school media outlets effectively draw upon one another’s work to collaborate, didn’t quite work out in this case.
One blogger actually has anonymously and exhaustively alleged corruption in Bell for years …
The paper’s reporters say the blogger gave them tips. Though he’s a bit frustrated not to get more credit, he says the newspaper’s reporting muscle and much bigger audience gave life to the story in a way his website simply couldn’t. He counts his readers in the scores; The L.A. Times has hundreds of thousands of subscribers …
… some residents said they had gone to city hall to get their own answers. In essence, they were trying to do their own reporting on why their tax bills were so high and on rumors city officials were making a ton of money.
They got nowhere. …
“As a common citizen, I don’t know what my rights are with the city. I don’t know really how to attack them,” Sanchez said. “The Times, they have their legal departments. Of course, they’re able to get it more than a regular Joe like me.”
The citizens of Bell needed some place to turn for help, other than the overworked LA Times reporters who eventually uncovered the story on their own. Hence my first recommendation near the top of this post.
In many ways, analysis and interpretation work well in the new media era already. After all, there’s a whole world wide-web of self-appointed volunteer analysts on any issue you’d care to name! Yes, there are legitimate concerns about fragmentation and echo chambers, in which people only listen to the analysis of those folks who shared their biases to begin with. But those are hardly a barrier to muckraking – if anything, quite the contrary, as illustrated by the bogus ACORN prostitute/pimp advice scandal. (If your politics lean to the conservative side, think instead of something like a Michael Moore film.)
Or returning to the examples above:
- Wikileaks’ biggest leaks are widely analyzed by all sorts of commentators, including top-flight mainstream media people and a broad variety of online commentators alike. I’ll confess I didn’t find any analysis of Wikileaks’ revelations about, say, Iceland or the Turks & Caicos Islands, but I’ll also confess to not looking very hard.
- For the technology news uncovered respectively by Arrington and me, pretty much the ideal people to analyze it were, respectively – well, they were Arrington and me.
- In the case of Angelgate, much other analysis (and news) ensued.
- Analysis of the JP Morgan Chase outage details hasn’t yet gone all that far past me – but I already turned it into a “don’t make the same mistake JP Morgan Chase did” lesson.
- The Friendship Village case is being used as a cornerstone of my slowly-unfolding analysis of the general problem with medical records.
And that brings us to distribution and popularization. The most brilliant sleuthing in the world doesn’t help people very much if they – or their lawmakers/regulators/advisers/whatever – don’t find out about it.
- Wikileaks has that problem solved for its biggest leaks, but perhaps not for the others.
- Arrington’s TechCrunch is a top news outlet in his area, so the problem was automatically solved for him.
- DBMS 2 is a fairly serious outlet for database-related news. But in any case the JP Morgan Chase story was picked up by general trade press and financial-industry-specific press alike.
- As noted in the story on Bell, CA, nobody was paying attention to a blogger who apparently had worked quite a bit of it out.
- And if there’s anything you found lacking in my list of analysis/interpretation examples – well, if a story were picked up more broadly, then analysis/interpretation might also be stronger as well.
Almost nobody would ever see my Friendship Village story if I didn’t happen to own some websites with strong search engine authority. And how high it stays in the rankings as it ages still remains to be seen.
Possible answers take two main forms:
- Aggregation and curation,* in which various contributions are bundled together at go-to websites or the like.
- A reporting feeding chain, in which journalists with broader reach:
- Steal/borrow/take ideas from more specialized contributors.
- Repackage them.
- Perhaps add additional value in reporting, analysis, or presentation. (Several examples of this may be found in the links above.)
Investigative reporting needs more of each.
*The latter is the more high-falutin’ version of the former.
Consider my story about Friendship Village. Standing alone, it’s not going to influence much of anybody, except insofar as I can personally influence the course of medical database design or privacy law. But suppose one person each reported similar things at 20 different institutions. A journalist who wrote a story based on those reports could carry a lot of sway, perhaps:
- Influencing the course of medical information exchange in the United States, or at least
- Alerting people to the lengths they have to go to get proper information about and before their sick relatives.
Similarly, suppose there were a go-to website for complaints about assisted living facilities. Well, people considering moving into Friendship Village would have a little concern to address. Even better, the very existence of that site might help motivate people to share more stories. Bad institutions would need to reform, and bad practices might be reformed under the spotlight of public scrutiny.
If this isn’t my longest blog post ever, it’s surely close. So while I have much more to say on these subjects, I’ll stop here. Comments and examples are warmly encouraged.