September 26, 2010

How to preserve investigative reporting in the New Media Era

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: 

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 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.

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:

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.

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:

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:

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.


4 Responses to “How to preserve investigative reporting in the New Media Era”

  1. Further thoughts on previous posts | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 27th, 2010 7:29 am

    […] for those of you who don’t read my other blogs — last night’s post was a long and optimistic rumination on the future of investigative reporting. Categories: About this blog, Calpont, IBM and DB2, Netezza, Oracle, SAS Institute  […]

  2. Daniel L Weinreb on September 27th, 2010 11:09 pm

    It’s not yet utterly clear what was going on with Angelgate, but it’s not at all clear to what extent the charges that Arrington leveled against these guys was true. In fact, and perhaps more important, were the charges justified enough to cause a media frenzy? Maybe he was right both in form and substance. I just don’t know. But being “The Drudge Report” of Silicon Valley may not be the best thing to be, among the kinds of journalists.

    I admit that it’s all very difficult to know, especially in a quickly-changing environment. I certainly do not claim to have the answers.

  3. Curt Monash on September 28th, 2010 12:46 am


    I think the most important judgments are:

    1. Was important information or insight revealed?
    2. Was undue harm done to … well, to anybody?

    I think the answers are Yes and No, respectively.

  4. Margaret Bartley on August 11th, 2011 9:17 am

    Thanks for dealing with this.

    I think you’re correct about the need for aggregate websites.

    I would love to see them.

    I remember a period of time in the mid-90’s when I would stay up till the very early hours of the morning reading newsgroup postings. I don’t know if that was before your time, or not, but people would post really, really interesting stories from all over the world. THese were meaty, authentic stories that revealed a depth of analysis and understanding that I dearly miss now.

    But it couldn’t be controlled by central authorities. I watched in deep sorrow as these usenet postings were gradually flooded out by targetted disruption tactics.

    On some newsgroups, we would even point out how the offensive, off-topic rants would be posted from multiple accounts, but they always took a lunch and dinner break. I remember reading a posting from a guy who described his life as a disruptive poster who was compelled by some government agency to work long hours, or do serious jail time.

    What always happens is that when something good happens, it gets taken down or taken over. Co-optation reins supreme. I remember during the VietNam War protest days, Abbie Hoffman saying that the only thing The Establishment (that’s what they were fighting against, not just the War, but the Establishment) couldn’t co-opt was the word “Fuck”. Everything else would be co-opted. “Revolutionary lipstick!” he ranted with outrage.

    A deeper discussion would be how to keep an aggregator that had high readership and credibility from being targetted by takeover, and ultimately either wimped out, or taken down.

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