Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Whatever happened to investigative journalism?

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As a journalism college graduate - long, long ago - I tend to deplore the profession's decline here in America. But I can't say too much about this, because I don't watch television news.

Heck, I don't watch television at all, to speak of. I don't think I've even turned on my TV for months now (although I do watch shows - like this one - online). But I don't have cable, and I never watch television news, anyway.

And these are businesses. They have to make money to stay in business. I can't think that CNN has found the right solution for that, the solution that mixes healthy profits with integrity and journalistic zeal, but I wouldn't know, would I? And would I rather they imitate Fox, just pretending to be a news network while pushing propaganda 24/7?

This is a great clip, and it's tempting to deplore what's going on. But I can't do that, not without being a complete hypocrite. Yeah, I want other people to watch serious news programs, huh? Well, I do, I guess,... but that's not how I want to get the news myself.

Note that I generally get my news from internet sources. And, yes, there's a big problem with that, since we tend to visit websites which just confirm what we already believe. Well, that's why people watch Fox 'News,' too.

It's not like years ago, when there were just three major networks, and the whole country got the same story, more or less. Admittedly, there was both good and bad in that. But those networks could afford to subsidize their news programs - and since there wasn't anything else on, they got a lot of viewers, too.

For good or bad, we can't use that model now. It just won't work. We need a new model for the 21st Century, a news model which can work in the fragmented, diverse, and incredibly open world of the internet.

Now, I don't know what model will work for CNN and other news networks, I really don't. I hope they don't follow the model of Fox 'News' and cease to be a news network entirely. But that seems to work in a financial sense, assuming that you're willing to sell your soul for money. Of course, that's just abandoning the news business - and prostituting yourself - not finding a new model for what's critically important in any democracy.

For us consumers of news, however, we have a lot more options these days. I do visit some general news sites each day (especially for local news), but I tend to get much of my news from blogs - oh, not the news itself, necessarily, but links to interesting articles elsewhere. TPM, for example, is a great source for political news.

I also get emails from news aggregators. For example, I get this Sigma Xi 'SmartBrief' of science news. And I get links related to skepticism from CFI (although I normally just visit the website for that one). Most of these are specialist sites, of course, but I also get an RSS news feed of headlines from the BBC.

It's great, but there are two big problems, problems which tend to work at cross-purposes. The first is that there's pretty well an unlimited amount of content on the internet - certainly, far, far more than any one person could consume. You have to find a way to manage this, to thin it down to manageable proportions. (And no, I haven't found that solution, not completely, not yet - although reading the news isn't nearly as time-consuming as writing about it!)

But that tends to make the other problem worse, the problem of reading only what confirms your existing beliefs. I don't know what to do about this one, other than to try to find valid sources for my news - and to confirm claims, using Snopes.com and PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org (here's a good list of such places).

Well, since I write this blog, I also encourage people to disagree with me here. If I'm wrong, I want to know about it. (Of course, just claiming that I'm wrong won't change my mind. I'll need a good argument with, preferably, good evidence. But that's the whole point. I try to have good reasons for what I believe.)

We need investigative journalism, but the old models aren't going to work in the 21st Century. We'll have to find new models. We really have no choice.


Chimeradave said...

I think it's AP and Reuters that have killed investigative journalism. I mean back in the day if you wanted a story for your paper you had to send a reporter or not cover it.

Today everyone just buys the story from AP or Reuters so instead of several journalist covering a story different ways all you can find is the same story by one journalist regurgitated in different newspapers.

Suddenly instead of employing a lot of reporters the system can only employ a handful.

WCG said...

You know, John, the AP has been around since 1846, and Reuters since 1851, so I don't think that's it.

Of course, their video news divisions haven't been around since the 19th Century. But according to Wikipedia, they "typically do not produce programmes that TV owners could watch. Rather, they provide footage of an event with only natural sound and very loose editing. However, APTN [AP Television News] does also produce a range of entertainment and special interest programmes that are provided "white label" for client use."

Now, it's possible that there's been a big increase in those "white label" programs, I don't know. But investigative journalism still seems fundamentally different from the kind of routine coverage you get from AP or Reuters, don't you think?

Certainly, they existed together for a long, long time.

Chimeradave said...

I was talking specifically about print journalism. Maybe I'm wrong but it seems like more and more papers started getting a lot of their non-local news from AP and Reuters in the last 10 years, but maybe it has always been like that.

I've never known TV to do much in the way of investigative journalism.

WCG said...

Maybe where you lived, John, but not here in Nebraska. Do you think the Lincoln Journal Star ever had a Moscow bureau or a Washington Bureau? I'm not even sure they have an Omaha bureau! :)

And I grew up with the Sioux City Journal, which was the same way. I wasn't reading the New York Times back then, so I don't know how much they've changed. But AP and Reuters have been around for 150 years and widely used for at least a century, I'm sure.