The stakes of investigative journalism are high: get it right and it holds the promise of real impact and resulting change. Get it wrong and even the painful public apology becomes preferable to costly court processes.
No one actively seeks to publish incorrect information, so how does it happen? It is easy to identify what should have been done in hindsight. Good newsroom processes are the starting point for creating an environment in which good journalism can thrive. But too often, processes are eroded in favour of personal relationships in the newsroom.
Ahead of publication
I wonder what internal debates and discussions happened within the Daily Maverick’s newsroom ahead of publication of their recently withdrawn story on a supposed Al-Qaeda presence in South Africa.
I wonder what systems are in place in newsrooms where mistakes – which erode the credibility of the publications – are common? Are accuracy checks (including fact checking) a separate step in the publication process? What sorts of checks exist for source verification? What process is used to confirm the links between different dots being connected? At what stage do we ask if the language, tone and presentation used is appropriate? These processes, while seeming administrative in character, are essential to support investigative reportage.
A number of stories marketed as ‘investigative reporting’ lack the compelling evidence that would define it as such. No one wishes to invest in a long-term investigation only to have it undermined by incomplete detail or obvious inconsistencies. So editors would do well to see how their stories unfold on social media because this will reinforce their understanding that readers should not be taken for granted: stories are dissected and their failings amplified. Gaps that should have been identified before publication are highlighted.
What is investigative journalism? It is not merely good journalism. It is in-depth, original work that processes new information or provides a perspective on known information that shows it significance. It goes beyond source comment – ‘he said/she said’ reportage – to provide evidence-based reporting… with evidence that is tested. It is multi-sourced work that is clearly in the public interest.
What then are the lessons learned from the recent spate of apologies?
• Investigative reporting stands on the evidence.
• There is no need to rush to print without all the necessary evidence in hand.
• All sources have an agenda – whether it is good or bad. We need to know what that agenda is and ensure that we are not being used.
• Source verification is essential: is this person in a position to know? How trustworthy is this person? Why is she giving me information?
• The editing process remains critical – particularly in this era of what I would call the celebrity journalist. Even brilliant journalists need a touchstone and someone to identify what that might be.
• As reporters, we need to be aware of our own perceptions and the lenses through which we view the world. And then leave these out of the story…
• Even if something is legal to print, we need to
ask if it is ethical to print.
Finally, we need to respect our audience. When we produce content that is inaccurate, incomplete and shallow, it undermines the basic relationship of trust we hold with our readers, viewers and listeners.
‘Sorry’ might be the hardest word but, in this case, actions speaker louder…