The philosophy behind Investigative Journalism

November 6th, 2018

By Dr. Tunde Akande

By the philosophy behind investigative journalism is meant the wisdom behind investigative journalism. Again, to ask for the wisdom behind investigative journalism is to seek to know why we practice and/or should practice investigative journalism.

However, academic prudence and procedure would demand that we try to define journalism, on the one hand, and investigative journalism, on the other. What, then, is journalism? And what is investigative journalism?

For the purpose of this discussion, Journalism shall be defined as the activity of gathering, assessing, and presenting news and information to members of the public.

Investigative Journalism, on the other hand, is an aspect of journalism that drills down into the ethics of the profession and seeks to adhere to all the principles therein. That is, it pursues a higher level of adherence and conformity to the ethics and principles of journalism.

It is the extra effort made to unravel and discover details that are hidden. In journalism parlance, this effort (investigation) leads to getting the ‘news behind the news.’

Investigative journalism has been conceptualized in different ways and there seems to be no consensus in terms of how best to do so. In spite of this lack of definitional consensus, however, all seem to agree on a number of irreducible tenets that characterize it.

These include professionalism; commitment to finding the truth; commitment to fight for a just cause; determination to be altruistic about uncovering what some groups or individuals would want to remain hidden, and the pursuit of justice for all.

It could manifest in the form of reporters deeply investigating a single topic of interest, such as serious crime, high profile murder or assassination, political cases of corruption, etc.

Handy instances here include the recent case of the suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggie, a respected Saudi journalist on self-exile, allegedly inside the Saudi Ankara Consulate in Turkey and the long investigation of what came to be called the Panama papers.

An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. The results can then be released as a book, a newspaper article, a documentary film or a long-running TV or Radio program.

Much of investigative journalism has traditionally been conducted by newspapers, news agencies, and freelance journalists.

With the decline in income occasioned by decline in advertising, many traditional news services have become incapable or unwilling to fund investigative journalism, which is usually time-consuming and expensive.

Now, what is the Philosophy behind investigative journalism?

Philosophy Behind Investigative Journalism

The philosophy behind investigative journalism is the need to ensure that journalism and journalists stand up to the purpose of the profession. What is this purpose? It is encapsulated in what is known as the pillars of journalism. And they include the following:

1.  Truth and accuracy. A core value and principle of investigative journalism is the need to uphold, promote and propagate the truth.

The value of truth in human life and in the life of a nation cannot be over-emphasized. Truth liberates. If, for instance, you are driving on a long stretch of road, at the end of which there is a cliff which will constitute an irresistible barrier to you, and someone who knows about that situation tells you the truth about it, you will be liberated from its encumbrances if you accept what you are told and adjust accordingly.

The opposite will happen if you reject the truth about this. There are principles and laws that hold the world in place. When you understand these and work with them, you are liberated. You are encumbered if you do not. Therefore, journalism that is devoid of truth generates encumbrances everywhere in the life of a nation.

The demand of truth and accuracy requires that even if journalists cannot always get at the whole truth, they must make every effort to get the facts and stick to them. This is at the core of investigative journalism. That is why investigative journalism can also be called the ultimate search for truth. Truth is, thereforethe basis ofinvestigative journalism. It is about fidelity to facts and truth. It is a determined search for Truth.

Therefore, investigative journalism is the way to go for our journalists, for all publications, for all media outlets. It is the wave of the future.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. Our world is today an open world. The rise of the internet, which has been called the last continent, and the ascendancy of the social media, makes it obvious that nothing can be hidden as in the old times.

So while some in the traditional media may be struggling to conceal information, those engaged in guerrilla journalism will be working harder to expose everything.

The immense popularity of media like Sahara Reporters among Nigerians and the international popularity of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks prove this point, which is that literally, nothing is hidden under the sun anymore.

Truth is the ultimate.

This is in the normal and natural scheme of things. The world is originally based on Truth. Truth is, therefore, a precondition for anything and everything good, sustainable and progressive in the world. Remove truth, and what you get is chaos. This is why it is said that when we know the truth, the truth shall set us free.

Lack of Truth in any endeavour is ignorance – Ignorance of the Laws that hold the world in place.

Falsehood creeps into journalism either thorough non- observance of the principles of investigative journalism, or by deliberately churning out fake news meant to deceive.

When we fail to uphold and promote the truth, we encourage falsehood. And the consequences of falsehood can be very devastating.

A very good example of the effect of failure of investigative journalism is the event that led to the Gulf War against Iraqi Saddam Hussein.  It all started when a hysterical case was built up, making false accusations about the possession of weapons of mass destruction(WMD) by the administration of Saddam Hussein

The reports were later found to be false. And indeed the Washington Post newspaper apologised. Washington Post said…: it had “underplayed skepticism of the White House’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction:” In a 3,000-word front-page article the newspaper said it “did not pay enough attention to voicesraising questions about the war.”

Other papers like New York Times and the New Republic magazine in the US admitted inter alia: that “they (NYT and the New Republic magazine) were either insufficiently rigorous, gullible, or more concerned with getting storiesfirsthand getting them right. But the damage has been done. Yes, the horrendous, irreparable, and still ongoing damage has been done to Iraq and her citizens and to American servicemen, many of whom are suffering from many post conflict emotional disturbances.

The war took thousands of lives, Americans and Iraqis alike; a war that turned out to have been based on falsehood, encouraged by a devious press. The Iraq wars and its costly aftermath illustrate vividly, how dangerous it is not to follow the path of investigative journalism.

2. Independence. This demands that a journalist be theoretically unencumbered by any extraneous interests. A journalist must retain independence of action and conduct. No politician or businessman may dictate to him how he is to do his job.

3. Fairness and Impartiality. This principle demands that journalists must endeavour to be fair to everyone, without any form of discrimination – Discrimination that may be based on religion, physical appearance, wealth, power, race or gender. A modern journalist is expected to treat all persons equally, even those whose beliefs are different from his.

4. Humanity. The work of a journalist should be such that caters for the broad interests of humanity as a whole.

5. Accountability. Journalists must be accountable. Impunity is one of the ills that journalism professes to fight against. Its practitioners are therefore expected to set good examples of the sense of responsibility and accountability.  The press must be accountable to the people, and their society and not just their pockets. They must think beyond the narrow confines of shareholders to the broad spectrum of stakeholders. They should be responsible and accountable to stakeholders and their interests.

6. The need for justice. Justice demands that each be given his due. It demands that equals should be treated equally while unequal are treated unequally. When society is not built on justice, chaos and anarchy are encouraged. Justice can only thrive where truth is upheld. The profession of journalism and journalists must set the pace in this. They must champion the course of justice in the society.

7. The need to avoid fake news. When the truth is not encouraged, much room is left for speculation. In the face of speculations, we are confronted with what appears to be news as against what the real news is. Investigative journalism encourages the journalist to dig beyond what appears to be news in order to uncover the news as it really is. It goes beyond appearance to reality.

When all these are observed; when all these principles are followed, then responsible journalism is engendered. Yes, journalism has to be responsible. Carrying news involves a whole lot that it cannot be left in the hands of irresponsible enthusiasts. It comes with a heavy responsibility and as such only practitioners who are conscious of what it takes should be allowed to get involved.

To recapitulate, I must now say the following: conscious of the fact that not every action by leaders or other citizens serves the best interest of society, the media must always step in to play the role of the watch dog.  This helps to protect the integrity of institutions and processes.

Investigation aids the process of social justice. In many instances, perpetrators of crime are found out and called to account.

Likewise, violators of the law, those who compromise moral and ethical standards of conduct are revealed. For instance, in the current democratic dispensation spanning 1999 till date, several high profile politicians have been made to resign their offices after being found to have forged certificates.

The benefit of investigative reporting is to find out unknown details and report the ‘mysteries’ behind occurrences, to publish the news behind the news, and to go beyond the obvious to get at the reality behind appearances.

Investigative journalism encourages professionalism, brings out facts and douses or eliminates speculations, improves governance and accountability by digging into issues and the reasons behind them, and helps the media to adequately discharge its role as the conscience and watchdog of society.

For a developing country like Nigeria, it is of critical importance to entrench investigative journalism in ethos. In Nigeria today, investigative journalism is not in its best days.  Today many journalists seem more comfortable with yellow journalism, or brown-envelope journalism, where truth is sold to the highest bidder. For example, in many instances, Morning TV shows are sold for cash and not for truth. People get to determine what questions they will be asked and which questions are to be avoided. In effect, many TV interviews are dramas and choreography that is paid for.

And as we approach a general election in the country, my advice for you is that you must be conscious of the fact that the role of the press in the forthcoming elections cannot be overemphasized. The press has the power to make or mar the election. It is better to tow the path of truth, the path of probity, and of true journalism at all times in reporting the campaign and the elections as well as the events surrounding it.

Akande wrote from the University of Abuja.

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