What do we mean by investigative journalism? Is all good journalism not investigative? I have been asked these questions many times this week, as we launched the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Awards and Grants at Wits University.
This will be, by a long way, the biggest journalism award this country has ever seen with a first prize of R200 000 and a second prize of R100 000. The real significance, however, lies in the fact that it has long-term, non-corporate sponsorship, freeing it from the commercial vagaries which have plagued many of our media awards.
Taco Kuiper was a highly successful publisher who, when he died two years ago, left a good deal of his substantial estate to the promotion of investigative journalism. The Award is launched alongside the Taco Kuiper Fund for Investigative Journalism, which will make grants of up to R350 000 a year to facilitate investigative reporting projects. And the trust has also made a sizable contribution to training through our Investigative Journalism Workshop at Wits. Taken together, these represent what will be the biggest boost to this kind of reporting in many years.
So what is the kind of reporting that we are talking about? Why did we not make it just an award for good journalism?
Most of our journalism is straightforward stenography â€“ reacting to announcements and events by simply recording what was said without much analysis, context or criticism. In a world of public relations, when a massive industry has been created to try and direct and manage this flow of information, overwhelmingly it is the view of those with access to this machinery who are heard and seen in our media.
In a news world where resources and time are incessantly squeezed, there is less and less space for the kind of critical thinking and writing which makes straight reporting into great journalism.
When one says investigative reporting, one immediately thinks of the large-scale exposÃ© which brings down the powerful and changes governments and societies. This country has had its fair share of those, from the prison conditions stories of the 1960s to the Info Scandal of the 1970s though Inkathagate and the death squad stories of the 1980s.
These are important, even essential, in ensuring the media plays its watchdog role and keeps a check on the abuse of state power. But the real hope is that this kind of digging and probing beneath the surface infuses more and more of our journalism, not just the coverage of politics but also business and social developments. We need more journalists who are able find the holes in company reports, or can test government delivery promises by going out into those areas which need it rather than relying on official reports of progress.
Some call it enterprise reporting, by which they mean news generated from the initiative of reporters rather than simply reacting to events or statements.
US President Theodore Roosevelt, sick of the constant yellow-press accusations of official corruption (sound familiar?) borrowed a phrase from Pilgrimâ€™s Progress and accused journalists of raking only the muck and never seeing the stars. This was turned on its head by the journalists themselves, who proudly dubbed themselves muckrakers.
One key writer has called investigative reporters â€œcustodians of public conscienceâ€?, in that they call on us, as a society, to decide â€œwhat is, and what is not, an outrage to our sense of moral order and to consider our expectations for our officials, our institutions and ultimately ourselvesâ€?.
There are other elements which are crucial. Good investigative journalism depends on the highest levels of verification. It only has impact when the journalists and journals involve have built a credibility based on solid, fact-checking journalism. So in promoting this kind of work, you are pushing values such as accuracy, verification, and a sense of what is of public importance.
The crucial difference between this and everyday reporting, as the US body Investigative Reporters and Editors puts it, is that in many cases â€œthe subjects of (this kind of) reporting wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed.”
Most current newspapering is about giving readers what they want to hear or telling them what others think they should hear. Investigative reporting is about shouting out what those in power and authority donâ€™t want heard.
*This column first appeared in Business Day, February 14, 2007.