Young people and investigative journalism

This is a journalistic think piece that I wrote recently for university regarding the current state of investigative journalism. I hope this can give some new ideas to anyone interested in the topic. All views are my own.

Investigative journalism has the enormous potential to expose the general public to underlying and often-underhand activities that are taking place within our society, but little to our knowledge. High profile investigative journalism breakthroughs of the last five years have exposed the wrongdoings of people or individuals, usually within positions of authority within the government, companies and organisations. When a large scandal breaks, it is often the product of many months or years of research, which results in public outcry and shaming of the people at the heart of the story, leading to investigation and subsequent change. What I am interested in is how investigative journalism translates to a younger audience. When discussing 18-24 year olds, the first or second point of address is usually the digital-centered world that we live in. Because we lead lives so closely intertwined with the Internet and social media, is it arguable that we value our personal lives more than the world around us? This is a big assumption that is impossible to answer due to many external factors such as race, upbringing, class and location. However, I think that sharing so much of our thoughts and actions with the Internet means that as a generation we potentially value our privacy less than the people in the generation above us did at our age. This is a natural progression towards technology and I think that unfortunately the enigma of investigative journalism has suffered as a result. Social media has ignited a curiosity in all of us to know the intimacies of the lives of everyone around us, transforming us into investigative citizens and making us crave updates on other people’s lives. This can make the role of an investigative journalist seem outdated as the Internet offers us the illusion that we have all of the information and knowledge we need at our fingertips. Then again, the Internet is also helping investigative media reach an audience who may not have access to it otherwise. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism notes that, “Social media is of increasing importance for the dissemination of news, and allows people who would never normally read a particular newspaper to be aware of its journalism by recommendations by people they are connected to via social media sites. Mobile devices such as e-readers and iPads allow for instant access to news almost regardless of location, giving further opportunities to find and read investigative journalism”. Young people should not be ignorant to the world around them, and they should understand that reality is equal to, if not more important than an online presence. I believe we are in a transition period when it comes to investigative journalism, and journalism in general. It is becoming more difficult to define what exactly investigative journalism is in 2014 and to some extent I believe that this has damaged the reputation of journalism in the eyes of my generation. Investigative journalism has expanded into so many different categories that according to the national YouGov survey into investigative journalism, published in October 2013, 10% of the country answered ‘Don’t know’ when asked to choose a definition of what investigative journalism is. A break down of the results revealed that the highest percentage of confusion came from the 18-24 year old age range. It showed that 26% answered ‘Don’t know’, which strengthens my argument that there is a generation shift in trust amongst young people. I don’t find this surprising due to the amount of personal information that we are exposed to online and over social media websites. When big scandals break, such as the infamous phone-hacking scandal by journalists of the News of The World in 2011, they can reveal wrongdoings that can damage the public perception of journalists and journalism. The phone-hacking scandal exposed how reporters at the newspaper had been hacking into people’s emails and mobile phones, including the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. These despicable actions interfered with the Police’s search and also deleted crucial evidence for the case. The revelation of phone-hacking lead on to the Leveson enquiry, a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, told the Leveson inquiry that, “phone hacking has undermined trust in journalists, highlighted the danger of too much power in the hands of one media organisation and showed the flawed nature of self-regulation”. I believe that this is one of the defining examples of the last five years, that accounts to the public’s falling trust in journalist’s, causing confusion over journalism as a whole. Regarding young people, 2011 was around the time when most of my generation was approaching a news-conscious age, and this is how we were introduced to investigative journalism. I think this could had a negative influence on the foundations of which young people’s opinions of the news are based, which could be why so many young people in the survey couldn’t answer quite a basic question regarding investigative journalism. On the other hand, the consequences of Leveson show that we have made a moral breakthrough in our press system and that ill practice is simply not acceptable. The fact that The Guardian, a mid-sized centre-left broadsheet with a circulation of less than 250,000, brought down of one of the world’s biggest selling tabloid newspapers with a circulation of around 2.5 million, shows that there is still a place for real, uncompromising investigative journalism in the UK, in a time characterised by celebrity gossip and infotainment. Online journalism has a lot of power and a vast potential audience, which can be misleading and too easily absorbed by a lay audience. This commercially weakens our traditional press but strengthens the reputation of online content, sometimes for the wrong reasons. An example of how online investigative journalism has damaged journalism is the case of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ (2011). This was a blog supposedly written by a gay woman in Syria, which gained worldwide interest and was picked up by media organisations around the world. The blogger identified herself as half-Syrian, half-American Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari living in Damascus. She wrote about life in the midst of political unrest and later her ‘cousin’ wrote on the blog of her capture by members of the President’s party. This prompted a worldwide online campaign to secure her release, which then revealed that there was no such record of this person. It was soon revealed that the blog was a complete fabrication and the real writer was a mature American student named Tom Macmaster who was studying in Edinburgh. This case shows the problems that journalists have when trying to verify sources online, and how the Internet can in turn be a negative impact on investigative journalism as there is no regulation of unedited or unaccredited material. Positive examples of online investigative journalism are that of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, which publishes clarified information, news leaks and media scoops from anonymous sources and whistleblowers. Similarly, 2013 saw NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaking sensitive information from inside the NSA, which showed extensive internet and phone surveillance by US intelligence. Both individuals sought to expose corruption in corporations and within government to the public and simultaneously establish that the general public is at the heart of the UK democratic system and we have a right to know this information. These cases are damaging to public trust of parliament and government, but at the same time they enhance belief in British democracy and show the importance of citizen journalism and the media being a source of good for the people. When it comes to the future of investigative journalism, my forecast is that there will be a decline in investigative journalism from print media outlets and the gap will be filled by online journalism. Overall I think that investigative journalism is still alive but it’s not thriving at the moment. I believe it will grow due to the power of the Internet and I think that citizen journalism will grow due to the rise of digital media. But there is a big problem of authenticity here. To restore trust in investigative journalism I think there needs to be more structure and implementation of media law for investigative journalists and the training they receive to verify supporting evidence. The fact that the Internet is so unregulated is a problem that I think will come under scrutiny if the next few years, and this may help to stop false investigations going online and damaging investigative journalism any more. In the 21st century information is the most important thing and everybody craves it, therefore investigative journalism will always be very important. The world is more connected now than ever before and globalisation has expanded the arena for investigative journalism, whilst offering a worldwide audience who are curious about the world they live in. The YouGov survey is available at: http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/71p0kubilj/Investigative-Journalism-study-table.pdf

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