SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
By James S. Ettema
he history of journalism reveals few research breakthroughs. From the rise of the penny press to the arrival of the Internet, to be sure, the form and content of the news has changed greatly. That change, however, has been driven far more powerfully by forces acting on the news business -- changing markets, technologies and competitors -- than by compelling new ideas about how best to report the events of the day.
This reality is the source of an occasional anxiety attack among those of us who pursue "research about journalism." The 2000 annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication provides an example. With hundreds of research reports on the program, as is the case year-in and year-out, the organization devoted its first plenary session of the millennium to the question of whether research really matters.
My own answer to the question is that, even if research is unlikely to revolutionize the journalist's craft, good ideas can make a difference. One of the good ideas discussed in the SDX award-winning The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment is the use of quantitative research methods in reporting. While the seed of that idea can be found in the writing of John Dewey and others early in the 20th century, the idea has finally taken root in the newsroom in the form of "computer-assisted reporting." And it has come to fruition in such projects as Bill Dedman's masterful series, "The Color of Money," in which the reporter worked with social scientists to analyze bank records and other data to document racial bias among Atlanta home loan lenders.
There is more to my answer. The work of Dedman and other investigative reporters is the topic of my own research conducted with Ted Glasser from Stanford University. For our book, Custodians of Conscience: Investigative Journalism and Public Virtue, we interviewed reporters intensively and read their best stories carefully. Our goal was to present a master class in the reporter's craft. Among the students for that class, we hoped to count many aspiring journalists, but we also hoped to count many more aspiring business and government leaders.
The lessons to be learned from work like "The Color of Money" are about more than computer techniques. There is a larger lesson about how journalism, at its boldest and best, can hold institutions accountable to the public good. Research, at its best, will improve the news by teaching citizens what they have a right and a duty to demand from journalism.
James S. Ettema is Professor and Chair-elect of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. With Theodore L. Glasser he won the 1998 SDX award for research about journalism.
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Marilyn Greenwald and Joseph Bernt, Iowa State University Press, The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment
Text from this entry
Investigative reporting. An endangered form of journalism?
Journalism educators Marilyn Greenwald and Joseph Bernt were concerned about the future of this reporting genre. They had conducted two studies on enterprise and investigative reporting and found that, while enterprise reporting had increased, there was a decline in investigative reporting in metropolitan papers between 1980 and 1995.
They talked to their colleagues, and realized their concern was shared. Together, they prepared to write a book about the state of investigative reporting and the factors affecting its practice and public acceptance. The result was "The Big Chill: Investigative Reporting in the Current Media Environment."
Greenwald and Bernt edited the book; a group of professional journalists and educators researched and wrote the book's chapters.
"'The Big Chill' was an effort to better understand changing practices and perceptions of investigative journalism in terms of changing social, technological and economic conditions," wrote Greenwald and Bernt.
The book provides a history of investigative reporting and discusses the influences of corporatization, public perception, tabloid television and legal issues on the investigative reporting method.
A brief look at some of the book's 11 chapters:
Historical perspective. In America, investigative reporting traces its roots to the country's earliest public newspaper Publick Occurrences, published in 1690. The paper devoted most of its coverage to an investigative report of British allies who tortured French prisoners.
Rosemary Armao, managing editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, follows investigative reporting from those beginnings through its "golden age" in the early 1900s to the Watergate days and up to the present.
History repeats itself when it comes to investigative reporting, writes Armao. The reporting genre goes through cycles of surging popularity and attempts by government and corporate owners to stamp it out.
The 'literature of exposure' has until recently been largely an American phenomenon, spawned by a culture born in dissent and nurtured by laws that protest critics of government and ensure access to public proceedings and documents. Journalists around the world emulate techniques and news values they learned in this country, increasingly exposing corruption, critically examining institutions and standing up for the oppressed in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and other regions.
Enterprise vs. investigative reporting. The book describes a study to determine the changes in type and amount of investigative reporting between 1980 and 1995. The findings show that enterprise stories now concentrate more on feature and consumer stories than investigative pieces.
Public perception. A public poll in Texas showed continued support for the idea of investigative reporting, but a disapproval of the techniques used in the reporting method.
Chapter authors Susan K. Opt and Timothy A. Delany write, "Public opinion research, ongoing discussions and court cases all suggest that the public expects the media to maintain certain ethics of honesty and legality while engaging in news gathering. Despite journalists' claims that questionable techniques are necessary on occasion in serving the public good, they still risk being perceived as having self-serving ulterior motives."
The tabloid TV factor. There are ties between tabloid journalism and investigative reporting, says chapter author Matthew C. Ehrlich. And perspective is often the biggest difference between legitimate news and sensationalism. There are differences, but newsmagazines and "reality" shows have made that line between news and entertainment more difficult to define. The chapter also examines media outlets' difficulties in serving both corporate and public interests.
Ethical challenges. The book addresses tough questions like "Where do journalists get their authority and credibility?" and "How do they lose them?" Says chapter author Samuel P. Winch, "Contrary to what some reporters and editors might believe, the ends do not necessarily justify the means, the public seems to say. Rulings such as Food Lion are not so much a death knell for investigative journalism as they are reminders to journalists that the public finds personal integrity important. Journalists should consider carefully whether they are being unfair to the subjects of their investigations even if the subjects are large conglomerates."
Newsgathering methods are an ethical issue, says Winch, but there are structural problems that also present ethical challenges. "Media managers ... appear to design news based on what interests the public rather than on what is in the best interests of the public."
Legalities. Jane Kirtley, a lawyer and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, reviews recent legal judgments involving journalists and the impacts on investigative reporting.
Libel insurance. Libel insurance is necessary in today's society, but it may impact investigative reporting. Do some insurance companies influence investigative reporting by demanding "a softening of content?"
Diversity and investigative reporting. Eddith Dashiell examines "how U.S. investigative reporters have fared in their efforts to provide significant understanding and contest to the issues affecting people of color, gays and lesbians, and women."
Corporate issues. Author Marc Edge examines cooperation between editorial and advertising units through his analysis of the Los Angeles Times/Staples Center partnership.
High-tech investigations. How have computers affected investigative reporting? The author says new technology should supplement rather than replace traditional investigative reporting methods.
"Our hope is that the book will expand interest in additional studies on changing patterns in journalism content and that the often introductory chapters contributed to this book will suggest points of departure for other scholars," wrote the book's editors.