Digital Journalism: Will It Work for Investigative Journalism? the Nieman Watchdog Project's Editor Explores What Might Be Missing and What Might Be Found as Journalists Turn to the Web to Assist in Reporting

By Sussman, Barry | Nieman Reports, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Digital Journalism: Will It Work for Investigative Journalism? the Nieman Watchdog Project's Editor Explores What Might Be Missing and What Might Be Found as Journalists Turn to the Web to Assist in Reporting


Sussman, Barry, Nieman Reports


It's beyond dispute that the finest investigative reporting being done by members of the press is marvelous. The problem is, there's not enough of it. Month to month, we find evidence that gaps in watchdog coverage grow. Where once newspaper reporters were assigned routine beats, such as poverty, labor, the courts, this doesn't happen so much anymore, or maybe a reporter gets three beats to cover when the average number used to be one. The state of race relations seems good for a Newsweek cover story every five years, but that's about it. What's happening in prisons? Forget it. The problems are as large and numerous as ever, but the press's watchful eyes, in large measure, have gone away.

When reporters are on a beat, they are known by those they cover. In time, they come to know who is doing what and learn why. They sniff out when something isn't working as it should and, pretty soon, if they are doing their job well, sources start to come to them. Stories that once seemed impossible to nail down now seem doable. One of the great losses of our day is that so much of this kind of daily legwork isn't happening, not to mention the enormous loss of so much valuable institutional memory vanishing by way of employee buyouts. For any editors who don't realize what this absence means, perhaps a reminder from a one-time secretary of defense might help; he'd surely put these absent stories in the category of "known unknowns"

As someone who remembers when beat reporting served a valuable purpose--for the newspaper and the public--I wonder at times whether there will ever again be a time when substantial reporting occurs about the topics and issues on which beat reporters once kept watch. I am not holding my breath for that day to arrive.

The Web: An Investigative Reporter's Tool

What the Web does incomparably well is to provide information--instantly-on just about anything. Want to know about where there have been cases of bird flu? Or what can go wrong with voting machines? Or about the capital punishment of innocent people? Civilian deaths in Iraq? College enrollment and rising tuition costs? Googling not only provides answers, but it connects reporters and anyone else with possible places and sources to go to find out more. But the ways of the Web also mean that a "source" no longer has to wait for a reporter to call to get word out about something. The Web is always waiting--available anytime for anyone to publish anything.

Determining how trustworthy a piece of information is or how reliable a source might be is what reporters do, or what they were once expected to do by those who read their stories. It is, therefore, not comforting to read a recent Harper's Index item that observed the following: "Minimum number of edits to Wikipedia since June 2004 that have been traced back to the CIA: 310." Nor is the habit Web audiences have of finding their way most often to sites where like-minded people reside something that ought to comfort us, either. At least when we open a newspaper we aren't always sure what we'll find inside, and sometimes what we find gives us food for thought.

There are plenty of reliable, dedicated groups and individuals responsibly sharing important information through the Web. And at a time when surveys of public attitudes inform us that the public's trust in the press is exceedingly low, it seems inevitable that other avenues of seeking sources for "news" will be sought. We know already that the role the press once assumed as a gatekeeper of such information is no longer theirs. And with all of the changes brought by technology and with those happening in newsrooms, it is hard to know whether investigative journalism's future looks brighter for those of us who believe in the essentialness of its traditional watchdog role.

During the four years I've been editor of the Nieman Watchdog Web site, (1) there's been, of course, an extremely rapid growth in digital media. …

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