Episode 156: How the "Investigative Journalism" Aesthetic Can Be Used to Launder Power-Serving Narratives

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"Investigative journalism." It’s a term that conjures imagery of committed, industrious newsrooms like those in the Oscar-winning films All the President’s Men or Spotlight, filled with intrepid reporters dutifully scouring documents, scrutinizing photographs and taking secretive yet explosive phone calls at all hours of the night. It’s a rallying cry for TED Talkers and Brookings Institute essayists, many of whom extol the virtues of scrappy and scrupulous reportage that succeeds in taking down a crooked politician, exposing a company’s abusive policy, or otherwise changing the course of history.

It’s common to think of investigative journalism as an honorable line of work - after all, investigative reports have exposed powerful misdeeds, labor abuses, air and water pollution, and racism in healthcare. But this isn’t the only form of investigative reporting in the United States. Too often, stories characterized as well-meaning investigative reports - local news pieces alerting viewers to the “dangers” of bail reform, or New York Times scoops on government “leaks” demanding billions more for military spending--end up reinforcing the very power structures they’re supposed to be challenging.

While the title of “investigative journalist” is so often used as a catch-all term for a noble tireless, truth-seeking, deep-digging reporter who, like a determined fictional detective, follows a twisted trail of breadcrumbs to their blockbuster end, why should we assign valor to what can often merely be the lazy practice of government and corporate stenography? Or laundering intelligence or pro-police propaganda?

On this episode, we discuss the ways in which investigative journalism is portrayed as an inherent good even when it serves powerful interests, how professional norms in the journalism industry seek to remove power dynamics in deciding what leaks are important and who is leaking them, and why investigative reporting without politics isn’t an inherently subversive or moral enterprise.

Our guest is Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting's Jim Naureckas.

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