Investigative journalism and newsroom policies

New study “Between Structures and Identities: Newsroom Policies, Division of Labor and Journalists’ Commitment to Investigative Reporting” by Pauline Cancela from University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland studied how the division of labor in journalism and newsroom policies impacts the journalists’ willingness to engage in investigative journalism.

There is a debate within the journalistic profession on what constitutes investigative journalism, with some claiming that all basic journalism is investigative in nature. For others, investigative journalism is defined, along with watchdog journalism as high-quality, in-depth journalism that holds those in power accountable. 

It is also something that media organizations value, as it is something that people would be willing to pay extra for in today’s highly competitive media environment. Regardless of how one views investigative journalism, the study at hand chooses to avoid the debates and instead focuses on how it works at the newsroom level.

The author used a mixed-method approach to the study, triangulating and reflecting based on in-depth interviews, field observations and field interviews. The context was three French-speaking news organizations, which prudently remain autonomous for privacy reasons. They were labeled Case A, Case B and Case C. 

Case A media organization had a national investigative team with its own infrastructure and positions since 2021 courtesy of the top management. The team answers to the central editorial office, but in practice almost operates as its own newsroom, providing stories to 15 newspapers. 

The focus of the investigative team, led by two well-known investigative journalists, was national and international white collar crime and wrongdoings. In Case A organization, there were no other investigative teams. 

There were attempts by some local newsrooms to have investigative journalism, by pulling reporters from beat journalism to special investigative reports requiring attention. 

Case B was under the process of restructuring as a part of a broader convergence strategy. The idea was to create cross-cutting editorial centers of expertise, with investigative journalism being one area of expertise. 

However, the managers were reluctant to set up a special investigative team like Case A had, but instead wanted to include investigative journalism as part of the news pace. They operated under the conviction that an investigative approach is at the heart of all journalism. 

In practice, during the time the study was made, an investigative commitment was realized by assigning a symbolic investigative status to journalists working on specific stories, so that they could be pulled more easily from news beats to the investigative stories. There was no practical policy yet in place but the process relied in individual responsibility.

Lastly, Case C differed from A and B by being a smaller organization with only a total of 35 reporters assigned to all beats. Here, the investigative team was formed on the initiative of one individual on whose insistence small changes were implemented on the newsroom. 

The management was simultaneously positioning the newspaper as watchdog journalism, so the increased commitment was in line with that. However, no additional human resources were assigned. 

Like in A, the investigative journalists were clearly separated from beat journalism. They were mainly two individuals who had pushed for the changes, and the author was sceptical whether the newsroom could maintain the investigative team without the two key individuals, showing a weakness of the individual model.

Across the organizations, there were tensions concerning the ‘elitist’ model of special investigative journalism teams. The model was simultaneously idealized and criticized, particularly by outsiders of the system who were working on daily news beats and ‘filling the newspaper’. The insiders, contrastingly, felt lucky and privileged in their positions. 

In the case where investigative journalism was done by non-special teams, the struggle was with coping with the pace of daily news while simultaneously seeking to assign resources for investigative work. Only two of such reporters were satisfied with the arrangement, with most struggling to work the two roles as outsider-insiders in practice. 

These journalists also felt a lack of legitimacy when asking for additional time and resources for investigative work, although the daily news beat seemed to feed into investigative projects. Both outsiders and outsider-insiders also struggled to align their work with the high standards of investigative journalism with their other commitments.

In conclusion, the author ponders on whether the traditional news beat system is too rigid to accommodate investigative journalism. In the cases analyzed, none seemed to confirm with the view that all journalism was investigative – in all cases, it was seen as something apart.

The study “Between Structures and Identities: Newsroom Policies, Division of Labor and Journalists’ Commitment to Investigative Reporting” by Pauline Cancela is in Journalism Practice. (Open access).

Picture: Untitled by Markus Winkler.

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