It’s easy to be gloomy about the state of journalism today – but rumours of the death of investigative reporting have been greatly exaggerated.
If you haven’t seen Spotlight, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Tom McCarthy’s look inside the offices of the Boston Globe as it blew the lid off the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal in 2001-02 is thoroughly gripping, and has gut-punchingly powerful moments. It’s also remarkably accurate in how proper investigative journalism actually works – poring over records, endlessly interviewing sources who’d rather not be intervewed, and fact checking, fact checking, fact checking. The Oscar-winning film of the Pulitzer-winning investigation deserves all the accolades it’s been getting.
But in some of the reviews, there’s an undercurrent of doom and gloom as writers despair at the state of journalism today. “It’s about a depressing question, one that faces every newspaper journalist: could this story still be done now?” asks The Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Byrnes. “How many of the world’s great newspapers can still afford to run a unit like Spotlight, the oldest continuous investigative unit in the American media, founded in 1970?”
Justin Chang writes in Variety that the film is “a period piece, set during a time when print journalism had not yet entered its death throes”.
“McCarthy’s film includes a loving montage of a printing press, busily churning out the next morning’s edition – a valedictory sequence that may move old-school journalists in the audience to tears,” he says.
While over in The Australian Financial Review, John McDonald holds the film up as a paean to “a lost age of investigative journalism – a practice now considered too expensive or dangerous by many media organisations”.
And sure, it’s understandable to wring one’s hands and wail at the sight of yet another clickbait article, PR puff piece or pointless celebrity tidbit oozing its way across one’s computer screen – but to lament the death of investigative journalism is more than a touch premature.
Good old-fashioned investigative journalism is as robust as ever, if in different ways and (often) different media. We don’t need to look much further than the Panama Papers – the largest data leak in history – to see that.
— Bastian Obermayer (@b_obermayer) April 3, 2016
If you’re not up to date on the story, last year a whistleblower approached the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with more than 2.6 terabytes of confidential files from the Panamanian company Mossack Fonseca. Published earlier this month, they exposed vast numbers of shell companies set up in offshore tax havens by corporations and public figures alike, and have already scalped Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.
Now, Richard Nixon he ain’t, but Gunnlaugsson’s resignation in the face of the Panama revelations shows that the newshounds of the world still have plenty of teeth and are prepared to use them. What’s more, the Panama Papers also collide with another huge investigation released just a week before – the Unaoil bribery scandal, in which Fairfax Media and the Huffington Post aired the dirty laundry of “the company that bribed the world”. The papers revealed that Unaoil, the Monaco company accused of rampant bribery and corruption in the energy industry, used Mossack Fonseca to set up shell companies of its own.
HuffPo’s involvement in the Unaoil investigation is interesting, because it highlights a major paradigm shift in the field of investigative journalism – what was once the near-exclusive domain of big papers and TV stations can now be found online. Sites like VICE News and ProPublica are committing resources to the kind of in-depth, hard-hitting investigative work that used to be the hallmark of big “old media” companies, using digital tools that Bernstein and Woodward – and even the Spotlight team – could have only dreamed of.
What might be more surprising is the diversity of the outlets engaging in this kind of reporting. Comedy website Cracked.com now has a “personal experiences” section, in which people with inside knowledge of industries or other situations explain them to readers in an amusing and engaging fashion. Cracked even sent its own team – a writer, a photographer, and a translator – to the front lines of the war in Ukraine (“Yes, seriously,” Cracked said, “why does everybody keep asking that?”) last year to report on how the conflict had affected the lives of civilians.
Even Buzzfeed – that much-maligned home of the “listicle” – has a dedicated investigative section. In 2015 alone, Buzzfeed published exposés on issues including abuse in for-profit foster care companies, poor treatment of foreign workers in the US, and unlawful searches carried out by “Britain’s FBI” among many others – and not one of them contained the phrase “you won’t BELIEVE what happened next”.
Whatever one’s concerns might be about the state of journalism today (and plenty of them are valid), the quality of investigative reporting has never wavered. The spirit of Spotlight is as robust in today’s media landscape as it was in 2002 – you just need to know where to look.
Jake Nelson is editor of The Newsroom.