From the muckrakers of the Progressive Era to Woodward and Bernstein’s shocking expose of the Watergate scandal, investigative reporters hold a place of high regard in the history of Western journalism. These proverbial watchdogs air out the dirty laundry and uncover the hidden skeletons that corrupt governments and businesses don’t want us to see. At its peak, investigative journalism in the U.S. was an influential “Fourth Estate,”unearthing societal problems such as police brutality in Chicago and inequalities in the Philadelphia criminal justice system.
But the tides seem to be changing. Much of the advertising dollars which supported traditional media outlets in the past are now being rerouted online. When budgets are tight, the first area to get cut is investigative reporting — the most expensive and time-consuming news to produce. The close relationship between journalists and politicians has also raised several eyebrows recently. In Britain, political and media elites are close bedfellows, and the Leveson Inquiry of last year questioned the interactions between Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and U.K. politicians. Murdoch was accused of accepting favors in return for positive press, and employees at his tabloid, The Sun, were arrested for allegedly making payments to public officials. The picture is equally dim on our home turf. As a result of budget cuts, traditional media organizations have become more reliant on official sources. The core values of investigative journalism are compromised when the media merely regurgitates the views of establishment figures and takes information from the very same sources they are meant to challenge. The news media, once the ever-skeptical outsiders, may be on the path to becoming Washington and Wall Street insiders.
The spread of digital media, however, has opened the doors for new watchdogs to carry on the torch. Citizen journalism and user generated content, as well as the increasing popularity of websites such as WikiLeaks, offer the possibility of democratic journalism at a time when investigative journalism is under attack. For example, news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal was first broken by a citizen, Matt Drudge, owner of the now widely-read news aggregator, “Drudge Report.” In addition, sites such as WikiLeaks, which leaks sensitive government documents to the public, now serve as a resource for investigative journalists and circulate government secrets in countries that lack free media.
When professional media fails, the alliance between new information technologies and citizen journalists can prove to be invaluable. In authoritarian regimes without free press, citizen journalism has provided an outlet for marginalized voices and an arena to discuss issues ignored by the mainstream media. Blogs, for instance, are a medium for individuals to raise awareness about human rights abuses and widen public participation in civic action. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, citizen journalists were the first to provide video coverage and blog content on the disaster. Furthermore, citizen commentaries on online forums set the tone for public discussions about the earthquake, raising questions about whether the government had covered up the alleged warnings of the earthquake or should be responsible for the collapse of school buildings.
Citizen journalism offers the potential to improve the quality of reporting by allowing everyday people to set the agenda and holding both policymakers and newsmakers accountable. Rather than bemoan the end of investigative journalism, there is reason to hope that this noble tradition is simply in a period of transition.
Joyce Wu is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Catchy Sound Bite appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.