When many people think of investigative journalism, they have a somewhat romanticized view of the industry. Thanks to Hollywood depictions in films like “The Front Page” or “His Girl Friday,” it’s easy to picture a man or woman, reporter’s notebook in tow, chasing leads and beating deadlines as they hustle to grab the story.
And really, there was a time when that image wasn’t too far from the reality. Who can forget televised images of Mike Wallace interviewing subjects or Canada’s Eric Malling asking tough questions as they pieced their stories together?
That was then and this is now. During the eras in which Wallace, Malling and countless other investigative reporters plied their trade, investigative reporters working leads made tons of phone calls and wore out a lot of shoe leather. Today’s journalists, however, have a full complement of high-tech tools that help them do their jobs much more efficiently.
In many ways, today’s technology makes it possible to not only research granular elements of a story, but to even virtually connect with others who have worked on related stories in the past. In theory, it’s conceivable that an investigative reporter today could, via technology, expound on a story that was once filed by someone like Eric Malling several years ago.
“Whenever I speak to journalism students,” says investigative journalist Susan Comrie, “the one piece of advice I give them is, ‘make peace with Excel.’ One of the main things we use it for is building timelines to track complex investigations and manage evidence. There are some topics and companies that multiple journalists have worked on over several years, so having a timeline that keeps being built on is a great way of preserving institutional memory.”
And while much investigative journalism is still predicated on the classic Q&A approach, how that information is gathered and stored has been significantly updated. Back in the day, skinny, spiral-bound notebooks were an essential item used by virtually all reporters for scribbling notes. Television, radio or print. If you had a pencil and a notebook you could gather lots of information.
According to some folks in the field, pencil and paper are so yesterday. Today’s reporters have robust smartphone apps that are packed with features. “Without a doubt, Microsoft OneNote is among the best note-taking apps for anybody,” writes Suraj Padmasali, who has reviewed numerous apps for igeeksblog.com. “If you are a journalist, you can use it to pen down your findings, observations, interview scripts, ideas, and everything else. You can quickly take a picture and insert it into your notes. Overall this is a perfect, feature-rich app for your notes!”
Two things that are different today are the availability of news around the clock, and the opportunity to update stories at any time, at a moment’s notice. In days of yore, television news viewers turned on their sets at specific times to get the news from reporters. If you missed a broadcast, you had to wait until the next one.
The final word on the technology-journalism connection comes from an abstract written by Barbie Zelizer, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She notes that, “By tweaking and enhancing the qualities of earlier technological environments, the digital magnifies the reach of journalistic practices and output. It hones journalism’s focus on acts of compression and extraction, giving new dimensions to what is meant by size, brevity, searchability and retrievability. It amplifies journalism’s orientation to speed, and the acceleration, instantaneity and simultaneity that go with it. And it promises increasingly interactive experiences of engagement and in many cases new degrees of affordability.”
Investigative journalism is very much alive. Only the tools have changed.