What is investigative journalism?

Investigative journalism takes a deep dive into a single topic. Reporters can spend weeks, months, or even years gathering facts before writing an article or series of articles. Investigative journalists often focus on exposing uncomfortable facts or truths. Some may have been covered up deliberately, while others may have been missed or overlooked by news agencies. These could include organized criminal activity, corruption, corporate malfeasance, or unsavory behavior by our politicians and leaders.

The work is exhaustive and highly-time consuming. It requires dogged persistence, incredible attention to detail, pattern recognition skills, and an ability to translate complex information into simple language. Journalists use a wide range of tools when gathering information for a story, including public records, specialist research sources, freedom of information requests, interviews, open-source databases, and legal documents.

Why investigative journalism matters

Investigative journalism is about holding powerful people, politicians, criminals, corporations, and governments accountable for their actions. By exposing corruption and malpractice, investigative journalism is a way of ensuring that nobody is above the law. Essentially, it's a profoundly democratic practice underpinned by truth, freedom, and fairness.

It also puts the spotlight on underrepresented groups, providing a much-needed voice for the voiceless. In the past, this has led to changes in the law and cultural attitudes, creating better societies where more people are treated with dignity and respect. Back in 1887, Elizabeth Seaman, a journalist at Joseph Pulitzer-owned New York World, better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, feigned mental illness to expose the inhumane conditions at  Women's Lunatic Asylum in New York City. Seaman's widely acclaimed articles led to a Grand Jury investigation and increased funding for mental health facilities.

Threatening existing power structures

Investigative journalists have a passion for uncovering the truth, whatever the cost. Many have sacrificed their freedoms and safety to expose wrongdoings or share crucial information with the world. Last year, reporter Zhang Zhan was arrested and jailed for reporting on elements of the COVID-19 outbreak the Chinese government wanted to suppress. More recently, US journalist Danny Fenster was sentenced to 11 years in jail by a court in Myanmar. Fenster was working for a banned news outlet that had been critical of a coup carried out by senior figures in the Myanmar military.

Other journalists have tragically paid the ultimate price, including Daphne Anne Caruana Galizia. The Maltese writer, described as a one-person WikiLeaks, was murdered by a car bomb in 2017 after reporting on political and financial corruption in Malta. Three men were charged with the crime, with one receiving a 15-year sentence for murder. Worryingly, a report by a group of former Maltese judges suggested the conspiracy involved former senior members of the Maltese government.

Thankfully, incidents like this are extremely rare, and the majority of reporters work under the full protection of the law. However, these stories are a stark reminder of how investigative journalism poses a genuine threat to corrupt power structures.

Investigative journalism success stories

There is a long list of famous examples of investigative journalism. Here's a brief look at some of the stand-out cases: 

  • Bill Dedman's 1988 investigation for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed how mortgage lenders in middle-income neighborhoods actively discriminated against black applicants. 

  • In 2009, The Daily Telegraph revealed that British MPs had been filing frivolous and highly dubious expense claims. Some MPs used public money to refurbish their second homes before selling them at a profit. Criminal charges were brought against several MPs, four of whom received prison sentences.

  • Broken by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, The Watergate scandal exposed corruption at the heart of US President Nixon's administration. The two-year investigation found evidence of bribery, wire-tapping political opponents, and links to the American Mafia. The scandal forced Nixon to quit, making him the only US President to ever resign from office.

  • Hopewell Chin'ono, an award-winning Zimbabwean journalist, investigated and exposed the Covid-gate scandal in June 2020. She proved $60 million in COVID relief funding had been siphoned off to a shell company called Drax linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

  • With 165 reporters across 65 countries, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is one of the biggest networks of investigative journalists in the world. It exposed organized crime, international tobacco companies, private military cartels, asbestos companies, climate change lobbyists, and details of Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts. More recently, the ICIJ published the Panama Papers, a sprawling investigation into global tax evasion schemes exploited by the rich and powerful.

The future of investigative journalism

Traditional journalism faces many challenges. Today's digital markets demand quick turnarounds and real-time responses to breaking stories. As such, many newspapers and other outlets are no longer incentivized to support or fund the kind of work that goes into an in-depth exposes. However, investigative journalism isn't dead yet. Instead, new digital tools and resources are providing even greater opportunities for collaborations and investigations, as shown by the reporting on the Pandora Papers and the Panama Papers, for instance.

Roy Greenslade pounded the pavements for over 20 years as a reporter for The Sunday Times. Now at the end of his career, Greenslade is envious of the tools available to his younger colleagues. "Digital tools have turned out to be a wonderful addition to the reporting armory," says Greenslade.  "It's possible to argue that investigative journalism today is in a healthier state than ever before. Computer terminals have proven more effective in discovering secrets than shoe leather. And I went through plenty of shoe leather in my day."

Greenslade also highlights the work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). The BIJ is a group of London-based reporters who crunch data and surf the web to find important stories. It has worked with major news organizations to bring some much-needed attention to the large number of homeless people who die relatively young. It has also exposed how private landlords exploited loopholes in the law to make large profits renting sub-standard temporary accommodation to the homeless and asylum seekers.

Becoming an investigative journalist

If you want to become an investigative journalist, one of the first things you will really need is a journalism degree. Many schools offer full bachelor’s degrees in journalism. They cover all the various forms of journalism, such as print, digital, blogging, social media, and television. You will also learn about copyright, libels law, and other reporting regulations. In addition to lots of classroom learning, you'll likely get a chance to take part in some internships and placements, such as working in a newsroom, at a local paper, at a magazine, or as a junior production assistant for a news broadcaster.

Also, you can study for a postgraduate degree in journalism. These master's courses last between 12-24 months and offer more opportunities for specialization. For example, the University of Salford, which has strong ties to the BBC, now offers an MA in International Journalism for Digital Media.

Life as a journalism student

Esther Batemen is a journalism student at the University of Hertfordshire. Here's what her ‘average’ day looks like: "I usually have one or two lectures that last around two hours, but there's no such thing as a typical day as a journalism student. One day I might be working on coursework or writing my blog. Another day I'm getting a tour around a newsroom or shadowing a courtroom reporter. Studying journalism is fun and engaging. It's also very practical. You feel like you're learning stuff you'll actually use in your career. And I work on the college paper.  It's a great way to get more involved in campus life and learn some of the people skills every good reporter needs."

Investigative journalism isn't for everyone. However, if you're a brave and determined idealist who believes in freedom and truth, then it's definitely the 'write' career path for you.