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Newsrooms are contracting, and there is less money to fund journalism. So, investigative reporting must also be suffering. On the contrary, reports Andrea Carson.

IT WAS 1956, the year the Olympic Games came to Melbourne and the time when Lionel Hogg, a police reporter working for the now-defunct evening broadsheet The Herald, did what the police had been unable to do. He found the Ukrainian stewardess Nina Paranyuk, who had deserted her ship, which was docked in Melbourne for the Games.

Hogg’s four-part series documented Paranyuk’s story and the harsh reality of life in the Soviet state. Hogg had done what experienced journalists do, working his contacts to find Paranyuk, who was being shielded in three safe houses across Melbourne during her two months on the run.

Exposed, Paranyuk confided in Hogg: “Ever since Stalin ordered the demolition of our tiny stone Church, I have prayed for somebody or something to take me away from the USSR. That was 24 years ago. I was only 10. I had to wait a long time before my prayers were answered.”

That same year also marked the establishment of the peer-judged Walkley awards “for excellence” in Australian journalism. According to the veteran investigative reporter and five-time Walkley winner Evan Whitton, investigative reporting did not really appear in Australia until the late 1950s. Hogg’s series was exemplary, and his story earned him the 1957 Walkley Award for Best Piece of Newspaper Reporting.

‘When Lionel Hogg wrote his award-winning series back in the 1950s the “news cycle” turned much more slowly. There was no Internet. Newspaper penetration of the general public was far deeper, and a four-part investigative series was not uncommon. Such investigations, recorded in print, reached a wide audience and, arguably, stayed long in the public consciousness.’

There were only five Walkley categories in Hogg’s day. Now there are 34, attracting thousands of entries each year. This makes them a rich, unique sample for studying Australian investigative journalism over time. For this reason, the Walkleys were one of four methods used in a study examining the watchdog role of print, particularly of Australia’s broadsheets from 1956 to 2011.

Of course, a common perception is that quality investigative journalism is being threatened in an era of media belt-tightening and emaciated newsrooms. As a consequence, today’s newspapers are “more about headlines than stories, more about squeezing out a quote than doing a comprehensive interview”, according to the veteran investigative reporter Chris Masters. Masters emphasised that he was not condemning his colleagues with this observation. “They are the same people they were all those years ago, in many respects a lot better educated now, but they just don’t have the time to do the work.” And today’s journalists, he added, were being “rewarded for quantity not quality”.

When Lionel Hogg wrote his award-winning series back in the 1950s the “news cycle” turned much more slowly. There was no Internet. Newspaper penetration of the general public was far deeper, and a four-part investigative series was not uncommon. Such investigations, recorded in print, reached a wide audience and, arguably, stayed long in the public consciousness.

In 2013, the news cycle is faster, its appetite for stories voracious. As well, audiences have fragmented, meaning that newspapers are no longer the prevailing influence in Australian society that they were 50 years earlier. Story series of the nature of Hogg’s Paranyuk exposé are a luxury, as media outlets compete to break the next ‘big’ story, rarely dwelling on the last one.

This means that ground-breaking investigative stories can appear, but just as quickly disappear. A story’s impact can be drowned out by the constant noise of incoming news from radio, television and online. But add to this what Fairfax investigative reporter Richard Baker — and others, including Masters — cite as the ‘toxic rivalry’ between News Corp Australia and Fairfax Media: the print duopoly accounts for around 90 per cent of Australia’s newspapers and often the impact of a rival’s investigation can be limited by the other side simply ignoring it.

‘. . . audiences may not be appreciating authentic investigative journalism and are failing to discern between that and over-hyped sensationalism.’

Masters’ view of time-poor journalists struggling to keep up is a popular perception about modern journalism. So, it was surprising that the research supported a contrary view: an analysis of the Walkley awards combined with other research (including interviews with media experts, detailed analysis of broadsheet news pages over five decades and a snapshot of Australian news websites) found that there is more print investigative journalism now than ever before. 

This was unexpected. Newspaper circulations and profits reached their zenith in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seemed reasonable to assume the volume of broadsheet investigative journalism would also peak during this period when advertising streams were so healthy they were branded the ‘rivers of gold’, and there were more daily mastheads in circulation. In fact, the different data sets independently showed that the number of investigative stories continued to rise from the 1950s with each successive decade through to 2010.

This seemed counter-intuitive, at first. Commentators and journalists remember the late 1970s and early 1980s fondly because of big stories that stretched on for years, such as Masters’ revelations for the ABC’s Four Corners of widespread police and political corruption in Queensland, along with the complementary reporting of the Brisbane Courier Mail’s Phil Dickie. Masters’ reporting led to a Royal Commission: Dickie also won a Walkley for his efforts.

Today, with most newspapers suffering a financial and circulation decline, a natural corollary would seem a decline in the ‘quality’ of their journalism. Masters put it neatly when he said journalism had become “more about headlines than stories”. And the union representing journalists, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, argues that newspaper journalists are being pressed as never before, expected to write several stories a day across a range of digital and hardcopy platforms.

And yet, perceptions about a decline in the quality and number of investigative stories in today’s editions were not supported by the research. The quality of that journalism, a difficult thing to measure, was assessed via a sliding scale of ‘qualitative features’ within investigative stories. It revealed changes, but not a fall in reporting standards as the rhetoric would otherwise suggest. For example, in the 2000s there were fewer story series than in previous decades, and fewer stories that spoke for defenceless individuals (which perhaps more readily engage readers) as opposed to stories about the wrongdoings of public institutions.

A 10-point definition was used to distinguish genuine investigative journalism from daily news reporting. These factors reflected arguments in the scholarly literature about what is investigative reporting, with a story considered to be investigative if six of those specific categories (listed below) were present. (Full a full outline of the 10 definitions, click here.)

 

 

Using these markers, the research did reveal a greater preponderance in the 1980s of investigative reporting that ticked the most among the 10 boxes. But overall, there were fewer investigative stories in that decade than in the decades that followed.

The high number of top-quality investigative stories in the 1980s occurred because these stories not only embodied the six mandatory features of the definition used to classify investigative reporting, but also displayed other elements of the genre such as ‘uncovering a supressed truth in the public interest’, ‘identifying victims from villains’ or uncovering ‘a breach of public trust’. Journalism from this era was also most likely to investigate stories where ‘a moral standard was implied’.

The editor of Britain’s Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has said that not all revelations or ‘truths’ are worth pursuing, and particularly not in the name of the ‘public interest’. He argued that the ‘quality’ of the target of a story and its relationship to the public interest distinguished quality investigative reporting from mere smear or exposure journalism. “What’s the public interest in a cricketer having a love romp in a hotel room . . . ? But if elected representatives are arguing a case in Parliament but not revealing that they are being paid to do so, then that strikes at the heart of democracy.”

Rusbridger makes an important distinction. It was found that today’s editors eagerly defend a story as being “in the public interest” and label it “exclusive” or “investigative” when the research showed that often the story was neither. These labels, in fact, tended to be overused and applied regularly to articles that were not investigative journalism, and sometimes not ‘in the public interest’ but rather ‘interesting to the public’.

The finding suggests that readers are being bombarded with these tags and have possibly become immune to the special nature of investigative reporting, which unlike everyday news stories, necessarily takes time and resourcefulness. This might also help explain general perceptions that there is less investigative reporting now than in the past, because audiences may not be appreciating authentic investigative journalism and are failing to discern between that and over-hyped sensationalism. This, in turn, dilutes the impact of investigative stories. In 1971 (the starting point for this detailed analysis), conspicuous labelling of stories was used sparingly, and only applied accurately to investigative reporting and not to stories that fell outside the definition.

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Historically, Australian broadsheets have produced more award-winning investigative journalism than tabloid-sized papers. This is true of every decade except the 1960s. Then, tabloids dominated, particularly those with a longer deadline, such as weekend and weekly publications such as Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. This was also the time, as identified by Sydney academic David McKnight, that investigative journalism started to move away from single-issue investigations to systemic wrongdoing such as Whitton’s ‘Ugly Cloud’ investigation into police extortion.

In the late 1980s, newspaper revenues and circulations started to fall, and the Australian stockmarket crashed. The National Times — a newspaper with noteworthy watchdog journalism and many pioneering female investigators such as Wendy Bacon and Marian Wilkinson — was forced to close soon after. By the end of the 1990s, following changes to media ownership laws and popularity of the evening TV news bulletins, all of Australia's afternoon newspapers such as Melbourne's Herald had switched off their printing presses. But despite the loss of mastheads, the volume of print investigative journalism actually continued to rise.

While it might seem odd that with fewer newspapers more investigative journalism was printed, the research finds that this was possible because editors were prepared to adjust their resources to protect investigative journalism from general cost cutting. According to the founder of the National Times, Vic Carroll: “Print publishers have apparently realised their future depends to some extent on investigative or explainer journalism.” The research showed editors were able to fund investigative journalism through greater syndication of their watchdog reporting, and by narrowing the range of subjects of their investigations. This led to more local investigations (with lighter travel costs), and a surge in crime investigative stories (perennially popular with readers).

A key finding from the 2000s was that the Australian Financial Review (a tabloid financial daily) did as much investigative reporting as its Fairfax stablemates The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Most of the AFR’s stories were political or corporate sector investigations. Otherwise, the scrutiny of corporate power was generally lacking in broadsheets during the 2000s. Jennifer Kitchener, Brian Toohey, Trevor Sykes and Graeme Turner have all previously criticised the Australian press for its lack of critical reporting of big business, particularly in the lead-up to the 1987 stockmarket crash.

This finding of an apparent lack of zeal in scrutinising business resonates because the 2000s was the decade of the Global Financial Crisis. The ABC’s Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes observed that this lack of adequate scrutiny was also the case for journalism generally in earlier decades such as the 1990s. “The big bank collapses that happened in Victoria and South Australia went largely unnoticed and were not exposed by anyone’s journalism as they should have been.” In Holmes’ view —  with some exceptions such as journalist Paul Barry’s exposé of the dubious dealings of billionaire Alan Bond — the 1990s was not investigative journalism’s finest decade for investigating the corporate sector.

 

• BLUE: Total winners • RED: Winners considered investigative stories

 

 

 

In other areas, broadsheet editors were able to adapt their investigative efforts creatively, targeting crime and public figure corruption. On top of this, in-house and cross-media collaborations between media institutions as a means to fund and deliver investigative journalism are a new and expanding phenomenon. Fairfax journalists partnered with the national broadcaster, ABC TV, and more informally with WikiLeaks, to print investigative stories in the public interest.

This trend was also apparent among online news gatherers. Although producing less investigative reports than traditional media, some of Australia’s online news organisations collaborated with non-journalists, such as academics, to produce original investigative journalism.

Broadening an investigative story’s audience is clearly important, especially when news audiences have fragmented and newspapers’ prominence and influence is narrowing. Cross-media collaborations are a significant development because they show a willingness to adapt to deliver public interest journalism. Collaborations provide new media with institutional, moral and financial support, and this can strengthen a story’s impact. The reverse is also true with online sites providing the means for a story to “go viral”.

 

Postscript:

By going tabloid in March, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald ended a broadsheet tradition of more than a century and a half. While the research found that broadsheet investigative reporting was not in decline, the significant revamp at Fairfax triggered principally by the need for cost-cutting, occurred after the data was gathered and analysed.

Future researchers might come to find 2012 a tipping point for print investigative journalism because of these cost cuts and format changes. A cautionary tale, perhaps, that arises from the research is the fact that when other Australian broadsheets converted to tabloid, such as the Newcastle Herald (converted 1998), the Courier Mail (2006) and the Adelaide Advertiser (1997), their award-winning investigative reporting was diminished (see table below).

 

 

Is this pattern likely to continue now that the Australian daily broadsheet is all but gone — the Australian and Canberra Times notwithstanding? What is known, is that prior to the Age and Sydney Morning Herald converting their weekday newspapers to tabloid, perceptions of a decline in Australian broadsheet investigative reporting would be better characterised as a decline in investigative journalism’s prominence, not its quantity, and in its reception, rather than its quality. 

 

* Andrea Carson is a journalist who started her career in newspapers (The Age) before working in radio (ABC 774, RRR), online and television (7.30 Report). Her PhD is titled ‘Investigative Journalism, the Public Sphere and Democracy: The Watchdog Role of Australian Broadsheets in the Digital Age’ . She also has a Masters in International Politics, and is project officer for 2013electionwatch.com.au as well as an honorary fellow of The Centre for Advancing Journalism

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