Investigating vs Reporting: The Reader’s Response

20 Mar 2019
Investigating vs Reporting: The Reader’s Response

By Rowan Morar & Nokukhanya Mncwabe

South Africa’s national elections are looming:  is the public receiving sufficient and appropriately robust investigative journalism on the basis of which to make informed decisions?

Investigation in the 21st Century

The internet has placed media agencies under increased pressure to publish instantaneous reports. This has significantly undermined traditional investigative and fact-checking practices with the result that what little investigation is undertaken typically occurs after publication. The impetus towards immediacy occasioned by search engines and social media relevance tends to override the dictates of journalistic ethics.

As the Cambridge Analytica scandal also revealed, targeted and digitally-embedded marketing further inhibits investigative practices, exacerbating the climate of media distrust. The intense demand for instant news coupled with the opaque curatorial practices of social media giants and search engines undermines readers’ trust in journalistic integrity.

However, this should not obscure the fact that South Africa enjoys relatively robust investigative journalism, as attested by the #GuptaLeaks series, and the multiple investigations into state capture – of which Jacque Pauw’s, The President’s Keepers, is one notable example. While we cannot rely solely on book cycles or long-form journalism for all our news, these certainly enhance the public’s access to reliable information.

The DA poster campaign and Investigation

Daily Maverick journalist, Rebecca Davis, recently published an article exposing the inconsistency between the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) campaign poster, election manifesto and provincially-circumscribed constitutional powers in the Western Cape. The posters suggest that the DA will prioritise the establishment of a provincial rail and police system if it retains power in the Western Cape. However, Davis points to the constitutional barriers that render the posters misguided at best and outright disingenuous at worse. This article highlights the importance of investigative journalism in the ordinary course of things, but particularly during electoral season when political parties ramp up their efforts and reliance on creative spin to woo supporters.

Notwithstanding the existence of investigative journalism networks and outputs the functional logic of our social media use also affects the curation of media, potentially undermining even the best investigations.  News from within our social networks is shared with little interrogation into its veracity because we trust the people around us.  This has a two-fold effect: In the first instance, genuinely poor or purposefully misinformative information is distributed, which when exposed, erodes confidence in our media. Secondly, this serves to diminish trust in our social network, prompting the inference that neither our social network nor press institutions provide reliable information.  Failure to assume responsibility for our personal digital news literacy compounds the socially destructive forces brought to light by such scandals as Bell Pottinger.

The consequence is that the profession of investigative journalism is under assault and investigative reporters are subject to a host of disincentives to pursue this profession, including among others substantial risk to their personal safety, exposure to intimidatory lawsuits, etc. When we as readers are irresponsible in our reading and sharing practices, we exacerbate the undue stress already confronting investigative journalism.

Digital Literacy and Reader Responsibility

Even the best investigative journalism contends with the functional logic of social media. We share information received from those we trust in so doing propagating or eliminating misinformation from the search engine or social media news cycles. We are both the primary consumers and distributors of investigation, reporting and propaganda. Once the investigation is published, we decide on its validity and importance by virtue of our distribution of the facts.

Hence, caution is  called for: where euphemisms like “information management” increasingly replace the more accurate terms of “propaganda”, “censorship” and “targeting political dissidents” and whereas there are no doubt “fakes” in our midst,  we can update our filters to offset the destabilising effects that the reality and idea of “fake news” have created in the public sphere. None of these methods are new; however, a renewed attention to them is necessary as our public and private spheres increasingly enmesh. As social networks are seemingly unavoidably digitised to some degree, fact-checking our news is essential not merely for the institution of the press, but our social relations themselves.

Sarmina, Anna. “Fact-Checking as Defence Against Propaganda in the Digital Age.” Digital Investigative Journalism: Data, Visual Analytics and Innovative Methodologies in International Reporting, by Oliver Hahn and Florian Stalph, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 193–202.

Image: Bank Phrom on Unsplash