Is the future bright for investigative journalism?

November 8, 2016

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By Paul Harman, Director, Cleraun Media Conferences

In 2011, investigative journalists at the Guardian uncovered a major scandal of phone-hacking by fellow journalists at the News of the World. Their reports led to police investigations, a parliamentary inquiry, and the closure of the News of the World after 168 years in circulation.

In December 2015, a ground-breaking documentary by the RTÉ Investigations Unit revealed that in excess of 40% of the Republic of Ireland’s 949 councillors declared no property interests whatsoever despite a legal obligation to list all interests in land. It also showed three councillors offering to lobby on behalf of a wind farm project in return for money or the promise of a loan or an investment in a private business.

Investigative journalism has an important role to play in holding power to account, but it costs a lot, and most media organisations have less and financial resources, as advertisers move online and fewer people read or watch traditional news outlets.

But investigative journalism also faces a significant challenge from a moral perspective. Traditionally it has always required the audience to be outraged by its revelations, and the subject of the revelations to feel some degree of shame. But these traditional concepts seem to apply less and less, partly because audiences and readers are bombarded many times a day by moral outrages and have had to tone down or switch off these traditional impulses.

In addition, even the most basic facts, ones which are proven, are now contested in a world where opinion rules. One reason for this might be the longstanding complacency of institutions and organisations who tried to manipulate facts in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, , such that the wider public, disillusioned by this, now responds by being sceptical about so many facts publicised by the media. Trust is often missing.

Can investigative journalists overcome these challenges and find audiences in the new media landscape?  From the experiences of the leading practitioners who are speakers at the 16th Cleraun Media Conference on Friday 11 to Sunday 13 November 2016 in Dublin, it would appear that the availability of new tools and new resources does open up the prospect of significant new audiences.

These speakers include Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2015 and 2014, and George Carey, renowned British documentary filmmaker, both of whom will give masterclasses. Other speakers include Cécile Schilis-Gallego on how the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists used the graph database Neo4J to unravel the Panama Papers; Alys Harte of BBC Radio’s File on Four on opportunities across platforms; Declan Lawn of BBC Panorama on investigative journalism in a post-factual world; Eliza Mackintosh of Storyful UK on verification resources for journalists; and Matt Cooke of Google News Lab on the power of social media, digital tools and visualisation.

Full details are at The Carnegie UK Trust has kindly supported this biennial conference in previous years.

There is a special student rate of €25 for the weekend, thanks to the sponsorship of RTÉ, The Irish Times, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, TG4, The Sunday Business Post, Village Magazine, The Irish News, Irish Farmers Journal, the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, Amárach Research, Hacks/Hackers Dublin, Dublin City University, and Dublin Institute of Technology.