Investigative journalism investigates something for a reason. In many cases, a journalist investigates because a source has approached them. The source either brings evidence, a leak, or simply has a disagreement. The leak may be legitimate, someone voices their opinion or disagreement with what is happening in their organisation, or it may be illegitimate, based on a theft or a betrayal of trust. In all cases, the journalist justifies the investigation as being in the public interest. The investigation and the story are justified by a higher good. A recent high court decision in the United Kingdom set the limits to which a journalist’s can use this argument about national security matters. What this shows is that the journalist is not the final arbiter of the public interest, which brings us to adversarial journalism.
Can we tell the difference between adversarial journalism and an intelligence operation?
Good investigative journalism combines the skills of academic research, police investigations, and intelligence operations. The work requires curiosity, problem solving skills and tenacity. What motivates the journalist is an issue. They want to find something out and tell the public about it. An academic tries to take an academically neutral approach to the topic. By contrast, a detective is looking to solve the problem and find the suspected perpetrator. The intelligence agent encourages an asset to betray a trust and supply information. The investigative journalist combines these roles. The story is justified by the public interest not the journalist’s interests or the proprietor’s interest because the journalist wants to tell the public about the problem so the public can act.
Is the public interest served by adversarial journalism?
Social media has changed investigative journalism with the emergence of a niche form of journalism: adversarial journalism. It transforms investigative journalism into something else, which perhaps takes journalism to its implicit culmination. In adversarial journalism, the issue justifies the investigation. Instead of raising the question, advocating a possible alternative view, the source’s view, the journalist becomes an adversary. They start with the view they are right. They are not there to inform or to offer an opinion; they are to prove their point. They have become the judge and jury with the story as punishment. Adversarial journalism uses public opinion to punish and coerce. The intelligence agent becomes the dominant mode. The focus is on finding leaks or people who can or might betray their organisation and its trust. The leak is encouraged; a trust is betrayed, because the story, not the public interest, justifies it. In adversarial journalism, the goal is not to discover the truth or inform the public, it is to prove the journalist’s point.
Has adversarial journalism betrayed the public interest?
It would appear that adversarial journalism starts with a preferred outcome. They will use the public interest to defend their preferred outcome, which changes journalism from an implicitly neutral approach to the public interest, to a view that it is to be contested and captured. If politicized journalism or adversarial journalism is the future, how are we to differentiate it from a political activity?