Friday, August 8, 2008

Unpacking the journalist, or Public Investigation

In his post How can we get people to "Geek Out" about journalism?, David Cohn over at PBS' MediaShift Idea Lab reflects on the fact that journalism has an image problem in North America.

I respond in the comments that we need to stop saying "Pay me to be a journalist" and start saying "Pay me to find the answers." But I can't help but wonder if we need to go further, and unpack the tasks of journalists.

The way I see it, a good investigative reporter is a cross between a private dick and a researcher (research librarian, perhaps?), with excellent writing skills, journalistic privilege (both in terms of access and legal protections), and a publishing venue to back her up. That publishing venue may also offer editing, copy editing, fact-checking, and even a strong reputation.

Well, today we all have a publishing venue, given that anyone can start a blog on the internet for free. Editing and copy editing are not essential, fact checking is provided by crowdsourcing in the comments, and reputation can be achieved per journalist, rather than per organization. Lots of people have adequate writing skills. And while some bloggers will undoubtedly sorely miss the legal protections journalists enjoy before society's adjustment to this 'media shift' is through, journalistic access is often overrated (just ask Mayhill Fowler, a citizen journalist with the Huffington Post's OffTheBus campaign who has made waves with the stories she has scooped by not being a member of the press). In short, at its core our business is to seek out truth, or at least, to get as close to the truth as possible, and then release it for public consumption.

[As an aside, this coincides with discussions I've seen about replacing the concept of journalistic objectivity with transparency. If I hire either a PI or researcher to do work for me, what I'm hiring them for is to answer a question, or a set of questions. I'm hiring them to get me some information that I couldn't get on my own, or that I don't have time to get on my own. And when they give me their results I expect complete transparency - surveillance photos, links, reports, data, you name it. For more on this, see Josh Young's post in Networked News, What we talk about when we talk about neutrality.]

So, we have private investigation. Why not public investigation? And, why separate the two? A large Investigation firm could have investigators on staff as well as writers, and customers could hire the firm to investigate privately, or for publication. I'm not saying that this is the journalism of the future, but it's an interesting idea.