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What is Investigative Journalism?

What is Investigative Journalism?

 In its Investigative Journalism Handbook, UNESCO defined investigative journalism as “exposing to the public, matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in the position of power or accidentally behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding.


“It requires using both secret and open sources and documents.” Investigative journalism has been defined in many ways. The Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism group, VVO, also defined investigative reporting as “critical and in depth journalism’’.

Investigative journalism is also defined as “a style of news reporting that involves deep research, uncovering the truth, chasing scandals and unearthing conspiracies to bring never-before stories for readers and viewers.’’

Major components of investigative journalism include systematic, in-depth and original research and reporting. Some experts have even stretched investigative journalism to embrace rigorous academic research and research methodology.

According to them, investigative journalism involves employing careful methodology with heavy reliance on primary sources, forming and testing a hypothesis and rigorous fact-checking.

“Investigative reporting is important because it teaches new techniques, new ways of doing things”, said Brant Houston, the Knight Chair of Journalism at University of Illinois, US.

“Those techniques blend down into everyday reporting. So, you’re raising the bar for the entire profession,” added Brant Houston who was also executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Some seasoned journalists have argued rightly that investigative journalism is a technique employed in the profession by reporters. The reporter must research the facts that come to him or her by in depth investigations, analysis and cross-checked facts.      

However, some experts have contended that investigative journalism, in its technical sense, is more than that. They claimed that investigative journalism is broader than everyday journalism news reporting.

To them, investigative journalism is a “set of methodologies that are a craft that takes years to master”. It involves “inearth inquiries that painstakingly track looted public funds, abuse of power, environmental degradation, health scandals and more.

According to the experts, the components of investigative journalism should include research, analysis, reporting, editing and presentation. The history of investigative journalism began in the 18th Century. It became popular and widely used in the late 18th and 20th centuries.

Pioneers of the 18th and 20th centuries investigative journalism included Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, all Americans, who exposed corporate abuse of power. The Watergate scandal was the work of investigative journalism by two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernsteins.  

Both collaborating with secret service agents in the US, they conducted investigations into power abuse that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Is leaking of secret documents equal to investigative journalism?

Are journalistic works on leaked secrets in the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers that exposed global tax evasion and money-laundering scandals – works of investigative journalism?

By the definition of investigative journalism mentioned earlier, works on the 

leaked papers should not be regarded as investigative journalism because what the journalists did was to scrutinise the leaked papers and sift out the concealed or hidden secrets for publication.

They did not do deep and painstaking research. The same applies to the WikiLeaks publications by Julian Assange which leaked American military records in 2010. On the ethical side of investigative journalism, the experts have cautioned investigative journalists to “maintain integrity and follow basic ethics as these are critical in accordance with investigative journalism credibility’’.

Ethical journalism is regarded as the safety line of investigative journalism. Minus its ethical part, investigative journalism becomes a tool for smart, corrupt and unethical journalists who seek to court fame, money and power, using investigative journalism as a disguise.

In Ghana, just like police investigations that involve looking out for and arresting murderers and other criminals, some sort of investigative journalism took place in the Gold Coast.
News reporting of well-researched issues of national importance had been published in the past.

Investigative reporting is a natural part of mainstream journalism and enthusiastic and conscientious journalists have used secret methods to obtain facts for publication.


For example, at the school of journalism in our time, we were taught by seasoned journalists some methods for obtaining information that public officials were unwilling to disclose.
Rummaging through the dustbins of public offices to look for undisclosed facts was some of the methods.

We were warned that keyhole and eavesdropping journalism or use of spy techniques to obtain information, though produced quick and easy results, were unethical and must be avoided.

What about investigative journalism in post-independence Ghana? In Ghana, investigative journalism has always been part of mainstream journalism in modern times as it was in the past.

Topical issues that involved deep investigations, not illegal underground probing, had been done by journalists in Ghana for years. Such new stories surfaced as first-class scoops that made big headlines.


Anas Aremeyaw Anas’ exposes published in the mass media, earlier and in 2015, brought investigative journalism to the forefront of journalistic practice in Ghana. The high point was the one that was portrayed on video of some magistrates, circuit and high court judges receiving bribes to influence judgement.

However, were Anas’ spy or private-eye style secret investigations equal to investigative journalism? By definition of journalism mentioned earlier, Anas’ investigations that involved fixing of hidden cameras and audio recorders in homes and offices and on his body to obtain information -- cannot pass as investigative journalism.

Little or no journalism techniques were used and there were no deep or thorough investigations, deep research or cross-checked facts. Journalism is a two-way traffic highway.  Both sides of the highway must be involved and accorded equal treatment.  The private police or private eye is one way.

In his exposes, Anas cut the figure of a secret private police agent armed with hidden cameras and audio recorders. Sometimes, he employed dramatic techniques and acted out scripts he had carefully plotted for his cameras to capture.


All these were done on the blind side of the persons he wanted to expose as corrupt public officials. A journalist must not be part of the making of a crime and must not instigate criminal activity.    

Journalists of the past believed in the law and had great respect for it.  Without the law, journalism cannot exist and function. Sometimes, the dividing line between the law and journalism can be very thin.

Both professions exist to serve as watchdogs and watch-eagles of the rights and privileges of the public. Both hold it as a duty to make the governors and the governed responsible and accountable before the court of public opinion and the court of law.

On invasion of privacy, the 1992 Ghana Constitution protects the privacy of the individual from violation and abuse. Article 18 (2) of the Constitution states: ‘’No person shall be subjected to interference with the privacy of his home, property, correspondence or communication except in accordance with law as may be necessary in a free and democratic society for public safety or economic wellbeing of the country, for the protection of morals, for the prevention of disorder or crime or for the protection of rights and freedoms of other persons.’’  

A seasoned legal opinion on the matter of privacy and public interest has helped to throw more light on invasion of privacy by enthusiastic or zealot journalists. In an address at the 23rd award ceremony of the Ghana Journalists’ Association in Accra in October, 2018, Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo advised Ghanaian journalists to be cautious in their conduct of investigations, and invade privacy of individuals only as the last resort, after exhausting all journalistic techniques available to them.      

She declared, ‘’You cannot break into somebody’s home and install cameras claiming you are conducting an investigation in the interest of the public.’’

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