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MIJT: Hager calls for ‘redefined’ investigative journalism model

Mainstream 'Watergate-type' era is over

Nicky Hager ... argues for a changed approach to investigative journalism. Photo: Scoop

Pacific Media Centre

6 December, 2010

Clare-Louise Skelton
Investigative journalism needs to be redefined if it is to survive and prosper in the future, says independent author and journalist Nicky Hager.

The days of inspirational investigations of “Watergate-type” stories such as the celebrated Washington Post expose which ultimately forced the resignation of US President Richard Nixon in August 1974 are over, he says.

Investigative journalism “needs to be detached from the news media” to ensure its survival, Hager told an audience of about 60 at the Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology conference at AUT University at the weekend.

He told the conference, organised by the Pacific Media Centre, there had been a “wonderful growth curve for PR people and an inverse growth curve for journalism”.
In response, investigative journalism needed to be redefined.

Hager, one of New Zealand’s few independent investigative journalists, said mainstream media had a limited ability to be a vehicle for investigative work in New Zealand and overseas.

He suggested the only hopeful and practical solution was to “reconceptualise what we think investigative journalism is and who we think an investigative journalist is”.

Industry peers
Hager asked himself whose work he most admired in New Zealand and the answers were not only some of his industry peers but also health researchers, academics and those in public interest groups.

“You can have someone in a human rights organisation that is doing investigative journalism and then handing it to a media outlet. It’s just not called investigative journalism.”  

Hager gave the example of his own background as a researcher for many different occupations where the principles of investigative journalism were identical across the board.

He argued that the emphasis should be on skills and said although “there is a vanity in the news media that says that only journalists can properly do these roles”; he rather wished than believed that to be true.

Hager said his proposed model could be implemented by searching out “the people who call themselves filmmakers or public interest researchers, for example, and bring those people together.”

Suggestions ranged from invitations to conferences such as MIJT, to opening up journalism training to people from a variety of disciplines or building investigative research papers into other degrees.

Although there are a number of people who already combine some of these skill sets, Hager sees this idea as going further and “making it a career path rather than a hopeless dream”.

Within his proposal, he addressed questions that could be raised when suggesting such a mind-shift in the definition of investigative journalism - such as finance and quality of work.

Rather than waiting for news organisations to provide the funding,  Hager said it was  possible to move in and out of paid work (related and unrelated) to supplement investigations and apply for grants and university subsidies.

Regarding the question over the quality of work if other professions are adopted into the discipline, Hager said that by taking the best parts of traditional journalism - accuracy, fairness and balance - as well as editorial checking and protection of sources, it would be possible to safeguard against any decline.

According to Hager, the key is to address investigative journalism not in the context of job opportunities but as a profession.

Highlighting what is possible if this is done he said: “There are connections and collaborations which mean that we could take this from being something we hope for that doesn’t happen very much to this broad community of people who are doing more.”

Hager’s ideas gained positive support and played a part in the discussion of the formation of a working support group of investigative journalists in New Zealand and the region.

The investigative journalism support group is hoped to be a lasting legacy of the MIJT conference.

Clare-Louise Skelton is studying towards a Master of Communications Studies at AUT University. She was a member of the PMC Media team covering this conference.



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