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Whatever happened to investigative reporting?

Jean Seaton reflects on whether society will pay for the media it needs

We live in a media-ocracy. Tackling the big issues of the future requires the media to agitate, and assist organisation, just as much as our politicians. The media are key to whether the public knows what it faces, yet there are problems:

  • How to keep the modern public engaged in politics when research shows us that they are either indifferent or indeed hostile to politics.
  • How to persuade a modern consuming public that there are problems that can be made better - but for which there are no simple, easy, quick or comfortable solutions.
  • How to persuade the public to be prepared to pay a cost now for the future.
  • How to maintain enlightenment scepticism as the fundamental media value.
  • How to avoid indifference and cynicism.
  • How to reconcile freedom of speech with the increasing need to explain authoritatively, and make informed judgments.
  • How to enable the public to appreciate limitations on types of reporting, for example when front-line journalists can describe vividly how a battle is progressing, but cannot be expected to report its impact on the war.
  • How can we handle the new celebrit-isation of politicians? How to maintain the necessary discretion, without unnecessary secrecy.

Modern societies suffer from a collective attention deficit disorder syndrome. In a world flooded with information and seemingly endless capacity to communicate, the problem is to get us to concentrate. Moreover, it may be about to get harder. A two hundred year old relationship between the media and politics is about to be turned on its head as new technologies re-engineer the relationship between how views and information are exchanged, judged, assigned significance, and now public opinion is formed. Alexis De Tocqueville observed, ‘Newspapers become more necessary as societies become more equal, and a multitude of individual opinions more diverse and less deferential'. He pointed out that in democratic societies many have different opinions, which get lost in the crowd, but that when newspapers held such ideas up for all to see, ‘all are immediately directed toward that light and those wandering spirits who had long sought each other in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.’

It is against this background that the media‘s relationship with contemporary opinion forming and politics has taken a new, and savage twist. The emergent communications revolution makes it urgent that we begin to be more aware about the role of the media in democracy. The public is busy building new networks. In John Lloyd’s challenging book, The Power and the Story, the contemporary media have become a threat to democracy rather than a means to democratic deliberation. Meanwhile, the political will to protect news and information as a public good has weakened, at least in America and much of Europe.

The changes over the last twenty years are clear, measurable, and perturbing. The public votes less and less and distrusts politics more, and despises politicians (if it thinks about them at all) even more than it used to. There has been a distinct generational shift. In the past people used to ‘mature’ into an interest in politics as they grew older; they appear to no longer do so. People increasingly fail to make any connection between these things that matter to them and the political institutions that manage them.

Meanwhile, the media have been happy to go along with the culture of ‘transparency’ for political actors, though not remotely prepared, with the possible exception of public service broadcasters, to expose their own decisions, predicament, choices or finances to any public scrutiny at all. While the public demands media scrutiny of politicians and political structures, media moguls want to feed audiences hungry for sexed-up, exciting stories. Politicians are increasingly ready to oblige the media, as evidence by for example, former cabinet ministers Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett, and as a consequence debasing political life in the eyes of the public.

As politicians disconnect, an open access media revolution is gathering pace. Traditional media forms face declining circulations, declining audiences and more insecure futures. The dominant worry is the same: how to relate to individualised audiences who spend more time communicating with each other, and less with the established media? Communications technologies have altered more rapidly in the last five years than since the beginning of broadcasting. At the same time the public has become more fragmented, less secure in its habits, living in more varied ways (and more and more of them living alone). People want to be heroes in their own story and are perhaps hungrier for more highly charged fun than before. They want to choose what they think in the same way that they want to down-load their own music selection on to their i-pods. The media response from music to publishing, from movies to games, from newspapers to broadcasting reflects an acute anxiety about audience ratings.

This is manifest firstly, in the emergence of opinion over reporting. But it is opinion that is devoid of political ideology. This twenty year old print media trend has been followed by television news, that has become more opinionated in a narrow sense too – now celebrity reporters ventriloquise politicians. Secondly, there has been the development of 24-hour news - a sadly repetitive and empty, format. Thirdly, has been the pursuit of detail without context as a substitute for ‘investigative’ journalism. So, we have become accustomed to getting our news on the cheap, which serves the purposes of elitist politicians well. Now, traditionally produced and financed news may be, like the dinosaurs, about to experience an evolutionary catastrophe. Indeed, it is the news vehicles that traditionally have provided the democratic glue, that depend most on adjudicating evidence and least on shouting, that are most threatened by the swift delivery of information on the Internet. The single most troubling problem in reporting, felt acutely in all those news organisations that attempt accurate, realistic scrutiny of contemporary life, is objectivity. In older, less fragmented political systems broadcasters often hid behind ‘balance’, claiming to report somewhere in the middle of a couple of competing ideologies. But this is no longer sustainable. Nevertheless, a new version of ‘balance’ remains a key task: how to attract and represent all the view points in a diverse society is more important than ever. Indeed, ‘objectivity’ even an approximation is an expensive process. When the media fail to scrutinise political decisions, society suffers.

Local political parties emerged to mobilise voters. Yet today local political party activity has declined as broadcasting offered political leaders the media means to communicate with voters over the heads of members of local political parties. For the media, the problem now is anybody listening? The BBC News website will get 10,000 messages on an average lunch time, but if a popular comedian dies, messages could increase 6-fold.

‘Citizen reporting’ is already transforming political coverage and thinking. But it is more investigative journalism that is needed on the front-line of the enlightenment project. It is about the attempt, even if always imperfect, to find out the truth, and we need it more in a more complex world. This requires professional journalistic skills. But instead journalists tend to work in packs. They report a consensus. It takes an unusual relationship between editor and journalists to enable reporting skills, experience, authority, knowledge (and perhaps temperament) to produce stories that get closer to the truth. Training more educated, more historically sensitive, more able journalists would help. Going out, talking, seeing, asking, evaluating, making sense, combined with a stroppy-minded scepticism is the basis of much that we need to cling onto. We also need to be alert to the wider culture in the media beyond newsrooms that shapes public comprehension and enthusiasm so powerfully. The form of news is weary. The impact of current conventions of political broadcasting, especially the political interview, and the changing conditions under which exploring a politicians’ views and policies are explored in public must be discussed.

There is a stealthy, swift, revolution taking place in the media, in politics and in the public: we must all self-consciously begin to ask what we can do to sustain our capacity to discuss together, in public, in a rational way, things that matter. Good reporting – however it develops in a brilliant moment of technological innovation – will keep the public whether local or international alert. It will hold governments, businesses and international agencies to account. It will also nurture intelligence. We have to get the right policies in place for ourselves and for the world. And our lucky, comfortable children will need every source of intelligence and reflection, and every skill to assess what is happening if they are going to tackle the future problems we leave them with – and all of the ones we have not yet imagined. Getting the media right is not a luxury. It is a necessity of everything else we have to do. The world is too dangerous a place – and the opportunities too exciting – for us to continue to censor thoughtfulness. But are we willing to pay the price?