by Project for Excellence in Journalism
Though all reporting involves investigation, what we have come to understand as investigative journalism adds a moral dimension. It engages the public to come to judgment about the disclosure and implies that the news organization considers it important - worthy of special effort. In that sense, investigative reporting involves not simply casting light on a subject, but usually making a more prosecutorial case that some- thing is wrong. Here journalists should be careful they have enough evidence to do so, especially since often pieces can be structured as either exposes or news stories.
When questions arose about a state medical examiner failing to investigate thoroughly the conduct of President Clinton's mother in a wrongful-death case (she was a nurse), the Los Angeles Times wrote the story as an expose. The story suggested that Clinton as governor "refused for several years to dismiss a state medical examiner whose controversial decrees included a ruling that helped Clinton's mother ... avoid scrutiny in the death of a patient." The problem was, the story was inherently confusing, technical, and difficult to decide conclusively. Clinton, for instance, having been defeated for reelection as governor, was out of office at the time of the incident involving his mother. A good many reporters at the Times, even some involved in reporting it, were strongly divided over the piece's fairness and argued that it be written as a feature, not an expose. The whole controversy could have been simply avoided if the paper had written the story another way. The Times failed to understand that an expose is in effect a prosecutor's brief and the case it sets forth must be unambiguous; if the story does not meet this test, it should be written as something else.
The incident points out an important issue that arises with the investigative model: the news outlet is taking an implied stance on the issue, that some wrongdoing has occurred. That is why investigative journalism has been called advocacy reporting, or as reporter Les Whitten called it, "reporting with a sense of outrage," and why the acronym for the professional association called Investigative Reporters and Editors spells out the word ire. Because what the investigative journalist discloses may lead to loss of reputation or change the flow of public events, it carries a greater weight of responsibility, not only in verification of fact but in sharing information about the nature of the sources of that information.