Is history repeating itself?

Those of us old enough to remember the economic situation of the early 1980s may be wondering: is history repeating itself in the way the media are valuing investigative journalism?

The 1970s witnessed an explosion of investigative work. The social forces of the ‘60s put many people into motion, and the public was growing increasingly skeptical about governments and institutions. Various alternative media institutions demonstrated that intensive inquiry could lead to revealing exposes. According to journalism professor Mark Feldstein’s muckraking model, the demand for investigative reporting was increased by an aroused public hungry for exposes in times of turmoil. Supply was spurred on by new technologies and media competition. Then along came Watergate, and the idea that a couple of young reporters relentlessly working a story could bring down a president. Newspapers formed teams, television networks created programs, and investigative journalism became the darling of Hollywood. Time magazine declared 1974 The Year of the Muckrakers.

The growth curve seemed limitless, but the new decade brought harder economic times. Newspaper chains began consolidating, shutting down the Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune. Budget cuts and hiring freezes became the norm. Investigative reporting, seen as expensive and time-consuming by some media outlets, began to suffer. “Investigative reporting on the country’s dailies, always in fragile health, is wheezing worse than ever as the strangle is put to editorial budgets,” wrote Barry Zwicker in the Fall 1982 issue of the CIJ (Centre for Investigative Journalism) Bulletin. In fact, the CIJ dubbed its 1983 conference “Hard News: Hard Times.” The result of all this downsizing was a process that can still be felt in many organizations today. Fewer reporters began to cover legislatures, city halls, Parliament and other key institutions. Decreased scrutiny inevitably means less enterprise and fewer opportunities to learn the truth about important events as they are happening.

The cutbacks weren’t universal. But as companies in other industries have learned, cutting capacity in critical areas can often impede the process of building back that capacity when conditions improve. By the mid 1980s, economic conditions in Canada had strengthened, but many newspapers that had curtailed investigative work did not reinvest back to the original levels.

The atmosphere today feels similar. With the current economic crisis, some local television stations across North America are downsizing and eliminating their I-Teams. These teams have been a regular staple of many local television stations for more than 25 years. They vary greatly in quality. Some do genuinely important enterprise and investigative work, while others employ gimmicks and chase after easy-to-get gotcha stories. But they all try to achieve something beyond conventional, daily reporting. Many newspapers as well are concentrating more on breaking and daily news than investigative work. It’s a trend that is prompting some experienced investigative reporters to leave such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal in search of a Plan B.

The American Journalism Review has a good column on this trend in its latest issue. Bill Lord of WJLA in Washington, DC expresses a common sentiment as he justifies cutting back on his I-Team. “I’ve got to do newscasts before I can do specialty items,” Lord tells the AJR.

But can investigative work really be seen as a “specialty item?” Holding the powerful to account is a constant need for journalism, not something to be dropped when economic times get tough. Arguably it’s at times like these when hard-hitting, watchdog journalism is needed most. I have heard many American journalists criticize themselves for not being tough enough in their scrutiny of government following 9/11. There have been many mea culpas from the press for not investigating more thoroughly the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It’s crucial that investigative reporting take place at the moment events are unfolding, not in hindsight or years after the fact. The public demands and deserves a media that is constantly looking out for its interests, challenging conventional wisdoms, holding power to account.

The situation isn’t entirely bleak. The Toronto Star has a full-time investigative unit of five journalists. The Globe and Mail has a talented group of investigative reporters uncovering important elements in many stories. The CBC conducts strong investigative work in its news service, in many of its regional centres, and through current affairs programs like the fifth estate and Marketplace. CTV continues to pursue investigative work at W-FIVE. Journalists at many other media outlets across the country, both in the mainstream and alternative media, do important work. But the economic pressure on media institutions is posing a challenge to this form of journalism. Individual media outlets will all be faced with choices in this regard over the coming months and years. They should all consider the history of the early 1980s, and take care not to make decisions that will be difficult to reverse. The AJR column mentioned earlier has one last quote worth repeating. It’s from WFOR-TV, a Miami-based station that maintains a nine-member I-Team. “We feel that, now more than ever, we need investigative reporting,” news director Adrienne Roark said. “It’s what sets you apart from all the other noise out there.”