Does investigative reporting deter corruption?

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from the 1896 mural, Corrupt Legislation, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, David Kaplan, the director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, argued that we can make a more effective case for investigative reporting if we explained more forcefully the good that it does. After all, investigative reporting is costly and risky, and as the resources for it dry up, we need to show it’s worth the investment of time and money. The evidence is there, he said in a recent post, citing a recent Transparency International survey of 3,000 businessmen in 30 countries, the majority of whom ranked investigative reporting as the most effective anti-corruption deterrent.

Businessmen are supposed to be realists. So it’s quite astonishing that, as the TI survey showed, they’re putting more faith in journalism’s power to counter corruption than in national anti-bribery laws and international conventions. Is there in fact empirical evidence for such faith? Or are the businessmen not so much impressed by the power of reporting as they are cynical about the effectiveness of anti-corruption laws?

Since the 1990s, academics as well as organizations like the World Bank Institute and the UNDP have run regression analyses using TI’s Corruption Perception Index and Freedom House’s freedom of the press ratings. The data have consistently shown that for the most part, countries with a freer press have less corrupt governments or, to be more precise, governments perceived to be less corrupt. Thus, Daniel Kaufman, the World Bank Institute’s director former director for governance, stresses the importance of  a free press and of investigative reporting in particular:

Basically, the capacity of some countries of engaging in a freer way in full disclosure through the media, coupled with the capacity of undertaking investigative journalism, can make a huge difference. That raises enormously the reputational risk and, therefore, the reputational cost for the corporate sector of engaging in these practices. Similarly, it raises the costs for the public sector and the politicians.

The Institute’s conclusions, however. are based mainly on survey data; that is, on the perception of, rather than actual, corruption, which is difficult to measure. Moreover, it’s hard to isolate the impact of a free press or watchdog reporting from other factors that may be linked to the control of corruption, such as independent judiciaries, respect for civil liberties, and the strength of civil societies and political parties. Academic  studies have found that countries with independent courts and responsive bureaucracies also tend to be less corrupt.

This is hardly a surprising insight. We know that watchdog reporting can be most effective in countries where there are independent courts, responsive governments and empowered citizens. Without them, the work that journalists do is unlikely to lead to reforms. Russian journalists, for example, can publicize corruption at the highest levels, and they have, but that has not improved governance under Vladimir Putin. The same can be said of countries like Azerbaijan, or perhaps even Malaysia or Thailand. Individual stories may cause a policy reversal or drive a corrupt official out of office, but it’s generally hard to hold political or bureaucratic elites accountable if they enjoy impunity. How many times have I heard journalists complain that their exposés founder on the shoals of public and state indifference? That the politicians whom they’ve proven guilty of malfeasance are elected to office again and again?

This is not to say that watchdog reporting has no impact. We can muster impressive anecdotal evidence to show its power since Watergate and beyond. If we are to make an argument for investigative reporting’s prophylactic effects, however, we need to understand more fully what makes it effective as an anti-corruption mechanism. Under what circumstances does it succeed as a deterrent? Is it enough to have a community of committed muckrakers? Do exposés – and the threat of media exposure – suffice to hold governments accountable? In a paper published a dozen years ago, the World Bank Institute said that investigative reporting promotes good governance by:

      • Investigating and exposing corrupt officials;
      • Prompting investigations of official bodies;
      • Reinforcing the work and legitimacy of anti-corruption bodies;
      • Helping shape public opinion against ‘sleaze in government;
      • Pressuring for changes in laws and regulations;
      • Prompting a preemptive responsefrom government, when it anticipates adverse publicity.

This point of view sees watchdog reporting as a catalyst. Exposure journalism does not work in isolation but as part of an ecosystem of accountability; that is, a network of institutions than can check on power. This view acknowledges that a crusading press can push for reforms, but journalists by themselves cannot bring about change if government institutions are impervious to exposure or the public is unwilling or unable to press for change. The truth is that it is unrealistic to expect citizens to take to the streets and demand that heads roll every time there is a big journalistic exposé. Citizens weigh competing claims: oftentimes corrupt officials are voted into office not because voters are uninformed but because they get patronage and other benefits from dishonest politicians.

More broadly, the impact of watchdog journalism is blunted by ineffective governments, bureaucratic cultures resistant to change, courts incapable of punishing wrongdoers, and a disempowered or disinterested public. In addition, corruption is remarkably resilient because, as academics Benjamin Olken and Rohini Pande pointed out in a 2011 paper, officials have become adept at substituting alternate forms of malfeasance or otherwise adapting to reforms so they can continue to benefit from graft.

I agree that we need to make the case for investigative reporting. But we must be careful we don’t overstate our claims about its social impact. We also need to argue more convincingly that muckraking helps build the free press as a democratic institution. Determined digging forces journalists to sharpen research and reporting skills. Carefully researched, high-impact investigations can build the media’s street cred, especially where cynicism and apathy rule. By constantly demanding information, investigative journalists accustom officials to an inquisitive press. Over the long term, the press as an institution becomes stronger and a culture of official accountability takes root. Investigative reporting’s greatest impact may not be in the number of heads that have rolled as a consequence of exposure, although that is always nice and a great morale booster for muckrakers. It may be longer term – beyond the lifespan of donor funding cycles. It’s in helping build a culture
of accountability, one exposé at a time.

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4 Comments on “Does investigative reporting deter corruption?”

  1. sapitosetty says:

    Nice use of the term ecosystem. To expand the biological metaphor, law enforcement agencies and legal complaints are like specialized predators that will capture a few types of prey quite reliably, but will ignore everything else. The press, without a clear legal mandate, gets to chase whatever may appear unjust, or may simply make a good story. We are omnivores. So we can cross jurisdictional lines and otherwise find problems that the law isn’t yet set up to handle. As you say, it’s all necessary.

  2. says:

    [...] Does investigative reporting deter corruption? | WatchDog Watcher April 1, 2013 [...]

  3. [...] a better case for the impact of investigative journalism in deterring corruption; Sheila Coronel commented on her own blog that, much as we should defend the need for investigative journalism, we should be [...]

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