Opera, game theory and investigative journalism

Will investigative journalism be like opera? Not in the sense that journalists act like divas. Nor in the sense that they play to an effete and aging audience (I hope not!).  I mean in the sense that opera has always been subsidized, has always  depended on wealthy patrons for its sustenance. This idea has been getting credence in the U.S. recently, as it becomes clear that American newsrooms can no longer afford to invest the resources they used to in accountability reporting.

The presumption in the U.S. is that profitable news organizations  are the natural  home of investigative reporting. After all, the monopoly profits that newspapers made allowed them to invest in watchdog reporting.  The worry now  is that if for-profit media can no longer live up to that name, then accountability journalism will wither and die.

Elsewhere, that has certainly not been the case. Muckraking journalism has emerged under a variety of market conditions. For sure, it has thrived most successfully in the heyday of American newspapers. But then many countries that have thriving newspaper markets — India is a good example — don’t have an investigative tradition.

The global picture is a mixed one. In northern Europe, investigative reporting has taken root not in the commercial press but in public broadcasting, with its strong public-interest ethos. A study by VVOJ, the  association of Dutch-Flemish investigative journalists’ association in fact shows that profitable news organizations aren’t necessarily the most conducive to muckraking. “Both within countries and cross-country comparisons, there are no obvious relations between budget and investigative journalism,” said Dick van Eijk, the editor of the study.

In some places, the most exciting investigative work is being done by  the small, struggling news organizations like the muckraking newsmagazine Tehelka in India and the pioneering news site Malaysiakini, based in Kuala Lumpur.

No doubt profits bring independence as well as the capacity to fund muckraking reporting. In theory, forprofit, privately owned media can support production of exposés because of their resources and their autonomy from government. But the reality is that they always do not do so.

And there may be sound economic arguments for such reluctance. Using game theory, Indian economist Samarth Vaidya  posits that older, bigger, and more established media companies will tend to undertake investigations only when the expected gain from exposure is large enough to justify the expenditure. On the other hand, new and emerging media entities that have little to lose are more likely to take the risk on muckraking reporting that allows them to establish a foothold, particularly in nascent media markets.

That was certainly true in the case of Hu Shuli, the muckraking journalist who founded a financial newsmagazine that  tested the limits of what was possible publish in China’s tightly controlled press. But that seems to be true even in more mature media markets. A study done in the 1990s by  Swedish editor Torbjorn von Krog concluded that in Europe, newsrooms that were in bad shape financially tended to do more substantial investigative reporting. One reason could be that they needed to compete with the market leaders.

But game theory alone cannot explain the impulses that drive accountability reporting. What compels journalists and news organizations to uncover wrongdoing  is not always  the prospect of revenue or reputational gain. There’s the outrage factor: a sense that someone should expose the bastards and not let them get away. There’s also frustration. My colleagues and I formed the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989 mainly because, even with a newly free press, we couldn’t do probing reporting in existing newsrooms, which mainly focused on the superficial and sensational.

In the case of the U.S., a community of journalists trained in the ethos and methods of watchdog journalism found themselves in the first decade of the 21st century adrift in eviscerated or now nonexistent newsrooms. So they struck off on their own, forming nonprofit investigative reporting centers. There are about 75 such centers in the country, by one  count, most of them set up only in the last three to five years.

Some of the most exciting investigations are being done in these centers, often in collaboration with traditional news organizations. If they succeed, then the US paradigm for watchdog reporting would have been stood on its head. The umbilical cord that linked investigative reporting to profitable news organizations would be severed. Instead, its sustenance would depend on  public or philantropic support. Just like opera.

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