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Investigative Journalism

A journalist is more than a messenger. Though a reporter’s main target is to provide information about what goes on in the world, a journalist is free to choose the angle and approach of his report. In general, journalism is supposed to be objective and well balanced when focussing on an issue.

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Investigating Journalism

Investigative Journalism

However a journalist is well aware of the impact a good story may have, and many reporters want their work to make a difference. They want to provide information to the public about shady business in the community so things can come out in the light and eventually be put right, either it be corrupt politicians or unethical proceedings in a company. Not unlike a detective the reporter follows leads and makes inquiries, hence this kind of reporting is usually referred to as investigative journalism.


Such reporters may work on a tip from an informer or a whistle blower inside the system. An important clue is that they will not have to reveal their sources, not even to the police if it should come to that. The classic example of such journalism is the Watergate-affair in the early 1970s. Two reporters from Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward revealed that during an election campaign the Democrats’ election headquarters (in the Watergate building) was broken into by the Republicans to get hand on some important documents. There was a cover-up directed by the Nixon administration that also was revealed. The case escalated into scandalous proportions and the rest is history; President Nixon had to step down from office in 1974.

This kind of journalism requires determination and courage, because such reporters will certainly encounter resistance from inside the system; many people will of course see it in their interest to stop them. It can be risky business to speak up for ethical principles in the corridors of power. The Watergate scandal wrote Bernstein and Woodward into the history books and they were rightly credited for courageous journalism. In today’s media several reporters work with the same agenda, but perhaps with a different approach.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s documentaries are both acclaimed and criticised, but his work certainly has put important matters on the agenda. One of his films even took home the Golden Palm in the Cannes film festival. American weapon legislation (“Bowling for Columbine”), conspiracy theories within the Bush administration (“Fahrenheit 9/11”) and the American health system (“Sicko”) are famous examples of Michael Moore’s documentation. He is known for a somewhat provoking and direct style, and he tends to overexpose his targets in a way that may keep people from taking him seriously.

Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux has a very different approach. He is a modest and polite person who wins the confidence of his targets because of his open and somewhat naïve approach. By exercising his personal charm and asking the correct questions, doors are opened and his objects step out and reveal themselves and what they stand for. He has made documentaries and inside-stories from environments that usually are not covered by an ordinary journalist. He has visited Neo-Nazi groups in America, interviewed paedophiles in prison, exposed nationalists in South Africa (where he actually was threatened by his object on camera); he has visited brothels and even undergone cosmetic surgery to get inside a dubious industry. He has a very clever and personal way of making his objects open up and talk on camera.

Günther Wallraff

The German writer and journalist Günther Wallraff is another famous profile in investigative journalism. His method is to get first-hand information by getting inside the environment he wants to investigate. He works undercover and will for example get a job inside a business he intends to reveal. His inside information will then be published in book or as a series of articles. His uncovering of the methods inside the so-called coloured press in Germany is one of his many crusades. It caused big uproar, and he was eventually sued by the Bild Zeitung. He has been threatened on his life many times and has to live incognito with address unknown.
Investigative journalism may seem to have a somewhat fishy way of operating with undercover reporters and secret sources. But hunting for and revealing questionable affairs in business or political life must be a priority for an open society, and these investigating journalists work to make a difference by disclosing dodgy dealings and tricky business in our society.

Comprehension and Discussion

  1. How would you define “investigative journalism”?
  2. Why is it accepted that reporters keep their sources secret?
  3. How is the Watergate-affair a good example of the power of investigative journalism?
  4. If you have seen a Michael Moore film, describe his approach and appearance.
  5. Why have these investigating journalists been threatened?
  6. Would you say that investigating journalists are objective?


  1. The word “approach” is used many times in this article – how would you define it in this context?
  2. Rewrite the sentence “The case escalated into scandalous proportions” into a simpler sentence saying the same.
  3. Explain what happens when you are “sued”.
  4. What does it mean to live “incognito”?
Suggested key
  1. In this context “approach” means how the reporter takes up the issue, his style and presentation.
  2. A simpler version could be: “The case became so big it turned into a scandal.”
  3. To be sued means to be charged with something and taken to court.
  4. “Incognito” is Latin and means unknown or anonymous.

Further Research

Go on the net and find more facts about one of the persons/topics below. Afterwards sit in pairs and give a brief oral presentation.
  • Watergate
  • Michael Moore
  • Louis Theroux
  • Günther Wallraff
Last updated 05/13/2018
Text: Jan-Louis Nagel (CC BY-SA)

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