Investigative journalism and the academy

12 November 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Expensive, risky and, in many instances, unuseable: investigative journalism has never been easy to sell to nervous media executives. But in the current environment of cutbacks, it’s becoming less and less attractive. Might university-based centres provide a future for investigative journalism?  Madeleine Barwick spoke to the Director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at UTS Professor Wendy Bacon to find out.

What is the role of universities in supporting investigative journalism?

If you look at the United States, you will find that the majority of the big foundations and centres are based at universities. In fact, non-profit investigative journalism has been happening in universities for a long time.  I have always held the view that that if you are a journalist at a university, you should still practice journalism within the university. As journalists and academics we should still be able to produce journalism, especially investigative journalism. It is research in university terms, because the role of academics is to develop new knowledge.

A good argument for universities in supporting independent journalism is that there is a serious lack of diversity in Australian media, and we in universities should try and support independent media any way we can, i.e. through, for example, partnerships with independent publications such as Crikey and New Matilda. People now see being in a university as a viable option for a journalist, unlike in the past when journalism educators were seen as second best journalists.

Furthermore, one way in which the Centre for Independent Journalism is helping to create a culture of investigative journalism in Australia is through a National Journalism conference we’re going to have at the end of of July next year, which will develop a network of investigative journalists.

Universities are ideal for investigative journalism as they are places for critical enquiry. Now, with web publishing it is also a lot easier to get stories out there. Universities can provide a model that can support investigative journalism and, as academics, we should be supporting it too. So much pressure is on academics to do the traditional academic practices such as writing peer-reviewed articles, which makes academics lose their edge as journalists. What we as academics should be doing is making a contribution to investigative journalism.

What are the benefits of doing investigative journalism at a university?

You are not bound by the same constraints that journalists are working for the rest of the media. You are free to pursue stories of your own choosing as you don’t have to worry about an editor saying that they don’t approve of a story you’re writing. For example, I did a story for the Sydney Morning Herald on the Roseanne Catt case and followed the case for about 8 or 9 years, which I never would have been able to focus on if working for a large media organisation.

One of the best models for doing investigative journalism at a university is through a centre within the university, using the facilities of the university. The way to do this could be to bring in freelance journalists to do stories, and then try and sell them to the media. It is tough, especially in Australia, but it is a model I am interested in developing further through the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism as I believe the time is right for it.

The four models for investigative journalism in universities are through academics doing investigations, students doing investigations alone, group collaborations such as one students did on plastic bags and Spinning Media, and journalism academics and students working on individual stories together. I used this model in my latest series for Crikey on foreign aid.

How you teach investigative journalism in a university?

We usually have about three or four investigative journalism classes a year. At the moment, we have about 40 students studying investigative journalism and students who study have been published in a variety of media, such as New Matilda, Crikey, the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Some of our students recently broke a story about illegal surcharges on restaurant menus, which was published by the Sydney Morning Herald. Also, students collaborated with staff on the Spinning the Media story about PR and media releases in Australia newspapers which was published in Crikey. In addition, students collaborated with journalism academics on a story for Crikey about foreign aid. To do this we analysed the whole governmental aid contracts that governments were getting. Students working on the story got a byline and the opportunity to work on a real investigative story.

We also now offer a Graduate Certificate in Investigative Journalism, which is aimed at working journalists who may not have learned the skills for investigative journalism but are interested in developing them.

Why is it important to teach investigative journalism to university students?

It is important that journalism students know how to probe, to question media releases, and to be critical. The problem with a lot of journalism education is that it is built around writing news articles — for example teaching the inverted pyramid style of reporting. It is more important for the 25 universities in Australia to build the capacity for students to develop critical and assertive skills as journalists.

Madeleine Barwick is completing her honours thesis in Journalism at La Trobe University