March 8, 2017

In 1985, two scholars, James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, tried to sort out the philosophical and practical differences between beat reporting and investigative journalism. Editors of a certain vintage were known to intone “all reporting is investigative.”

While true on the surface, that aphorism hides a crucial distinction. Anyone who has worked at a news organization more than a New York Times-minute understands the practical and cultural differences between covering a beat and launching an investigation. Those differences are more important than ever as journalists of every stripe try to make sense of their duties in covering the fledgling Trump presidency.

Should the beat reporters who cover the presidency today be governed by the same standards and practices that influenced the work of those who explained Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama and the two Bushes? Or did the political world tilt in 2016 in a way that made old values and practices ineffective, if not obsolete?

To grapple with these questions, I decided to return to Ettema and Glasser. The title of their essay is a mash-up of philosophy and reporting: “On the Epistemology of Investigative Journalism.” If you have read this far – and don’t know piss from epistemology — not to worry. The Greek word ‘episteme’ means ‘knowledge.’ So epistemology is that field of thinking that concerns itself with knowledge and evidence: How we know, and how we know what we know?

How do scientists know? What constitutes evidence in the law? What do we mean when we say that something is “factual” or “untrue?” Can we believe the evidence of our senses? While attention to these questions can lead a student or scholar down a deep and winding hole, it can also lead to practical and critical distinctions in academic fields and professions.

Let me introduce you to Ettema and Glasser by quoting a passage that differentiates two crucial and traditional modes of reportage:

While the knowledge claims of the daily reporter are pre-justified by the context in which they arise, the knowledge claims of the investigative reporter and his colleagues are not prejustified in this way. Indeed, their investigation into crime and corruption usually arise outside of the news net and may cite bureaucratically incredible sources.

We find, however, that this investigative reporter has worked out for himself an elaborate process which justifies to himself and his colleagues the knowledge claims embodied in his stories. This process underscores the active stance of the investigative reporter, who must establish credibility, versus the passive stance of the daily reporter, who merely accepts credibility.

Stick with me. Here’s how I think this works:

The reporter assigned to cover the White House takes on some bureaucratically significant tasks, such as talking to credible sources, attending press briefings, and following the president to certain events. He or she is “passive,” but only in the sense that the coverage is led by the words and activities of the president and members of the administration.

This work by the beat writer does not need to be “justified” in advance. The requirements of self-government drive the work. The ethic of this work, argue the two scholars, is amoral. That is to say, the work does not presuppose that the actions to be covered are good or bad, that the key players are saints or sinners.

The craft of investigative reporting is different. Its ethic is transparently moral. Reporters must “pre-justify” what may turn out to be months of work by the revelation of corruption and wrongdoing. Investigations require a high-stakes investment of resources, with consequences that might lead to the reform of an institution, for example, or the impeachment of a president.

No movie reveals this distinction better than “Spotlight.” A four-person team works in a corner of the Boston Globe newsroom apart from the beat writers and editors. When the new editor, Marty Baron, comes to town, he starts raising questions about how the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church should be covered. The staff reacts by saying that the news of the scandal “has been covered” or “is being covered” by the standard methods of Metro reporting. Under Baron’s prodding, the Spotlight team begins to see the crimes of abusive priests as part of a deeper, more systematic form of corruption.

How does an investigative team reach a level of confidence in the evidence (remember epistemology?) that shows corruption that is worth pursuing in depth? Here is Ettema and Glasser: “This process of justification is perhaps best conceptualized as a set of intellectual exercises which the reporter, often in concert with his colleagues, goes through at key points in the investigation. These are: 1) Screening the tips. 2) Weighing the evidence. 3) Fitting the pieces. 4) Evaluating the story” (that is, challenging the premises and evidence to make sure they hold up.)”

While not a perfect description of the investigative process, those steps seem to fit how reporters on the Spotlight team did their best work and, to cite another famous example, how Woodward and Bernstein helped expose Watergate.

It must be said at this point that the distinction between beat reporting and investigative reporting is not absolute. In practice, especially at times of diminishing news resources, they overlap. The distinction also does not account for other expressions of the journalism craft, from immersive storytelling to opinion writing. Nor does it take into account the recent evolution of fact-checking as a more systematic journalism practice.

Here is the question confronting journalism — and the nation — today. To what extent do we want reporters covering the presidency to act like amoral chroniclers of daily news and information, doing their best to explain what is going on? And to what extent do we want them to act with the moral propulsion of investigative reporters, focusing their attention on corruption, lies, and the abuse of power?

The many takes on these questions are contentious and seem to fall into two categories. One I will call the “Keep On Keepin’ On” school; the other I will call the “Disinfecting Light” school.

The first captures what I have heard from editorial leaders such as Marty Baron and Dean Baquet. They seem to be arguing for a doubling-down of the strongest contemporary standards and practices, where both beat reporting and investigations have their place. Now that American democracy and institutions are under stress, the argument goes, journalists should stick to their enduring values and time-tested practices. But don’t stop covering the beat, especially when deprived of conventional access.

An age of “alternative facts” and “fake news” has generated talk of an alternative approach to covering the presidency. It goes this way: The practices of the Trump administration represent such a divergent paradigm of how government bureaucracies should act and speak, that they make traditional beat reporting an empty practice. “Stop covering press conferences” is one suggested solution. “Ban lying propagandists from certain news media programs,” is another.

In this view, journalists begin coverage with the idea that germs are infecting the body politic and that coverage should shine a “disinfecting light.”

Beneath these extreme suggestions lies a legitimate concern, that the public reciting and repetition of lies, distortions, and conspiracy theories give them credence — even when they will be debunked by countervailing sources and independent fact-checkers.

The problem of how beat reporters should work — and when investigations are called for — is nothing new. Nor does it concern just the federal government. How many city hall reporters have had to cover the mischief of mayors and their corrupt collaborators? Those beat reporters who covered the likes of Mayor Daley in Chicago, Mayor Rizzo in Philadelphia and Mayor Cianci in Providence could still depend upon an access to knowledgeable sources and reliable evidence (we’re back to epistemology!) that allowed them to perform their civic duty.

The question on the table remains: Are we seeing something recognizable in the political culture emerging from the Trump presidency, or is it something so different, so detached from the standards of reliable civic discourse, that a new set of journalistic practices must be formed to meet it?

I am not one of those scholars or practitioners inclined to profess “There is no such thing as objectivity” and then wait for applause for an original thought. I am a member of the school that asserts that the word has many meanings and applications in journalism — some of them in conflict with each other. I adhere to the argument made by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach that “objectivity” is one label for a discipline of verification designed to help neutralize the subjectivity of the reporter.

Such a notion, however, depends upon institutions who stand (on one leg perhaps) on “objectivism,” a world where things can be known, proven, and tested.

As I write this, news organizations are building and directing resources to cover the words and actions of the Trump administration. This work, while always vital, seems to come from a renewed sense of mission and purpose. In the end, teams will comprise all types of journalists, from beat writers to investigative reporters to columnists to storytellers.

On many occasions, the forms of expression will cross boundaries. But those boundaries are still important. There was a time, not long ago, when a city hall reporter was prohibited from writing a column about the actions of the mayor. Contemporary reporters are sometimes scolded for the expression of opinion on social media.

I would argue that if we are going to cross boundaries, let’s not be like those American hikers who inadvertently crossed into Iraq and found themselves in prison. Let’s understand the differences between beat work and investigative work, and honor them. And if we decide to mix and match — or explore new territory — let’s do it with a purpose.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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