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What is investigative journalism?

In the view of Journalismfund.eu there is no final definition of investigative journalism. On the contrary – it should be a vivid process to strive for investigative journalism and any definition must be scrutinised over and over in an ongoing debate among journalists. However we would like to contribute to this debate by adding some crucial points from several parts of the world.

Nils Hanson

The leader of Swedish TV's investigative magazine Uppdrag Granskning, Nils Hanson, has the following definitions on investigative journalism published in his book Grävande Journalistik from 2009:

  • Critical approach - focus is on what does not work and in one way or another can be described as anomaly.
  • Important subject - only a question of importance for the common good can motivate the amount of effort and resources, that very well may have to be invested in the research as well as the criticism uttered in the publication.
  • Own initiative - journalists/editors decide, what is important.
  • Own research - the reporter gathers information and documents, sometimes in spite of tough resistance.
  • Own analysis - the information gathered and the documents are evaluated. An expert can assist in the analysis, but publication does not depend on what someone says.
  • Exclusivity - the public learns important information, that else would not have been in the open.


“Investigative journalism is critical and thorough journalism,” according to the definition of the Dutch-Flemish association for Investigative Journalism, VVOJ.
Critical means that journalism is not merely passing on ‘news’ that already exist. It implies news, which would not be available without any journalistic intervention. This can be done by creating new facts, but also through re-interpretation or correlation of facts already at hand. Thorough means that one makes an own substantial effort, either in quantitative terms – much time spent in research, many sources consulted, etc. - in qualitative terms - sharp questions formulated, new approaches used, etc., or a combination of both.
Based on this definition we discern three types of investigative journalism. Incidentally these categories might overlap.
  • Uncover scandals. Aimed at detecting violations of laws, rules or norms of decency, by organisations or individuals.
  • Review of policies or functioning of government, businesses and other organisations.
  • Draw attention to social, economic, political and cultural trends. Aimed at detecting changes in society.

Center for Investigative Journalism

According to the Center for Investigative Journalism at London City University, ”UK and US colleagues tendto define IJ in its moral and ethical purpose and obligation, rather than as a slightly more serious version of ordinary news reporting.“

In the service of the Public Interest, our purpose is to uncover corruption, injustice, maladministration and lies.  As a duty to readers and viewers as well as self-protection in a hostile legal environment, investigative journalism seeks above all to tell the documented truth in depth and without fear or favour. It is to provide a voice for those without one and to hold the powerful to account. It's to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Is it critical and thorough?  Yes, but investigative journalism is skeptical and keen to bring information that someone wants to be keep secret, into the public light.

Sheila Coronel

Sheila Coronel from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University in New York in her book Digging Depper from 2009 has five definitions of, what investigative journalism is NOT, and three of what it is:

Investigative journalism IS NOT:

  • Daily reporting
  • Leak journalism
  • Single source reporting
  • Misuse of information
  • Paparazzi journalism

Investigative journalism IS

  • Watchdog journalism
  • Exposing how laws and regulations are violated
  • Holding the powerful accountable

Mark Lee Hunter

A study on investigative journalism by Mark Lee Hunter called Story-Based Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists defines investigative journalism by delineating it from 'conventional' journalism:

"Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents."

"Conventional news reporting depends largely and sometimes entirely on materials provided by others (such as police, governments, companies, etc.); it is fundamentally reactive, if not passive. Investigative reporting, in contrast, depends on material gathered or generated through the reporter’s own initiative (which is why it is often called “enterprise reporting”)."

"Conventional news reporting aims to create an objective image of the world as it is. Investigative reporting uses objectively true material – that is, facts that any reasonable observer would agree are true – toward the subjective goal of reforming the world. That is not a license to lie in a good cause. It is a responsibility, to learn the truth so that the world can change."

Feel free to contribute to the debate and send your comment to info [at] journalismfund [dot] eu