AMID all the changes that are buffeting the profession of journalism as the digital age undergoes one revolution after another, investigative journalism will remain the one constant. Platforms will change, presentation is being revolutionised while news-gathering is finding vast new areas from where to harvest its content with the proliferation of social media. But the recent past has shown that investigative journalism has retained its ability to rock the established powers in profound ways.
The biggest investigative scoop of recent times was undoubtedly the Panama Papers leak, bringing down governments around the world and justifiably earning for the International Centre for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) a Pulitzer Prize.
And this is not the only example. The Dawn exclusive headlined, Act against militants or risk international isolation – the story that came to be famously (or infamously) called ‘Dawn leaks’ – created a national stir the likes of which journalism has rarely created in this country.
And, prior to that, the Dawn series of exclusives in collaboration with Wikileaks brought out important details of the war on terror, such as the fact that the drone attacks raining down on the tribal areas were coordinated with the military establishment.
In an era when the news profession is being permeated with commercial interests as well as planted news, and shaped powerfully by the new digital platforms that are ‘democratising’ the dissemination of opinion and information, investigative reporting has emerged as the most resilient and enduring part of the old world of journalism. In the future, too, it will remain the one guiding thread to connect the new journalism with the old. Investigative reporting has retained, if not increased, its significance for three primary reasons. First, the wide array of skills and competencies required to properly carry out investigative work means it can never be ‘democratised’ in the way more standard breaking news, and even more so, opinion, can be.
Second, even as the tools of communication proliferate around the world, it is possible to argue that transparency has not kept pace, and the centres of power have become more opaque even as the tools of surveillance available to them have increased. This increases the demand for investigative work, as was illustrated by the Panama Papers that shone a light on one of the most opaque corners of the world. It was also illustrated by the leaks of Edward Snowden that revealed how the new tools of communication are being turned into instruments of surveillance on a scale the world had never seen before.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, investigative journalism can hold powerful individuals and entities accountable in a way that the normal checks and balances of a democratic system are increasingly unable to. The Dawn stories on Bahria Town’s land acquisition practices, as well as about DHA Karachi, were prime examples in this regard.
The property market of Pakistan is arguably one of the most powerful, and opaque, enterprises in the country. Those at the pinnacle of this racket have a reach deep into the state as well as media with the massive marketing budgets that they control. Only an independently functioning news operation, shielded from the vested interests that otherwise permeate the news profession, could have commissioned and carried stories of that sort.
And the facts that were revealed through them, of large-scale evictions and dispossession of the poor from land that they had lived and worked on for generations to make room for elite housing needs was a rare example of how investigative journalism can bring to light the awful cruelties through which the perks of affluence are gathered.
Investigative journalism differs from its brethren in the breaking news and opinion department in a number of ways. The pursuit of breaking news revolves around gathering the data points needed to unearth the direction in which a large development is moving. Opinion operates in a bazaar where readers can flip through the works of one writer after another until they find someone who echoes their own prejudged notions of how things are. Its tools are rhetoric and the construction of narratives, and the opinion factory harvests facts selectively in order to fit them into a particular narrative. Skilled opinion writers use these tools with varying degrees of emphasis to build and grow their audience.
Investigative journalism, on the other hand, combines all these elements and requires more in the toolkit of the journalist. There is an element of storytelling involved without which investigative work loses its edge. Good storytelling involves connecting the dots, and the more dots that the journalist can bring forward, the more detailed the final story will be. Unearthing the dots with which a story is told requires skills that only journalists with enormous experience have. Any experienced journalist will tell you that the world is littered with dots and data points, but not all of them are reliable, and even fewer of them tell a story that is worth the tell.
In the case of the Dawn investigative story cited above the biggest challenge was verifying the facts of what actually transpired in the meeting upon which the story was based. “We had to check, crosscheck and recheck what we were told by various people who were part of that conversation,” says Cyril Almeida, the reporter who filed the scoop. “Eventually we ran only with those facts that were narrated to us by a number of different people who attended that meeting. When a number of people recall the same thing from an encounter or a conversation, only then can it be considered reliable.”
The editor stood by the story to the very end; first in an editorial then in a subsequent Editor’s Note. In both of these it was emphasised that the story ran only after verification from multiple sources. This emphasis was necessary because the story was being perceived as a ‘leak’ instead of an ‘investigation’. In a leak, of which there is no shortage in the media, one source tells a reporter something and that one piece of information is run as it has been directly conveyed. In an investigation, such information or lead is crosschecked and verified from other participants.
That process alone can be a big challenge because people can be difficult to reach, or reluctant to talk, or can even give misleading information. Crosschecking, which is at the heart of investigative work, is actually an arduous process and only journalists who have actually performed this task know how intricate and complex it can become, especially in a story which has no hard records or data to use as its raw material, relying exclusively on the recollection of individuals.
It was the same with the story headlined, Greed unlimited. That story was more complex in its contours than the one on acting against militants, and had its dangers even if it did not ignite the fierce backlash that the other story did. Naziha Syed Ali, one of the two co-authors of that story, says their challenge was verification of the facts that they were receiving, which was made difficult because “we were receiving contradictory information from different sources”.
She underlines some of the dangers involved while working on the two stories that she co-authored, the one on Bahria Town and the other on DHA, since they had to interact with the principals in both investigations, but could not give away that they were working on this story. “Since the land mafia was involved, it was likely that they would try to stop us from further working on the story if they found out,” she recalls.
The conversations that take place during verification and crosschecking of details in an investigative story can be enormously delicate. One has to convince or persuade the other party to reveal key information, but reporters cannot give away what they already know, or what they will be doing with the information being furnished.
This is how investigative work differs from leaks, which are more routine and often run without much verification or building the context around the leak to develop a story. As such, investigative reporting is the highest form of journalism. It stands above the pursuit of breaking news and the purveyance of opinion, because the journalist has to marshal up skills and techniques from a wide range before completing the story. It takes the skills of a detective, of forensic examination of data, a wide network of contacts through whom material can be checked and verified, as well as the command of the art of storytelling to be successful.
One critical weakness inherent in investigative work is that it requires time. Investigative reporting cannot be done on a 24-hour news cycle, nor can it be used to fill the pages of a daily newspaper. As newsroom resources come under pressure in the years to come, investigative journalism is likely to feel the pinch more than the others because in the new age, quantity is winning out over quality. Yet the irony is precisely in this, that investigative journalism is what can secure the future of news organisations more than anything else.
This is the fine line into the future that Dawn has begun to walk over the last decade, as the newspaper becomes known for more investigative scoops that challenge the powers of the status quo. In the old days it was enough for a newspaper to simply carry reliable information, but in the years to come, for journalism to matter, it will be necessary to go beyond and unearth the messier reality operating behind the scenes.
The writer is a member of staff.
This story is part of a series of special reports under the banner of '70 years of Pakistan and Dawn.' Read the special report here.