This short post explains why we think the methods of investigative journalism might be relevant to academics, activists and others who research and write about political affairs. This is ahead of our workshop on investigative journalism on Saturday 13th April. Tickets available here.
Yoav Galai and Ben O’Loughlin
During a recent thesis examination, a question came up about a missing document - ‘Why didn’t the student file a freedom of information request for it?’ To be sure, the theoretical constructions that the student built around that particular unknown were sound and enlightening and its omission was not a serious failing. Still, given that the document exists, it was curiously missing. This led us to think: do academic researchers miss evidence that journalists or other kinds of investigators don’t miss?
Doctoral students in the social sciences and the humanities are trained to conduct rigorous analyses of slippery subjects. Our researchers regularly navigate through labyrinthian archives and pierce through covers of denial to explicate the manifestation of political power in social life. However, we rarely have conversations about how to negotiate access with gate-keepers and sources, or how to plan and organise our approach to often reluctant fields of study.
In the New Political Communication unit at Royal Holloway, we embrace the inevitable trans-disciplinary nature of the study of political power. In our practice, it had become evidently clear that there is a productive conversation to be had between critical scholars and investigative journalists. In this pilot workshop we will explore this link and focus on the practice of journalistic investigation of complex political systems.
The ‘freedom of information’ instance was an indicator that some of the tools that investigative journalists regularly use may come in handy for academic researchers. However, the workshop is not tailored for academics. The skills you will learn from Pulitzer winning journalist Dean Starkman and Peter Geoghegan, the investigations editor at openDemocracy, are how to conduct a journalistic investigation.
Starkman has in the past drawn a distinction between access journalism and accountability journalism. Access journalism is based on access to elite figures, who may offer a personal or corporate view of a situation. Their words may provide an immediate account of precisely what happened. Those words will necessarily be partial and may be, in some cases, prone to PR. Accountability journalism seeks to speak to all those in an organisation who were involved in a situation, any relevant documents and financial trails, as well as interviews with communities affected by that situation. Access journalism may be an easier route to quick clicks but offers less scrutiny and potentially less understanding. Accountability is more difficult but offers a ‘thicker’ picture.
Our doctoral students face these dilemmas. Will a PhD based on interviews with 30 prominent policymakers make for a substantial contribution to a field -- and potentially a book deal afterwards? Or is it a safer bet to conduct an anthropological study and take much longer building a holistic understanding of an organisation from within? What form of knowledge is more useful?
Starkman and Geoghegan will take us beyond that choice by showing how different data, tools and approaches to investigation can be mixed and matched. The point is clear: There is a lot out there we are not using. There is a lot out there we are not even finding.
This workshop will be of great value to aspiring researchers, journalists, activists and others who gather and analyse data to tell stories about how political affairs work.