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Investigative Journalism

Lisa Baird, Summer Stewart
  • Author
    Lisa Baird

    Lisa Baird is a writer who teaches writing. After receiving her doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas Christian University, she has been developing writing curriculum for over twenty years.

  • Instructor
    Summer Stewart

    Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Explore investigative journalism through definition and examples. Discover investigative journalism and other terms, such as watchdog journalism and reporting. Updated: 12/30/2021

What Is Investigative Journalism?

News reporters who investigate stories about political dishonesty, violence, or commercial corruption would say that "the pen is mightier than the sword" as playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839. In other words, the investigative journalism definition is the diligent news reporting engaged in when reporters gather evidence for stories about corruption and violence, often hidden from the public eye, to effect policy changes that benefit the public. Investigative journalists write in-depth news reports about a single topic or subject, sometimes taking months or even years to record interviews, dig into public records, and seek answers to difficult questions, thereby exposing corruption and civic malfeasance. Investigative journalism often requires the use of undercover techniques.

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Imagine spending two years working as an executive assistant for a CEO to determine if corruption is brewing in the company. That's what an investigative journalist might do if they felt it was the right thing.

Investigative journalists dig deep and they work to expose the underbellies of crimes, corruption, and more. Let's dive deep into the topic of investigative journalism, and learn about its scope through some examples.

Investigative journalism is a type of journalism that uncovers what others don't want uncovered. Investigative journalism is also called watchdog journalism. An investigative journalist digs deep into one story, whether it be corporate financial corruption, violent crime, or other topics that might not get covered in everyday news.

One of the main goals of investigative journalism is to spur change. An investigative journalist might spend four years following a politician and uncovering a money laundering crime to protect the people from electing a criminal.

Then again, simpler forms of investigative journalism provide citizens with news stories via television networks and newspapers, but isn't the everyday sort of news. It may be a local grocery story that is prejudiced toward hiring the elderly or a school failing to support students with special needs.

Underneath the umbrella term of investigative journalism is interpretive reporting, which is a type of investigative journalism that evaluates the consequences of certain events or actions.

Keep in mind, however, that investigative journalism is not leak journalism, which is when a reporter releases sensitive documents to the public without any further research into the documents.

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Watchdog Journalism

Watchdog journalism is another term for investigative journalism. The watchdog journalism definition is based on theories of the media acting as the voice of the community. Newspapers provide public records of political and civic actions of government agencies. Newspapers also stand in a significant relationship to the community by exposing corruption and political wrongdoing. The term "watchdog" suggests an organization that stands ready to sound a public warning should wrongful political, corporate, or community actions take place. The tradition of watchdog journalism derives from the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, who described the four spheres of government influence: the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government, with the media acting as the so-called fourth estate, or fourth sphere, of influence. The fourth estate is meant to keep watch over the other spheres of influence, the other three estates, so that no one sphere may exceed or exploit its power.


Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke


Watchdog journalism examples are plentiful. For instance, some consumer publications analyze the products manufactured and sold within a country to warn the public of potentially dangerous consumer goods. Another example is the Pew Research Center that collects information about current events, conducts public opinion polls, analyzes the results of the polls, and conducts empirical research on social trends, like the increased use of social media among public officials. Pew Research disseminates its findings to media outlets. Watchdog journalists do their jobs as public advocates by fact-checking official statements released by government offices. Journalists can also be effective watchdog journalists by interviewing candidates for public offices and asking difficult questions.

Investigative Report Writing

The investigative reporting definition is the in-depth reporting of stories that expose crime, corruption, and collusion. One of the most famous examples of investigative journalism in recent times is Eric Schlosser's expose of convenience foods, Fast-Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, a book published in 2001. Schlosser shows not only the dietary problems of consuming fast-food, but also the social and environmental impacts of producing and preparing fast-foods. The toll on human life, according to Schlosser, is immeasurable.

Investigative report writing is a type of investigative journalism that uncovers facts through interviews, public records, and observation. Results of investigative report writing are then released to the public as an investigative report in a newscast.

Investigative Report Writing also includes interpretive journalism. Journalists engage in more than news reporting by mentioning the context and consequences of events or trends. Thus, interpretive journalism is not merely descriptive journalism, which simply reports the news, but also gives readers a sense of the overall significance of a story.

Investigative journalism is not leak journalism. Two examples of leak journalism involve Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Edward Snowden, a subcontractor for the National Security Agency, leaked classified national defense data files to the media. Julian Assange is an editor from Australia who published US Army intelligence data leaked to him by analyst Chelsea Manning. Leaking classified information is not the same as investigating and building a story.

Investigative Journalism Resources

Investigative journalists use a variety of resources to learn more about the topic they are investigating. Reporters will use information from interviews, public records, legal and tax reports, and other federal resources.

Journalists use standard undercover work when there isn't enough information in databases or when sources aren't willing to come forward. Usually a combination of these different methods is used to build a strong case.

It's important to note that an investigative reporter doesn't acquire sensitive material just to publish it. Instead, they use the information to write and publish a coherent and fact-based article or book.

Investigative Journalism Examples

Investigative journalism takes on all sorts of topics. Let's look at few true-life examples of investigative journalism.

In 2017, journalist Eric Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his report on opioid overdoses in West Virginia. Over a series of three reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2016, he demonstrated how the pills were getting into the state and causing so many deaths. It turned out that pharmaceutical companies were providing far too many pills to pharmacies in the poorest counties of West Virginia, which led to a vicious cycle of pill usage and deaths.

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Video Transcript

What Is Investigative Journalism?

Imagine spending two years working as an executive assistant for a CEO to determine if corruption is brewing in the company. That's what an investigative journalist might do if they felt it was the right thing.

Investigative journalists dig deep and they work to expose the underbellies of crimes, corruption, and more. Let's dive deep into the topic of investigative journalism, and learn about its scope through some examples.

Investigative journalism is a type of journalism that uncovers what others don't want uncovered. Investigative journalism is also called watchdog journalism. An investigative journalist digs deep into one story, whether it be corporate financial corruption, violent crime, or other topics that might not get covered in everyday news.

One of the main goals of investigative journalism is to spur change. An investigative journalist might spend four years following a politician and uncovering a money laundering crime to protect the people from electing a criminal.

Then again, simpler forms of investigative journalism provide citizens with news stories via television networks and newspapers, but isn't the everyday sort of news. It may be a local grocery story that is prejudiced toward hiring the elderly or a school failing to support students with special needs.

Underneath the umbrella term of investigative journalism is interpretive reporting, which is a type of investigative journalism that evaluates the consequences of certain events or actions.

Keep in mind, however, that investigative journalism is not leak journalism, which is when a reporter releases sensitive documents to the public without any further research into the documents.

Investigative Journalism Resources

Investigative journalists use a variety of resources to learn more about the topic they are investigating. Reporters will use information from interviews, public records, legal and tax reports, and other federal resources.

Journalists use standard undercover work when there isn't enough information in databases or when sources aren't willing to come forward. Usually a combination of these different methods is used to build a strong case.

It's important to note that an investigative reporter doesn't acquire sensitive material just to publish it. Instead, they use the information to write and publish a coherent and fact-based article or book.

Investigative Journalism Examples

Investigative journalism takes on all sorts of topics. Let's look at few true-life examples of investigative journalism.

In 2017, journalist Eric Eyre won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his report on opioid overdoses in West Virginia. Over a series of three reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2016, he demonstrated how the pills were getting into the state and causing so many deaths. It turned out that pharmaceutical companies were providing far too many pills to pharmacies in the poorest counties of West Virginia, which led to a vicious cycle of pill usage and deaths.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What defines investigative journalism?

Investigative journalists expose social injustice by fact-checking sources and sometimes going undercover to reveal what is hidden about corruption, violence, and unethical abuses of power.

What are investigative journalism examples?

A good example of investigative reporting is Eric Schlosser's expose of the human cost of fast-foods. Another example is Eric Eyre's Pulitzer Prize winning book that exposes the opioid epidemic of West Virginia.

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