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Hager on “reconceptualisation” of investigative journalism

MIJT Conference: Hager proposes “reconceptualisation” of investigative journalism

Speaking at the Media Investigative Journalism and Technology Conference at AUT University yesterday, Nicky Hager said there has been a “wonderful growth curve for PR people and an inverse growth curve for journalism.”

In response, Hager argued that investigative journalism needs to be redefined in order to prosper.

Hager, one of New Zealand’s few investigative journalists, entitled his speech “More investigation when there is less journalism” and he acknowledged the limited ability of the mainstream media to be a vehicle for investigative work, both in New Zealand and overseas.

Hager suggested the only hopeful and practical solution “is to reconceptualise what we think investigative journalism is and who we think an investigative journalist is.”

While still seeing the need for mainstream news organisations to disseminate information, he says the days of uncovering a ‘Watergate-type’ story within a traditional newspaper no longer exist.

Instead Hager said, “Investigative journalism needs to be detached from the news media” to ensure the discipline survives.

Taking a different approach, Hager asked himself who’s work he most admired in New Zealand and the answers were not only from some of his industry peers but from health researchers, academics and those in public interest groups.

“You can have someone in a human rights organisation, who is doing investigative journalism and then handing it to a media outlet. It’s just not called investigative journalism.”

Hager gave the example of his own background as a researcher, for the many different occupations where the principles of investigative journalism are identical across the board.

Hager argued the emphasis should be on skills and said although “there is a vanity in the news media that says that only journalists can properly do these roles” he rather wished than believed that to be true.

Hager said the way to implement his proposed model is to “search out the people who call themselves filmmakers or public interest researchers for example and bring those people together.”

Suggestions ranged from invitations to conferences such as MIJT, to opening up journalism training to people from a variety of disciplines or building investigative research papers into other degrees.

Although there are a number of people who already combine some of these skill sets, Hager sees this idea as going further and “making it a career path rather than a hopeless dream.”

Within his proposal, he addressed the questions that could be raised when suggesting such a mind-shift in the definition of investigative journalism, such as finance and quality of work.

Rather than waiting for the news organisations to provide the funding, Hager said it is possible to move in and out of paid work (related and unrelated) to supplement investigations and apply for grants and university subsidies.

Regarding the question over the quality of work if other professions are adopted into the discipline, Hager said that by taking the best parts of traditional journalism: accuracy, fairness and balance, as well as editorial checking and protection of sources, it would be possible to safeguard against any decline.

According to Hager, the key is to address investigative journalism not in the context of job opportunities but as a profession. Highlighting what is possible if this is done he said, “there are connections and collaborations which mean that we could take this from being something we hope for that doesn’t happen very much to this broad community of people who are doing more.”

Hager’s ideas were well received and played a part in the discussion of the formation of a working support group of investigative journalists in New Zealand and the region. The investigative journalism support group is hoped to be a lasting legacy of the MIJT Conference.


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