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Looking at the impact of investigative journalism
Reviewed by Rachel Kramer
North Americans are keen to consume media exposés. We have
come to expect to be informed when a powerful corporation or elected
official crosses the boundaries of socially accepted practices.
But does being informed prompt policy-changing action?
The Journalism of Outrage examines the myths and misconceptions
of investigative journalism and presents empirical research to support
a model that challenges the classical theory.
The sensational title alludes to the influence that investigative
journalism has on the public consciousness. The seven authors, connected
by their association with Northwestern University in Chicago, examine
the effect of media on society and challenge some conventional notions
about that relationship, specifically, the Mobilization Model.
This simple linear model assumes an influence and change of public
opinion as a necessary step toward public policy reform. The authors
provide six cases of modern-day investigative projects that include
public opinion surveys taken before and after their publication.
The results indicate an inconsistent relationship between public
opinion and policy changes, thereby challenging the validity of
the Mobilization Model. In its place the authors put forth an Agenda
Building model which is less straightforward and, they would argue,
The term agenda building is defined by Lang and Lang in their Watergate
study as, "a collective process in which media, government,
and the citizenry reciprocally influence one another." The
authors use the term to describe how "investigative reporters
make certain issues more salient to the media, the public, and policy
This flexible model suggests that investigative reporting may result
in a variety of agenda-building scenarios, including policy changes
without regard for public opinion, and public outcry without resulting
policy changes. One case study indicates that, independent of the
public, it was "the active collaboration between journalists
and policy makers ... in the ongoing process of the media investigation
that created the policy outcome." And sometimes, they suggest,
agenda building does not occur at all.
Chapter 1 provides various definitions of investigative reporting.
It examines the roles, responsibilities and image of investigative
journalists including the historical roots of the term "muckraker".
It proceeds to introduce the Mobilization Model, suggesting that
its popularity may be due in part to its democratic basis.
Chapter 2 reviews the history of American investigative reporting,
beginning with the publication of Publick Occurences by Benjamin
Harris in 1690, and including the press's role in the phenomenon
of McCarthyism, the coverage of the Vietnam War, and Watergate --
a journalistic landmark that "set the standard for the era
In chapters 3 through 8, "the authors examine the genesis,
investigation, writing, editing, and ultimate impact of six modern-day
investigative projects." While these cases may be "mandatory
reading for students of the kind of investigative journalism that
pricks at the public's capacity for outrage," they also offer
a fun behind-the-scenes glimpse to the lay reader, much like a tour
of Universal Studios or the screening of "The Making of Your
Each case is evaluated for its societal impact and agenda-building
effect. The result is used to assess the suitability of the Mobilization
Chapters 9 and 10 argue for a revised agenda-building model. They
examine the construction of agendas by investigative journalists
and policy makers, and assess the role of societal interests.
Each chapter is accompanied by extensive notes. Following the reference section are two indices: a name index and a subject index. Detailed survey results are provided throughout the book in tabular form. A flow chart diagram illustrates a complex investigative reporting model in Chapter 10.
A methodological discussion of the research methods employed in
the case studies is offered in Appendix 1.
The second appendix provides the "relevant" results of
a national survey of over 900 investigative reporters and editors
conducted in 1989. The results focus on recent trends in investigative
reporting, including: the occurence of ethical problems, the involvement
of government policy makers, motivations and rewards, the perceived
opinions of the general public, and the news media's perceived commitment
to investigative reporting. These data help provide a context for
the theories about investigative reporting and public policy making
that form the conclusion of the book.
The Journalism of Outrage has the potential to appeal to
students, practitioners, and consumers of investigative journalism
alike. The introductory and concluding chapters are informative
and accessible to the lay reader, while the intermediate chapters
provide investigative reports that are interesting in their own
right, with the added insight of an insider. This highly readable
book has something to offer anyone with a strong interest in modern
Rachel Kramer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
Published in Sources,
Number 43, Winter 1999.
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