Investigative Journalists Define Crossing the Line

May 1, 2009


Research suggests that the news media block or transform "beyond recognition" the aims of environmental and other activist groups.

But a recent study suggests otherwise. It concludes that investigative journalists often are activists, but they stay within professional boundaries.

The research focused on two documentaries about the Danish chemical producer Cheminova's distribution of pesticides illegal in Denmark to developing countries, where they were not prohibited. Each documentary — one aired in 1997, the other in 2006 — sparked immediate outcry and moral debate among Danish citizens, including politicians and members of the public, unions, pension funds and the news media, and resulted in concessions from Cheminova, according to the study.

The researcher described investigative journalism as akin to scientific research — that is, aiming to be objective, accurate and thorough — except that it is "more political" than science in topic selection and framing, a trait linked to its emphasis on serving as a watchdog of neglect and abuse.

Each documentary was reported by a freelance journalist who had founded his own independent media company and, during travels to developing countries, had observed pesticide use and wondered where the chemicals had been obtained. Each told the researcher that their observations led to an effort to document the origin, including using public records, and then they sought funding for their projects.

For both journalists, the motivation for reporting the story was the chemical company's publicity, which stated that it was operating in socially and environmentally responsible ways, juxtaposed against empirical data, including their observations of unprotected farmworkers handling the pesticides. The reporters also said they worried about crossing the line separating advocacy and investigative journalism, fearing to appear as judges of the company's behavior.

The researcher compared the documentaries to newspaper coverage of Cheminova to find that reports of pesticide exports began immediately after the films aired and continued for one year for the 1997 documentary and six months for the 2006 documentary. In both cases, "the debate soon became a media storm," including investigations by mainstream media.

"The ability of the two documentaries and their investigative journalism to spark public debate and place an issue on the public agenda was undoubtedly observed by civil society organizations (CSOs) with envy," the researcher stated. But, although investigative journalists and activists each must provide credible evidence of their claims, "CSOs are more readily accepted as representing a certain political position. This freedom is not granted to journalism, not even its investigative variant."

In each of the documentaries, complex framing took place as the reporters tried to distance themselves from the problem as they saw it — farmworkers' handling of "highly toxic pesticides without proper knowledge and protection" — by placing moral responsibility with the chemical company. The company had done nothing illegal but, "by juxtaposing the corporation's public formulations about responsibility with the empirical realities on the ground" via audio and visual imagery, it became implicated in the impacts of pesticide use on unwary farmworkers, the researcher suggested. Supporting this frame was the chemical company's refusal to take part in the documentaries when asked, he added.

In the debates that followed the documentaries' airings, criticisms of the investigative approach arose, including each film's focus on negative aspects of pesticide use without examining benefits, including increasing crop yields and, in turn, increasing the standard of living for those in the countries where the pesticides were used.

"Investigative journalists do frame their material in a critical and activist-like manner," the researcher concluded. This "only becomes a democratic problem under two conditions: If counterarguments are excluded or drowned out in the debate that follows" and the reporting is inaccurate or illogical. In regard to the latter point, "it should always be open to debate whether concrete acts of journalism succeed," he stated.

For more information, see Thomas Olesen, "Activist Journalism?" in Journalism Practice, Volume 2, No. 2 (December 2008), pp. 266 – 276.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmental communication.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter, SEJournal Spring 2009 issue.


SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: