In the past few years, the media, especially the press, have attracted high praise for taking investigative journalism so seriously. Recognising the fact that this form of journalism provides them with the distinctive content needed to hold onto audiences given the explosion of media options, the major press groups have re-established investigative journalism capacity.
The Mail and Guardian and Noseweek have shown that people are willing to pay a great deal for relevant public interest content. While the broadcast media, especially radio, have not invested as heavily in investigative journalism, there are pockets of excellence that continue to hold their own against the press.
Undoubtedly, this development has been an advance for South African journalism, which has often been characterised by mediocrity.
Investigative journalism uses techniques to dig out information the powerful often want to keep hidden. It involves systematic attempts to expose abuses of power, and analyses how these abuses could have happened in the first place, so that they can recurrence can be prevented. It should also move beyond the humdrum of superficial, day-to-day reporting, and expose the deeper processes at work in society and even anticipate future trends.
In South Africa, investigative journalism has taken on a particular character. The conduct of political leaders (and to a lesser extent business leaders) and political parties largely form the stuff of investigative journalism.
Corruption in the arms deal, the 'Oilgate' saga, the shady dealings and murky past of former Crime Intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, the scandal around Bheki Cele's role in a shady lease deal, and the questionable conduct of Mac Maharaj, John Block and Julius Mamela at various points, are all stories that spring to mind when thinking about the best of investigative journalism.
The journalists involved have, at times, put themselves at considerable risk for pursuing these stories. Investigative journalism is not for the fainthearted.
Yet there has been very little reflection on the weaknesses of investigative journalism as it's currently practiced. All too often, investigative journalism tends to focus on elite (mis)conduct, failing to recognise that the power dynamics at grassroots level should constitute the stuff of investigative journalism too.
Investigative stories are often confined to the major urban areas. Many journalists have been overly reliant on a narrow range of sources, especially leaks and tip-offs from disgruntled political figures, to break stories. Many of these stories are passed for investigative journalism, but in fact are not.
Leaks and tip off-driven journalism can make journalists lazy, discouraging proactive investigation and making them susceptible to manipulation by hidden political agendas. At a deeper level, it can reinforce the tendency for news agendas to be set on a top-down basis.
When it comes to generating story ideas for investigation, nothing can substitute for having a good ear to the ground. Unfortunately because many (if not most) investigative journalists are urban based and middle class, and those who aren't generally have huge footprints to cover, much of what happens on the ground remains unheard.
Journalists are also not very good at setting their own news agendas, which should be, in part, what distinguishes investigative journalism from ordinary reporting. In this regard, the one story that investigative journalists have been unable to set the news agenda on is in relation to South Africa's mounting social crisis fuelled by mass unemployment, starvation wages, rampant profiteering and inequality.
This is a story that cannot be told primarily on a top-down basis. The causes, effects and consequences of this social crisis is eminently worthy of systematic investigation, yet generally only flashpoints of this crisis are covered.
Even then, journalists may lack the sources, techniques and even resolve to report even these stories. Journalists lacked the early warning systems to anticipate the 2008 xenophobic attacks. More recently, journalists initially failed to uncover the existence of a second 'kill site' at Marikana, where the police allegedly killed mineworkers with impunity. Admittedly, conditions for investigative work on this story were very difficult, but as was subsequently shown, not impossible.
In the early reporting on Marikana, journalists parroted the causes of the conflict as being a power struggle between the main union protagonists, in spite of the fact that many striking miners did not feel sufficiently represented by either union.
Shortly after the massacre, the Mail and Guardian published an analysis weighing up the various versions of the massacre, and speculated that the bloodstains at the second site could have indicated animal sacrifices rather than human killings: a speculation that could have been proved or disproved through independent forensic testing. Furthermore, investigators had marked the site as part of the massacre crime scene, which clearly discounted the animal sacrifice hypothesis.
Evidence emerging at the Farlam Commission has borne out the allegation that miners were killed at this second site. But there is scant published evidence of the paper having brought its considerable investigative resources to bear on this aspect of the story, although it was the first to put into the public domain workers' allegations that many were killed while fleeing, and some were crushed by nyalas.
It is also not clear whether journalists are continuing to investigate the Marikana events. If they are not, and are waiting for the Commission's findings, then that may be a mistake that they rue very dearly at some stage in the future. The Commission has heard testimony strongly implying that evidence has been tampered with. If it is unable to make a conclusive finding about culpability for the massacre because of lack of evidence, then the only hope for establishing the truth will be the work of investigative journalists.
Journalists have also largely failed to report systematically on the causes and effects of the massive wave of 'service delivery protests', preferring to rush to the scene of a protest when it happens, especially when there is violence, and forgetting about the story after that.
All too often these protests are caricatured as 'violent service delivery protests', in spite of the fact that violence is often not initiated by protestors, but is a response to state or police violence. This caricature criminalises the protestors in the eyes of the public and the police and inadvertently legitimises state repression. Furthermore, protests are often about a diversity of grievances, not just service delivery.
Investigative journalism should move beyond these stereotypes, but as a general trend fails to do so. There are notable attempts to address these problems, though, and to turn the protests into an area for specialist reporting. For example, the City Press's Tatane project tracks progress in five areas hit by service delivery protests. The Mail and Guardian's Eugene Saldanha Memorial Fund's annual fellowship in social justice reporting enables the paper to undertake grassroots reporting more systematically.
Then there are specific examples of on-the-ground investigative journalistic excellence, such as City Press's Faces of Marikana feature, which attempted to give a human face to the victims. The Herald and the Daily Dispatch have broken important stories about the ailing public health system, the underlying causes of high infant mortality and crumbling RDP houses in the province.
These are strengths that must be built on because largely, South Africans remain in the dark about the realities on the ground in their own country, including the significance of the protests for the country's social stability.
It could be (and has been) argued that although many investigative stories are about the political elite, these stories affect the lives of many ordinary people and therefore deserve inordinate attention. But this argument rests on a state-centric approach to social change, where the state holds a monopoly on transformative power.
But social change can also come from below; in fact, given the peculiar dynamics of South Africa society, change is much more likely to come from below than it is from above. Rarely does government policy shift decisively in favour of the working class without a struggle on the ground. It is this dynamic that journalists, including of the investigative kind, have been largely unable to grasp.
The implication of this highly circumscribed practice of investigative journalism for the dynamics in working class communities is that abuses of power - to the extent that they exist - can continue unchecked. And then they become exposed only once considerable damage has already been done.
South Africa has deep social inequalities, and perhaps it was to be expected that these inequalities would be reproduced in the media too. They also reinforce social inequality, in that important voices at society's base that need to be heard are marginalised.
In the coming weeks, public hearings will be held on press transformation, initiated by Print and Digital Media South Africa. In all probability these hearings will focus on black economic empowerment, or racial substitution, as the main element of transformation.
But unless the definition of transformation is expanded to include the class biases embedded in much reporting, including investigative journalism, then South Africa will not get the press that it needs or deserves.
- Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This article was published on The South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).