The Truth is Out There
Throughout history, investigative journalists have been revered, reviled, and repressed, often simultaneously and resulting from the same story. That should not be all that surprising, as exposing the truth often pleases one constituency at the expense of another, and sometimes the displeasure is so extreme that it can turn dangerous. This makes investigative journalism – when practiced in its purest form – a noble profession, and those that practice it courageous warriors for truth and justice. Investigative journalism deals with serious issues and typically focuses on political events, societal trends, environmental issues, social justice, and personal, corporate, or governmental accountability. At its core, investigative journalism involves the “unveiling of matters that are concealed either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances – and the analysis and exposure of all relevant facts to the public.” While an investigative journalist performs many of the same functions as a traditional journalist, they tend to focus more on analyzing and reporting on a specific topic to unearth some hidden truth. Investigative journalists must have the skills to identify, observe, gather, assess, record, and share relevant information, conduct thorough journalistic research, evaluate information appropriate to their media, and understand the data collected.
Commerce or Advocacy?
We debated long and hard over whether investigative journalism should come under advocacy or commerce. After all, a professional journalist is supposed to gather and report the facts and not advocate for one outcome versus another. However, since the reporting generated by investigative journalists is often then used to advocate for a particular outcome, we thought it best to include it under advocacy. We are not implying that investigative journalists intentionally skew facts to arrive at a predetermined outcome. Rather, an investigative journalist (or their employer) can advocate simply by selecting (or choosing not to select) a particular topic to cover. Most other types of journalists usually react to specific events “of the moment” and beyond their control (e.g., wars, natural disasters, elections).
Investigative Journalism and the Ocean
There is a long history of investigative journalism exposing crimes that involve the ocean, marine life, and ocean resources. Investigative journalists are not only responsible for exposing environmental crime but for helping to combat it by demanding accountability. Illegal dumping, illegal fishing, the unchecked runoff of toxic industrial waste, destructive seabed mining, piracy, and smuggling, are all ocean-related crimes that investigative journalists have exposed. But as the ocean covers 70% of the Earth, with a good portion of that beyond any legal jurisdiction (e.g., the “high seas”), there is no shortage of topics and stories to cover.
A great place to start learning about ocean-related investigative journalism is with the Outlaw Ocean Project. The Outlaw Ocean Project is a non-profit journalism organization that produces investigative stories about human rights, environment, and labor concerns involving the ocean. It was founded by former New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, whose series The Outlaw Ocean chronicled a diversity of crimes offshore, including the killing of stowaways, sea slavery, intentional dumping, illegal fishing, the stealing of ships, gun-running, stranding of crews, and murder with impunity.
Print, Broadcast, or Online
Traditionally, investigative journalists worked at newspapers, magazines, radio stations, or television stations. Today, you can find investigative journalists plying their trade through blogs, websites, mobile apps, podcasts, and social media platforms (often referred to as “digital media”). These additional media outlets have significantly increased the opportunity to engage in traditional and investigative journalism. However, be aware that unless you are already an established journalist, the credibility afforded any investigative report will depend on the credibility of the platform on which it is being published or broadcast. That’s because an investigative report from a well-established news organization – whether in print, broadcast, or online – will have gone through a rigorous fact-check process before it ever sees the light of day. That does not mean you should be dissuaded from either contributing to an existing platform or creating your own forum to publish your investigative reports. It is an excellent way to build a body of work and establish yourself in the field. Just remember to use the same rigorous standards employed by news organizations because, as we all know, the Internet is forever, and a shoddily investigative report can come back to haunt you.
- Investigative Journalism, UNESCO.
- These other types of journalism – news, reviews, columns, feature-writing, and scientific – are discussed in the Connect Through Commerce section of the Ocean Connect website.
The Path to Becoming an Investigative Journalist
From High School to Your First Job
Build a Solid Academic Foundation
Try and take as many writing courses as possible. Take classes in journalism, creative writing, short story, nonfiction, poetry, and even technical or scientific writing. Take courses in public speaking, government, political science, history, and at least one foreign language. Join your school newspaper.
If you are interested in pursuing stories about the ocean, then take classes (whether in school or online) that will help you better understand the milieu in which you will be working. You will find that courses in marine biology and marine conservation are very beneficial. Take a public speaking course.
Keep in Mind:
Online courses can teach you the basics of journalism. If your town has a newspaper, offer to write about local events. Many reporters started off writing about high school sports or lost pets. If you are interested in broadcast journalism, find an internship at a small television or radio station.
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Make all the right moves
Advice from those who know
Develop foundational skills in photography, video, and audio
Build a social media following
Establish strong connections with editors, your professors, and other professionals
Work at your school newspaper or radio station
Take advantage of workshops and courses in journalism
Enter investigative journalism competitions
Develop a portfolio of your work
What degree is right for you?
Most employers require a bachelor’s degree, preferably in communications, journalism, writing, or a related field. Undergraduate programs typically cover journalism in general and not specifically investigative journalism. Try and take courses in writing and editing, communications, media law, ethics, visual journalism, and reporting. With an increased focus on digital media, take multiple courses in multimedia news reporting.
A master’s degree is highly recommended as this is where you will be able to specialize your studies in investigative journalism. At the graduate level, you will be able to go more in-depth on investigative techniques, ethics, law, defamation, and privacy issues. A master’s degree will also open up more and better quality employment opportunities. A doctoral degree is only necessary if you want to pursue a career in academia.
10 Schools With Excellent Investigative Journalism Programs
Want to see the full list of colleges and universities with degree offerings or relevant courses?
Choose a program offering a wide variety of journalism electives. Choose courses that will help you build expertise in areas you are most passionate about. Take classes in multiple disciplines to ensure you receive a well-rounded education.
Supplement your studies with classes that cover the specialized knowledge and information-gathering skills of investigative journalists. Investigative journalism organizations and schools offer such courses and workshops.
Gain experience by volunteering for the student newspaper or college radio station. Internships with newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations are essential as they will help you build a portfolio for prospective employers.
Have familiarity with one or more of the following areas
Data analysis and visualizations
Video and photo editing
Typical Job Functions of an Investigative Journalist
Here are some of the interesting things you could be doing.
Collecting and analyzing data from a variety of sources.
Interviewing persons of interest.
Building relationships with people who may offer sources of information.
Searching public records and company accounts to identify discrepancies or falsehoods.
Scrutinizing government and business practices and their effects.
Going undercover to get to the root of the story.
Writing and editing investigative reports.
Collaborating with fellow writers and editors to ensure cohesive content.
Communicating important information clearly and concisely.
Promoting the results of your investigations on other platforms.
There’s an Ocean of Possibilities
If you want to pursue a career that is challenging, competitive, and rewarding, investigative journalism will be a fantastic profession for you. Investigative reporting is in high demand in news organizations, large and small, around the world. However, these are highly desirable jobs and you must be prepared to work your way up the journalism career ladder. You may even need to start out on a freelance (self-employed) basis.
Common employers include:
- Special Interest Publications
- Television Stations
- Radio Stations
- New Organizations
- Digital Media Companies
- Social Media Companies
- Public Broadcasting Systems
- Online Journals
- Financial Companies
- Technology Companies
- Nonprofit Organizations
- Non-governmental Organizations
Start your career search with our extensive list of employment websites.