Investigative reporting has taken on every aspect of American society — from government, politics, business and finance to education, social welfare, culture and sports — and has won the lion’s share of each year’s journalism prizes. No matter how unpopular the news media may sometimes be, there has been, ever since Watergate, an expectation that the press would hold accountable those with power and influence over the rest of us. As Jon Marshall wrote last year in “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press,”Watergate “shaped the way investigative reporting is perceived and practiced and how political leaders and the public respond to journalists.”
Woodward and Bernstein’s techniques were hardly original. But, propagated by “All the President’s Men,” they became central to the ethos of investigative reporting: Become an expert on your subject. Knock on doors to talk to sources in person. Protect the confidentiality of sources when necessary. Never rely on a single source. Find documents. Follow the money. Pile one hard-won detail on top of another until a pattern becomes discernible. Just a few years ago, Dana Priest of The Post used similar methods to reveal the CIA’s secret overseas prisons in which terrorism suspects were aggressively interrogated.
We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were. However, the impact of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized so much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities — but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it. Meanwhile, much of the remaining investigative reporting on television stations and networks, which also are struggling to maintain audience and revenue, consists of consumer-protection and crime stories that drive ratings.