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Looking at the impact of investigative journalism

The Journalism of Outrage:
Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America

David L. Protess et al.
The Guilford Press
1991, 302 pp, ISBN 0-89862-591-2

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, more realistic.

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 makers."

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 that followed."

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 Favourite Film".

Each case is evaluated for its societal impact and agenda-building effect. The result is used to assess the suitability of the Mobilization Model.

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 investigative journalism.

Rachel Kramer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

Published in Sources, Number 43, Winter 1999.


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Tracking the News that Wasn't
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"Objectivity" and Democracy are not Compatible
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All the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Duping the Public
Index of Book Reviews


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