Ethical Dimensions of Investigative Reporting

Academic Paper, 2019

8 Pages




1. What is Investigative Reporting?

2. Why Investigative Reporting?

3. Investigative Reporting a Public Service:

4. Ethical Dimensions of IR

5. Ethical problems in Investigative Reporting

6. Conclusion


One of the most authoritative definitions of Investigative Reporting (IR) comes from the association of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE): It is the reporting, through one’s own work, product and initiative, matters of importance which some persons or organizations wish to keep secret. According to this definition the three basic elements of IR are: that the investigation be the work of the reporter, not a report of an investigation made by someone else; that the subject of the story involves something of reasonable importance to the reader or viewer; and that others are attempting to hide these matters from the public. At the same time it should be added that views on IR is somewhat polarized. The answer to why IR is needed is manifold. Some of the tools that could be used for IR are archives, whistle-blowers, anonymous sources, and undercover operations (Sting). IR is a public service and it is a powerful catalyst for change and so it should be based on ethical principles. Some of the ethical principles on which an investigative reporter might base his/her work are: Aristotle’s Golden Mean; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; Mill’s Principle of Utility; and Judeo-Christian Principle. For, he/she would have to face ethical dilemmas connected to sources, sting (hidden camera and bribery), fake stings, objectivity, privacy, and trial by media.

1. What is Investigative Reporting?

Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) association defines it thus: It is the reporting, through one’s own work, product and initiative; matters of importance which some persons or organizations wish to keep secret. We can note three basic elements here: a) that the investigation be the work of the reporter, not a report of an investigation made by someone else; b) that the subject of the story involves something of reasonable importance to the reader or viewer; c) and that others are attempting to hide these matters from the public.

Protess et al. (1991) defines investigative reporting as “the journalism of outrage”. “More than a news-gathering process, the journalism of outrage is a form of storytelling that probes the boundaries of [a nation’s] civic conscience.”1 However views on IR is not as straightforward as it seems; rather they are somewhat polarized: a) all journalism is investigative and, therefore, there is no such genre as investigative journalism per se, and b) that investigative journalism is a distinct genre that involves more detailed, more thorough, more long-term digging than routine, daily journalism.

2. Why Investigative Reporting?

A very pertinent question to pose. Self-interest govern individuals, communities, societies and governments. Hence cover up of misdeeds seems to be a natural and spontaneous option to them. Governments’ investigative agencies are rendered ineffective. In this scenario the media in general, and the investigative reporter in particular, has a powerful role to play in the public interest. So an investigative journalist is a special story-teller of our times for the good of the society.

3. Investigative Reporting a Public Service:

IR can be considered as a public service if it undertakes at least some of the following jobs:

a. Exposes corruption at the level of the government
b. Reveals abuse of official power
c. Brings out the denial and delay of justice
d. Questions the official facts and figures
e. Shows how laws are violated and circumvented
f. Discloses cover-ups and
g. Identifies shameful societal practices.

This list of course is not exhaustive.

4. Ethical Dimensions of IR

Since IR ought to be done in the public interest and therefore it is a public service it has to follow ethical principles. Now prior to the talk about ethics in investigative reporting, it will be pertinent and useful to discuss very briefly about ethics in media in general. To begin with we look at an overview of the print media given by Colin Sparks:

[Today] newspapers [everywhere] are first and foremost business. They do not exist to report news, to act as watchdogs for the public, to be a check on the doings of government, to defend the ordinary citizens against abuses of power, to unearth scandals or to do any of the other fine and noble things that are sometimes claimed for the press. They exist to make money, just as any other business does. To the extent that they discharge any of their public functions, they do so in order to succeed as businesses.2

Investigative journalists cannot remain unaffected by this overwhelming business outlook of the media and ever falling ethical standards. The choice of stories for investigation raises questions of ethics. “An investigation in a newspaper or on TV is a heavy weapon to use on someone. If you attack someone, you need to be sure you are right.”3 And so a very important question to be asked is: Is the sin great enough to warrant the full treatment?

4.1 Ethical Principles

While going through various writings on ethics, one comes across many moral principles. It is beyond the scope of this study to enumerate all of them. For our purposes here we would highlight four of them, “which have a significant following and together represent a reasonably wide scope of time-tested alternatives”4.

4.1.1 Aristotle’s Golden Mean

It was a method whereby the temperate virtue was the one that lay between two extremes, or vices. While Aristotle was certainly the first to avow “moderation in all things,” he was certainly one of its major proponents. Aristotle believed that a person of moral maturity would naturally seek the action that would further excellent moral character - an action that would logically lie somewhere between two extremes - one excessive, the other deficient.

Aristotle’s model of the Golden Mean is not a simple, arithmetical calculation of an average action. The balance that the principle proposes is the result of acquired character, a moral maturity, and an ability to perceive a situation accurately as it pertains to the individual involved. A mature person who knows what is right and wrong would reflect on his personal experience and would naturally act with balance. The moral mean might differ from situation to situation.

Applying to investigative reporting “the sensational is derided and the virtues of balance, fairness, and equal time are recognized”5. The excitement of having a scoop, an exclusive story will not lead to compromising the moral balance that a reporter should keep.

4.1.2 Kant’s Categorical Imperative

The6 German philosopher Immanuel Kant held that nothing was good in itself except good will. In other words, no action, in and of itself, was either wrong or right. Only the motive of the actor lent the action its morality. If a person acted out of a vested interest (because of a possible consequence) then the act was non-moral - it had no moral implications whatsoever. But, if a person acted because she thought she was doing the right thing, then she was acting out of good will and the act was a moral act.

Categorical Imperative implies that we always act so as to treat others as ends in themselves and never completely as means to an end. In other words, we are not to use other people or treat them merely as objects.

Applying Kant’s Categorical Imperative to investigative reporting, it would mean that reporters should do their work out of goodwill, and out of a sense of duty and not out of vested interests. Further, according to the principle those who are subjected to investigation (supposed perpetrators/collaborators of corruption and other misdeeds) should be treated with respect and never as a means.

4.1.3 Mill’s Principle of Utility

According7 to Mill, the principle of utility indicates that pleasure is “the ultimate ends of human actions”. Human beings prefer pleasure than pain, and therefore, since people act for pleasure, it is a desirable thing to act in order to achieve the maximum happiness. Now maximum happiness is not to be sought only for one’s own merit, but also for the maximum happiness of maximum number of people. The actions taken for maximum happiness, therefore, must be focused on the pleasure of other people as well. The definition of maximum happiness is, in short, the sum of the maximum happiness of oneself and of others, achieving the greatest pleasure and eliminating greatest amount of pain.

Following the utilitarian maxim of seeking the maximum happiness of the greatest number we can say that investigative journalists by exposing corruption and other misdeeds of authorities/governments in power bring maximum happiness to those who come under the authorities in power. The reporters do so by taking great risks disregarding self-interest as Mill exhorts. Further the reporters through their investigative work try to redeem situations of injustice in society. And this surely must be a cause of maximum happiness for the greatest number in the society.

4.1.4 Judeo-Christian Principle

The Golden Rule is the Judeo-Christian admonition to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This was not the first nor the last time this maxim was proposed as an ethical guideline. Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) presented his version 500 years before the birth of Christ as a proscription: “Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.”

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition only one moral command or virtue is most important: to love God and humankind. “All other obligations, though connected to this central one, are considered derivative.”8

Journalism is not only a profession but also a noble vocation. In fact the roots of this noble vocation goes back to the great prophets of Old Testament — Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and so forth — who were fearless in confronting the mighty — priests, rulers, and kings - in the society of their time. The prophets attempted to make those in authority accountable and bring justice to the poor and the downtrodden. In many ways it is this great prophetic tradition that journalists and investigative reporters in particular are called upon to emulate. And while carrying out their delicate and difficult task surely their guiding principle should be the Judeo-Christian principle, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


1 David L. Protess et al. 1999, The Journalism of Courage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building in America. New York: Guilford Press, 5.

2 As cited by Richard Keeble. 2001, Ethics for Journalists. London: Routledge, 2.

3 David Spark. 1999, Investigative Reporting: A Study in Technique. Amsterdam et al., Focal Press, 8.

4 Clifford G. Christians et al. (Eds.) 1987, Media Ethics. New York: Longman, 9.

5 Christians et al. (Eds)., 10.

6 See Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie (Eds.) 1998, Ethics: History, Theory and Contemporary Issues. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 275-318.

7 See Alan Ryan (Ed.). 1987, John Stuart Mill & Jeremy Bentham. London: Penguin.

8 Clifford G. Christians et al. (Eds.). 1987, Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning. New York: Longman, 16.

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Ethical Dimensions of Investigative Reporting
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Reporting, Journalism, Ethics of Media, Communications
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Prof. Francis Arackal Thummy (Author), 2019, Ethical Dimensions of Investigative Reporting, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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