Reader Rhayader points to the recent ACORN prostitution scandal as an example of investigative journalism being done by people who are not journalists in the traditional sense. The guy who made the video is James O’Keefe, an “activist filmmaker” who has made videos promoting various conservative causes. It’s not clear exactly how Mr. O’Keefe makes his living, but it seems clear that he’s not a journalist in the traditional sense.
Now, I don’t actually think what the ACORN employees did here is all that scandalous. Obviously, people should follow the law, but I don’t think it’s necessarily ACORN’s job to rat out, or even refuse service to, people who it knows are breaking the law. We certainly don’t apply that standard to most other professions. If a doctor has a patient who admits to illicit drug use, it’s actually considered unethical for him to report that to the authorities. This is because if we started requiring doctors to report drug users to the police, the only result would be that drug addicts would stop seeking medical attention. I think the same principle applies to ACORN. ACORN is in the business of helping poor people. Sometimes poor people turn to drug dealing or prostitution out of desperation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ACORN turning a blind eye to those kinds of activities.
But in any event, I think this illustrates the extent to which people outside the traditional journalism profession can perform the functions of a traditional journalist. O’Keefe made a video and posted it on his blog. The coverage by mainstream media outlets like the Associated Press has largely consisted of summaries of the contents of the video. The role of professional journalists here is not to go out and track down information; rather it’s to take information that has already been tracked down and delivered by a third party, and summarize and synthesize that information in a way that lets readers quickly make sense of it. This is an important function, to be sure, but it’s not a function that requires large amounts of time or resources.
I don’t think we’ll ever reach the point where all stories are like this, but more and more stories are. Certainly court decisions, company product announcements, athletic events, scientific and medical discoveries, political speeches and debates, are among the categories of news that can largely be covered based on materials readily available online. Summarizing and analyzing a document or video is an important activity (much of my writing for Ars has consisted of summaries and analysis of bills and legal decisions), but it’s relatively simpler than the sort of thing Woodward and Bernstein famously did, where they’d spend hours tromping around Washington digging up documents and interviewing sources on background. The Internet is shifting the balance from this kind of “pavement-pounding” journalism to what Jonathan Chait has dubbed “ass-welt” reporting.