A fresh approach is needed to drive our investigative reporting forward ...
In the last 18 months investigative journalism in South Africa soared to great heights, and then sunk to unprecedented depths.
The apogee was the publication of the #GuptaLeaks trove of emails in 2017, which provided the hard evidence of the inside workings of the state capture project in a way that could no longer be denied. The dozens of stories came from both the Sunday Times and their sister newspapers in the Tiso Blackstar group, and the independent investigative unit amaBhungane in alliance with Daily Maverick and News24.
#GuptaLeaks had become “probably the greatest investigative journalism coup in South African history”, journalist and commentator William Saunderson-Meyer wrote on Politicsweb.1
The nadir was in 2018 when the Sunday Times apologised for three major investigative stories published over the previous eight years, saying that they had made mistakes and allowed themselves to be ‘played’. The newspaper withdrew the stories, and let go two of the reporters. Two others involved had earlier left the paper. Each of these stories targeted public servants who had stood up against state capture.
“This was not just sloppy reporting or journalists that got it wrong,” wrote South Africa’s best-known investigative reporter, Jacques Pauw. “This was manufactured journalism that was meant to disinform and to ultimately damage our law-enforcement agencies.”2
How was it possible that our news industry – and some of the best of our investigative reporters – could swing so radically and quickly from the brilliant to the despicable? The answer lies in the distinction between the general deterioration of South African newsrooms, the decimation of their capacity for in-depth and investigative work, and the occasional pockets of excellence which continue to produce such work. Most of those pockets are now outside of conventional newsrooms, sustained by donor funding which gives them some immunity from the way financial and political pressures are ravaging the country’s more traditional newsrooms.
Faced with these conflicting indications of the state of our investigative reporting, a longer-term perspective might give insight into where we are now and where we are heading. The records of the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism,3 the country’s premier journalism award for 14 years, provide some indicative data.
The number of entries for the award started low in 2006, peaked in 2014 and has plummeted in the last two years. The first year of the prize – when it was restricted to print media – brought just 13 entries, and the second 13 again, from 10 publications. Opening it to all media the following year brought 16 entries, and this suddenly shot up in 2009 to 44 entries from 16 outlets. At the 2014 peak, there was an astounding 58 entries. In 2015, it dipped to 43, including for the first time two online news operations. But it was in 2017 that it plummeted to 16 entries and stayed close to that last year.
One must be careful of reading too much into this: the number of entries may be driven by multiple factors, not just how much investigative reporting is going on in the country. In 2017, for example, it is likely that many people did not enter because #GuptaLeaks was such a dominant story that many reporters probably felt it was not even worth trying to go up against it. The Taco Kuiper Award is different from most competitions in that it covers only one category: investigative reporting.
But what is striking is that the number of outlets which considered themselves to be practising award-worthy investigative journalism jumped from a handful in 2006 to a peak of more than 20 in 2014 and then down again to just a few last year. In 2014, entries included 12 from television, four from radio, 37 from newspapers, one from a magazine, one by a freelance writer, one from a blogger, one from an independent investigative unit and one from an independent film producer. Newspapers and radio entrants even included a couple of community outlets.
Over the years, there have been some organisations that have consistently put in multiple entries – notably the Sunday Times, sister newspapers City Press and Rapport (latterly along with their online arm News24), the Mail & Guardian and the independent unit amaBhungane, after it broke away from the M&G.
Other regular entrants have been the Daily Dispatch, which has specialised in a different brand of social conditions and service delivery investigation, and M-Net’s television programme Carte Blanche. These outlets have stood consistently among the winners and runners-up, at their height often pushing the rules on how many entries they can put in each year.
Last year, Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian were totally absent for the first time – neither of them putting in a single entry – suggesting a decline of investigative work in newsrooms that have gone through difficult times. 4
In the first year of the award, the judges noted that there were at least three dedicated investigative units operating in the country, and that was probably more than ever before. This went up to four or five in the intervening years, and there was fierce competition between them. By last year, only one of those was still at work, the donor-funded amaBhungane, though the Daily Maverick had started a one-person unit called Scorpio, the M&G had revived its investigative unit and News24 continued to commission some investigative work. 5
There were still pockets of excellence, but fewer of them.
The subject range of entries has not changed much over the years. The competition has been dominated by the big political and corruption stories, mostly around government accountability. There have been some stories on private sector corruption, some on social conditions and a few on environmental issues – but it has been the big national corruption stories that have won in most years.
Journalism historian Mark Feldstein6 looked at the peaks and troughs of investigative reporting over many years in the US and asked what led to these waves. He suggested a quasi-economic model: the peaks came when there was both supply (stimulated by new technologies and media competition) and demand (a public hungry for exposés in times of turmoil).
The supply came in this country with state capture and a divided ruling party, which led to leaks and a plethora of targets for investigation. And new technology brought the large digital data leak which required teamwork and a high level of skill. There was also high demand in this period because of public anxiety over the implications of state capture.
Now there may be an exhaustion factor. South Africans have been inundated with state capture stories in recent years which are important and valuable, but narrow in range and not always a pleasure to read. The Taco Kuiper judges have regularly bemoaned the way investigative stories were told, complaining that they were often difficult to consume and understand, with the audience getting lost in detail and complexity.
It might be time for a wider range of subjects (and our country is not short of those) and a focus on innovative storytelling to refresh our investigative reporting and give it new momentum.
This article first appeared in Wits Journalism’s State of the Newsroom Report 2018 – PDF.
1 Saunderson-meyer, W. (28/7/2017) The #guptaleaks are becoming a deluge. Politicsweb.
2 Pauw, J. (2017). The President’s keepers. johannesburg: tafelberg.
4 Clarification: the m&g have objected to the characterisation of their newsroom as “troubled” in the original version of this article. To clarify, while the newspaper has been through some difficult times in recent years, it has now hired a new team of investigative reporters, is re-building its capacity and is confident this period is behind them.
5 Correction: the original version of this sentence omitted reference to the m&g’s team, and this has now been corrected.
6 Feldstein, m. (2006). A muckraking model: Investigative Reporting Cycles in American history. harvard journal of Press/Politics 11(2):1