The standard definition of investigative reporting, as agreed upon by such bodies as the Society for Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors (and which is widely taught in journalism schools) is this:
  1. The information reported has to be of importance to the public.
  2. The information has to be original work.
  3. The reportage has to uncover something not previously known that someone is trying to keep hidden.

Certainly the most famous piece of investigative journalism is the series of stories published by The Washington Post that eventually resulted in the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Beginning in 1972, the Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began reporting stories that showed Nixon's connection to the break-in at Democratic Party offices in the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C.

Their work inspired a movie ("All the President's Men") that brought an unprecedented level of glamour to the journalism field. As a result, thousands of college students flocked to journalism schools all over the country, for good and ill. What isn't investigative journalism? A good example is the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers - secret government documents on the Vietnam War - that the New York Times and the Post both published. While the Papers' publication meets the test in two instances - the work was of vital importance to the public, and the government was trying to keep the papers secret - the work was not original. The documents were simply handed over to the newspapers. (Though at great peril to the man who leaked them.) While their publication was a vital public service and let the public know the inner workings of their government, the publication of the Pentagon Papers was not investigative journalism.

Likewise, the celebrity trivia that clogs the supermarket tabloids and nightly television broadcasts is not investigative journalism. Applying the threefold test, a supermodel's drug habit or a movie star's sexual dalliances are not matters of importance to the public.

A grayer area is the realm of reportage on public figures' private lives. The affairs of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, presidential candidate Gary Hart and Congressman Gary Condit are all matters that some journalists deem fit for investigative reporting, since their private conduct may have a bearing on how they conduct themselves in office. Such stories (as well as how these stories are pursued) are matters of much discussion in newsrooms across the U.S.

An important point: Investigative journalism need not be confined to print and broadcast media. Online journalism is equally valid, if less trusted by the public at large, owing to its novelty. Also, some of the most important journalism has first seen the light of day in book form, e.g. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," an expose of the horrid practices of the meat-packing industry.

Investigative Journalism 30 Years After Watergate:

In the three decades that have passed since Woodward and Bernstein did their most famous work, there has been an explosion in the number of journalists calling themselves "investigative reporters." While there are more good stories than ever, there are also far too many bad, trivial, superficial ones.

Because of the wealth of shallow, surface-level journalism that masquerades as serious work, investigative reporting, has - among members of the public, at least - gotten a bad name.

Possibly the best explanation for this is given by Rosemary Armao, managing editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, former bureau chief at the Baltimore Sun and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

In a June 1998 talk to journalists at the Detroit Free Press, Armao said:
"It's like women's lib. There's just a really bad definition out there. For years, you could ask any woman, 'Are you a women's libber?' and she would say, 'No, no, I don't burn my bra,' as if underwear had anything to do with this movement.

"It's the same way with investigative reporting. It's this idea out there that, if you are an investigator, you're out to find a bad thing. You want to write something nasty and mean in the newspaper. That's not it at all."
Investigative Reporters and Editors, founded in 1975, is a non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality and quantity of investigative journalism in the U.S. and abroad.

In 1989, IRE members started NICAR, the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, which, as the name suggests, focuses on using computers to aid in reporting. Such computer-assisted reporting efforts have yielded Pulitzer Prize-winning stories exposing election fraud and shoddy building practices in hurricane zones, as well as bringing to light literally thousands of other stories on such matters as discriminatory lending practices and campaign-finance fraud.

Investigative Journalists of Note:

Though by no means a complete list, these reporters' works have made a noticable impact on the world at large.
  • Bob Woodward. Also wrote "Wired," a book about the flameout and death of comedian of John Belushi. His endnotes alone are a university course on how to use a paper trail to document a story. Woodward now serves as the investigations editor at the Washington Post.
  • Carl Bernstein. Now writes investigative books, all of which are worth a look. He most recently wrote about the Catholic Church.
  • Seymour Hersh. As an Associated Press reporter during Vietnam, won an investigative Pulitzer for uncovering the My Lai massacre. Has also written several investigative books, including one on John F. Kennedy. He now writes regularly for The New Yorker magazine on U.S. military affairs and Afghanistan.
  • Donald Barlett and James Steele. Always mentioned in the same breath, these two are the deans of book-length investigative journalism and have tackled everything from the U.S. tax code to Howard Hughes. They now write for Time magazine.
  • Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sarah Cohen of The Washington Post. These three won the 2002 investigative Pulitzer for a series of stories that showed how Washington D.C.'s child-welfare system broke down, resulting in the neglect and death of more than 200 children. A recent and stellar example of how investigative journalism benefits the public.

  • - The story of IRE's founding, and how the murder of reporter Don Bolles kicked the founders into high gear.
  • - IRE's archive of 19,000+ investigative stories, including print, broadcast and online work.
  • - past Pulitzer winners. Search under "investigative."
  • - A journalism think-tank in Florida, with many online essays on the nature and merit of various reporting efforts.

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