I confess I haven’t spent much time looking for news on the current Egyptian revolution. It’s found me. Each time I turn on the radio, watch the BBC on TV, or open up the daily UN Wire e-mail I receive, it confronts me. Through sound bites and dramatic images I see the progression of protest. I couldn’t help but know what’s happening in Egypt. But until I sat down to do some research this past weekend, I didn’t really know why.
We usually don’t lack information about major world events, but we frequently lack knowledge. Information is showered upon us—updates, images, first-person accounts—but it isn’t often explained, analysed, or even understood by those who deliver it.
It’s a problem that’s prevalent in journalism. We’re overloaded with information from the media we follow, but that information often lacks context. Or, it’s irrelevant. Today, for the most part, news reports are designed to entertain and excite rather than inform. Images of bloodied journalists, angry protestors, and trucks mowing down pedestrians in the narrow streets of Cairo are more suitable to the visual media of television and internet news, and to the appetites of news consumers, than explanations of the intricacies of North African politics.
Because of the shift away from informative news toward infotainment, investigative journalism has been on the decline for decades. Investigative stories are time-consuming and costly to produce, and many news outlets have chosen to maximise profits by cutting this genre from their papers or programmes.
But it seems that investigative journalism may be making a comeback.
A week ago I heard an Egyptian woman interviewed on the radio. She was asked why the revolution was happening now. In her response she explained that the Egyptian people are very “patient.” They’d put up with the status quo for decades before finally deciding to do something about it. It seems that investigative journalists have also finally decided forgo the status quo and take matters into their own hands.
Rather than shouting in the streets for a revolution, journalists are positioning themselves on the worldwide web. Investigative news centres from all over the continent are springing up online. Philanthropic institutes and individuals are contributing the funds that media owners withheld for decades.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has been producing investigative journalism for over twenty years in the U.S. It also has a more recent global project: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In 2008, the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR) was formed, joining the Investigative News Network, made up of approximately forty non-profit news organisations (most of them in the U.S.). Bilbo Poynter, founder, claims that in the few years since he founded the centre, “the landscape of non-profit or otherwise independent news media has changed significantly in Canada as it has elsewhere, most notably in the United States. It has grown crowded…” Poynter says that since 2006, thirty-eight new non-profit news organisations have been launched.
Egyptians are protesting a regime that has failed them on many levels. This revolution is their way of holding the Mubarak government to account. Isn’t that also part of the crucial function of journalism in a democracy? Who can forget, for example, what was accomplished through the investigative work of Woodward and Bernstein in the 1970s? Yet the media “regime” has failed to provide support for investigative journalism.
Like the Egyptian people who have proven they don’t need intervention from the West to bring democracy to their country, investigative journalists are now proving that they don’t need the resources and opportunities refused by media owners to produce serious, important, investigative pieces.
It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian people can accomplish their goals to hold the government to account and have their demands realised. It also remains to be seen whether the re-birth of investigative journalism will accomplish its goals to, in the words of the Center for Public Integrity, “make institutional power more transparent and accountable.” But the progress made thus far, in both struggles, is promising.