Britain has been gripped by a mushrooming scandal shining a light on the methods of tabloid journalism, one result being the sudden shutdown of the The News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. Revelations that reporters hacked into the cellphone messages of a murdered schoolgirl and the families of fallen soldiers caused the scandal to explode in recent weeks. It touches on everyone from the royal family to Scotland Yard to past and present prime ministers. What does the scandal say about the line between tabloid and investigative journalism? Brant Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois and a co-author of "The Investigative Reporter's Handbook." Houston was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
By the standards of investigative reporting, where did The News of the World go wrong? How would you distinguish tabloid reporting from investigative reporting?
The News of the World used techniques that broke the law. They enlisted people to hack into private phones. They also are being investigated for making payments to law-enforcement officials. Hacking phones and paying cops goes even beyond typical tabloid journalism that routinely pays people for story tips or information on celebrities and government officials. Investigative reporting relies on extensive research into documents and data, multiple interviews and intensive editing. It does not rely on payments to tipsters for gossip.
Investigative reporters have been known, and even praised, for skirting the law in pursuit of a big story. Is it ever justified?
The general rule in investigative reporting is that the story's impact must far outweigh the methodology - that is, the way the news is gathered. If documents leaked to journalists show deep government or corporate corruption, the public is likely to be less critical of how the information was leaked. If a journalist can only get a story by going undercover, and, for example, that work exposes the beatings or abuses of children or those with disabilities, then the public is much less likely to be critical of the deception that goes with going undercover.
Should we consider restrictions on the media designed to curtail these methods?
I think the need for a free press outweighs the need for heavy restrictions. I think we have laws that can - and are - dealing with methods that go far beyond the usual practices of journalists.
Do you see this scandal having any effect on journalism in the U.S.?
The great attribute of the U.S. press - that gets lost sometimes - is its willingness to be self-critical. This scandal will cause the usual self-reflection and also investigations into whether any of the abuses in the United Kingdom have been carried out by tabloids operating in the U.S.