Reviewed by Boris Romahn
Lauren Lucia Seywald is a Master’s graduate of the Vienna Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies, a freelance journalist, and a project manager at ichschreibe.at. Her book pursues two goals: Explore the structural conditions and influencing factors of investigative journalism, and learn more about the professional self-image of media producers who engage in investigative reporting.
On about 290 pages, the author sets out to determine the defining features of investigative journalism and investigative journalists (or what they should be). After an eight-page theoretical discourse, which mainly consists of set pieces from systems and actor theory, she presents the state of research on about sixty pages. Seywald describes differences and similarities in the development and significance of investigative journalism in the USA and Austria, analyzing the special challenges and obstacles to investigative journalism as a profession in Austria – the lack of journalism schools and professional entrance exams and the fact that there is hardly any hands-on instruction –, explaining key legal aspects of freedom of the media and of research, and presenting financing models for investigative journalism in Austria. This part is interesting because it draws a comparison to other journalism cultures in Europe, but also to the US with its long tradition of investigative journalism.
The second, empirical part of the book is twice as long, comprising about 175 pages. The methodology, which is based on guided interviews, is presented only very briefly. The core of the project is to answer three research questions:
1. How has investigative journalism developed in Austria from its origins to the present day?
2. What can investigative journalism do for the media industry and society?
3. What are possible future developments in investigative journalism?
The book then presents the questionnaire and eleven interview partners (among others Florian Klenk, Michael Fleischhacker, Eva Roither, and thesis supervisor Fritz Hausjell) from the three areas ‘editors-in-chief’, ‘editorial staff’, and ‘science’. This is followed by a summary of the results, supplemented by a short conclusion and an outlook as well as the original, longer interview transcripts, which are a great read (pages 183-270).
Those who are interested in current statements by well-known Austrian media producers on the subject of investigative journalism will certainly not be disappointed by this book. Indeed, it provides revealing insights into a professional self-image and how investigative journalism has developed, networked, and professionalized itself in Austria over the last 20 years.
Those who are hoping to find a scientific clarification and treatment of investigative journalism in this book will have to accept a number of shortcomings. Number one: Distance. The author is concerned with finding out for herself »and anyone who is interested what it means to practice the cream of the crop of reporting, not only in theory, but also in practice«. Investigative journalism is »the highest art of journalistic practice« and »turns an ordinary reporter into a master of his trade«. This betrays a lack of distance and great admiration as well as a lack of critical perspective – even when we all agree that investigative journalism does benefit democracy.
Number two: Theory. A run-down of systems and actor theory, combined with Siegfried Weischenberg’s Onion Model (1992) on a few pages is not very innovative and certainly not sufficient to theorize journalistic practice in a specific media environment. There is a lack of newer approaches from journalism studies, public relations and democracy theory and research, as well as reflections on how media technologies can both facilitate investigative reporting in some cases and make it considerably more difficult in others.
Number three: Actors and roles. Anyone currently studying investigative journalism should not limit themselves to full-time or permanent freelance journalists who work mainly for one medium, but should also take a look at journalists who work outside of established structures, who connect with other journalists around the world in research networks, who jointly collect and review information, and publish it at just the right moment. This was the case with the Austrian scandal called »Ibiza Affair« that led to the downfall of the center-right/right-wing government in May 2019. Unfortunately, there is no mention of this case in the book, which was published only one year later. This may be due to the fact that the interviews for the thesis were conducted from July 2018 to February 2019 and the work may already have been completed by then.
It is also lamentable when a journalist and writing trainer says she will be »avoiding gendered language for better readability«. At least the cover blurb of the book, published by Büchner Verlag in Marburg, acknowledges gender by using the terms »Journalist_innen« and »Medienmacher_innen«.
Overall, Lauren Lucia Seywald has turned her Master’s thesis into a solid publication, of interest to anyone interested in practical, investigative journalism in Austria and who also wants to hear original voices from media practice – such as Viennese journalist Julia Herrnböck: »I believe that [investigative journalism] is an important, though not the only, key to secure a future for journalism. Because it is the heart of journalism. Journalists should describe what they see, work independently, be critical, check and document everything. This is their core task. Going back to these roots is good for journalism.« (186).
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, September 2nd, 2020, accessible athttps://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22252
About the reviewer
Mag. Boris Romahn, LL.B., is a Senior Scientist and Head of the Department of Communication Science at the Paris Lodron University in Salzburg. His research and teaching focuses on media law and media ethics, the public, and professional research.
Translation: Kerstin Trimble