Access journalism is the fatal flaw of investigative reporting


Ben Johnson, Staff Writer

With journalism and media as a whole continuing to lose trust among the American people, there is one of many variables that can be a reason trustworthiness for the general media is so low – access journalism.

Access journalism is a form of reporting that prioritizes access to individuals, businesses, corporations or government entities, often overlooking standard journalistic practices.

“‘Access journalism’ is hardly a new phenomenon,” senior National Review writer Dan Mclaughlin said. “It can be particularly pernicious in the worlds of sports and music journalism, where critical columns, harsh reviews, or insufficient airplay can get journalists frozen out of locker rooms and denied interviews with popular musicians.”

An example of this kind of access journalism can come from a news outlet. The New York Times published an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton, which is usually one of the few times a person on the right-side of the political aisle is featured in the newspaper.

After the op-ed was published, three unnamed journalists from the Times told editors that multiple sources would no longer provide information because of Cotton’s published work. After the interaction, Wall Street Journal reporters called for changes to the op-ed page.

This was a demonstration that the sources for those unnamed Times journalists would only provide their access if the journalist published what affirming viewpoints.

This is the point that Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi was trying to point out in his 2018 article about investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s memoir, describing the problem of access journalism.

The job in many quarters has devolved into feeding captive audiences a steady stream of revelations framed to fit their preconceived ideas about the world, in order to keep them coming back,” Taibbi said. “From Fox to MSNBC, the slant of programming has become more predictable, because audiences hate surprises and dislike being challenged.”

There are many stories around the internet that don’t really discuss much, they  just explain something simple that has no journalistic value other than maintaining access to a source that you don’t want to give up.

This is the problem that The Outline’s Leah Finnegan has with the watered-down narrative that access journalism relies on, a narrative that “too often reports b—s— without identifying the source of the b—s—.”

In her article, she explains the problem this form of journalism has by illustrating how the Washington Post and New York Times published stories about Jared Kushner and his attempt to install secret phone lines to Russia.

The Post originally published the article while the Times followed behind three hours later, “notable for painting Kushner in a slightly better light.”

Finnegan used the Times’ sources as an example of why access journalism is detrimental to the reporting craft:

The sources for the Times story were “three people with knowledge of the discussion,” which could theoretically be anyone from White House tour guides to Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Sergey Kislyak themselves. But because the Times only identifies the sources as “people” — as opposed to government sources, or White House sources, or any descriptor that would give the reader more of an idea where the quotes are coming from — the reader is perhaps left more in the dark after reading the article than before. Predictably, this made some other “people” — not to be confused with the “people” quoted in the article, but who knows!

The lack of sources for any investigation can prohibit solid evidence to back any investigative claim, as The Conversation’s Peter Manning said in his 2018 article on “How ‘access journalism’ is threatening investigative journalism.”

“The form (access journalism) is undoubtedly a response to the need for media to move faster for stories with big impact,” Manning said. “But an allegation is not necessarily a story, nor is a ‘link to something’ automatically evidence. There needs to be larger conversation about what constitutes proper public evidence, proper reliable sources and transparency in both.”

Staffers at the Columbia Journalism Review note that access journalism isn’t inherently evil, but the way modern media use the form makes a drastic change from how investigative journalism ought to function:

To be clear, access journalism is not an inherently bad thing, and is in fact a vital, useful, and inevitable journalistic form. Given the competitive pressures and the way the world works, there will always be a journalism focused on getting close to elites to learn what they are thinking and intending. And that’s okay. It’s the other stuff—public interest-oriented, accountability journalism—that is at once journalism’s most powerful and paradoxically its most vulnerable form; the riskiest, the costliest, the most technically difficult. It’s the journalism we need to worry about. Other debates are a parlor game by comparison.

Ultimately, access journalism in its longevity can be hazardous to the state of reporting and dangerous to the craft itself, especially when its sole usage is to guarantee a future source.

When investigation constitutes multiple unnamed sources without any indicator of where in the organization they may be, a source close to the president could be his vice president or the vendor he buys a hotdog from on the street.

“Of course, the biases and punch-pulling inherent in access journalism can never entirely be eliminated from journalism in the real world,” Mclaughlin says, “the real issue … seems to be that (outlets) do not even see why it is bad or dangerous to let sources dictate what your newspaper publishes. If you see your job as speaking power to truth, you are in the wrong business.”

This story was originally posted to Ben’s News Blog. The story can be accessed here.