Investigative science journalism in Europe – a part of RRI

One of the core values in journalism is being the watchdog that starts to bark when something dubious happens. The value of exposing fraud, plagiarism and doubtful scientific results is […]

One of the core values in journalism is being the watchdog that starts to bark when something dubious happens. The value of exposing fraud, plagiarism and doubtful scientific results is obvious for society; however, investigative journalism suffers these years. Cross national cooperation may be a way to make investigative science journalism reappear.

Science journalism has a proud history of digging up stories about fraud, shady science and influence of money.

Besides cases of actual fraud and cherry-picking of results, science is sometimes framed as a compelling argument from commercial actors toward costumers, even if the scientific evidence is still very uncertain. For example neuro-marketing that indeed has been used for questionable purposes with little substance to it. Or the health industry orchestrated by celebrities that accomplish a flourishing business by selling products with no proven effect.

Investigative journalism as support for RRI

There is nothing wrong with being an enthusiastic explainer of science. In fact, most science journalists love to tell about all the cool research going on. But given the fact that there are now so many channels, where scientists can communicate directly with an audience and spread high quality information about research, we need, more than ever, independent journalists to compare theories and to foster debates about the ethics going on inside the labs.

Most universities fear press coverage on fraud and sloppy scientist as it will fall back on their reputation, but also recognise how important it is to society to point at doubtful science and misuse of weak results. Thus, the support of investigative journalism can serve as a support to the efforts of implementing RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation), as it gives attention to the importance of securing ethics in science.

Few incentives for investigative work

Yet investigative journalism is not nearly as common in science reporting as it should be according to science journalist Michele Catanzaro. In 2016, he won the European Science Writer of the Year award for a science story covering how voice recognition used in legal cases, are based on very weak scientific conclusions, according to the scientific literature.

“In several outlets and countries, a science journalist can make a full career just by writing about the last paper in Nature or Science. There are few incentives to make investigative work, and even less to set up teams,” Catanzaro says.

As it is, investigative journalism suffers in general, because of the struggle of media to survive and to find business models that can secure high quality journalism. Journalists attempting to investigate must be willing to put up many extra hours and risk to only get paid very little for the work.

Cross-national teamwork for larger impact

Catanzaro was not alone when researching for his story. In fact, he did the research in collaboration with three other European journalists, and to cover some of the time invested they applied for – and got –  funding by This is a non-profit initiative that supports investigative journalism, and so far, the project Hearing Voices is the only science project that have received funding. Maybe because the very thought of collaborating internationally seems exhausting. But it has a lot of benefits, especially for investigative purposes as Catanzaro explains.

“Teamwork is beneficial in itself, because it multiplies the depth and breadth of the investigation and allows to combine different skills from different people. When teamwork is cross-national, there are added values: combining the different outlooks of different national journalistic traditions and ways of working; finding similarities and differences between national scenarios.”

Co-working also has other benefits. By having access to the same data, journalists in different countries – end especially in Europe with multiple languages – can write similar stories, thus securing the story and topic more impact. The obstacles are the same as in any teamwork, says Catanzaro.

“The challenges are agreeing on how to work together, sharing information efficiently to avoid repeating work, good feelings among the members of the group and so on.”

Go get started

To do international cooperation you need a group of colleagues you trust. The network in EUSJA and NUCLUES is a way to informally make connections that could possibly turn into a group of cooperating people.

In case you pick up a story that could potentially point at problems and challenges in the scientific world that needs to be debated, there are several options for funding. Apart from, which mainly fund European journalists, there is a whole list of national and international organisations that have specialised in funding investigative journalism. See the list here and here.

If you are interested in learning more about investigative journalism, the Centre for Investigative Journalism regularly offers courses to journalists who want to expand their skills.

UNESCO has published a free manual as an e-book on investigative journalism. You can download the manual Story-based inquiry: a manual for investigative journalists here.

About Berit Viuf

Berit Viuf has an academic background in Social science & Technology and has worked as a freelance journalist for 8 years. She writes about scientific topics for several major papers and magazines in Denmark. Her experience also covers audio and video production as well as planning of conferences and workshops.