Investigative Journalism has Gone to the Comics

Investigative journalism is not dead; it’s changed.

When “Spotlight” won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many journalists bemoaned the loss of the fourth estate, of the accountability of major organizations. They reminisced about a time where journalists were held as truth seekers. But times have changed. When times are tough, long investigative pieces are usually the first to go. An investigation of the caliber and impact of the Spotlight team’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church may never be seen again.

Flip through any newspaper, change the channel to any news station and it’s the same news recycled through with no original content and hardly any original analysis. Occasionally, there’s an interesting documentary aired from a third party, but doesn’t possess any in house investigative pieces. The CBC does air the Fifth Estate and Global has 16x9, but rarely is there impact beyond their audience.

Maybe people don’t trust journalists anymore. The over saturation of news and any Tom, Dick or Harry believing they can be a journalist may be reasons. Or maybe, it’s the deadline pressing, digital first model that makes the news a parody of itself when it has to correct egregious errors in an effort to be first.

In his heyday, Jon Stewart was considered the most trusted newsperson despite the fact that he hosted a fake news show. Through humour, Stewart was able to tackle issues that journalists couldn’t or wouldn’t address. He was able to inject a level of insight that was rarely seen.

It’s been a hard road to find a successor worthy or Stewart’s wit or insight; he was truly one of a kind. However, many are trying. Trevor Noah took the helm of the show in September and other former correspondents have gone on to do very similar style pieces in their own show: Stephen Colbert in the Late Show, Samantha Bee in Full Frontal. They take the day’s news, write jokes about it, provide comedic insights and move on.

John Oliver, who was once a fill in host for Stewart, is different though. With his show Last Week Tonight, he takes topics and spends upwards of 20 minutes talking about them. Oliver takes topics such as torture, the death penalty and even the Miss America Pageant and invests time and effort to investigating what exactly is going on. He does it with humour, often in the form of a funny aside or a small tantrum, but that’s only to break up the often weighty subject matter he is discussing.

In the fake news world, Colbert, Bee and Noah are the equivalent to the nightly news. Oliver is the fake news equivalent of an investigative journalist.

This is perhaps most evident in Oliver’s takedown of Televangelists. He even went to the trouble of setting up (and later dismantling) a fake church to show just how easy it was for mega churches to seek tax exemptions. He and his staff showed exactly how dangerous seed money could be. It’s funny, but also incredibly informative.

Of course, Oliver misses key components such as original interviewing and sourcing; instead he’s drawing the lines between dots that haven’t been connected yet. At the end of the day he’s a comedian, not a journalist.

Maybe this speaks to the attention span of news consumers — that humour is needed to break up difficult subject matter. Or maybe, just maybe, Oliver’s success shows that people want to know what is going on in their world, but they can’t find the answers anywhere but his fake news show.

Originally published at

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