From Gumshoe to Google Wave

Investigative journalism goes multimedia

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—While investigative journalism still requires old-school skills like stakeouts, meetings with confidential sources, and painstaking scrutiny of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, reporters and their news organizations are increasingly using social media and Web technology to ferret out incriminating information that perpetrators of fraud, discrimination, and even murder are seeking to keep hidden.

In the process, they are often accelerating the process of reporting their findings to the public and forging new partnerships that may bode well for the future of investigative journalism in an era of economic meltdown in the media industry, according to participants at a Harvard Kennedy School seminar yesterday on the state of investigative journalism (an audio recording and slide show of the event can be found here).

“Old-fashioned shoe-leather hard reporting will never go away. The key to the future is to take advantage of the new tools that are at our disposal,” said Mark Greenblatt, an on-camera reporter with Channel 11 News Defenders, a twelve-year-old investigative unit at KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas that has received numerous national awards for its work. Over the last two years, the “I-team” has unearthed stories of rampant sexual discrimination, corruption, and—of course—cover-up in the Texas National Guard that have reportedly led to the firing of three top generals. Greenblatt said that the investigative unit uses a Web-based tip line, Facebook, Twitter and other tools to enhance their investigative efforts.

“In an increasingly wired world, we are getting closer to encouraging people to bring the information to us. It’s a work in progress,” said David Fanning, executive producer of Boston’s WGBH Frontline, the famed twenty-seven-year-old public television series that pioneered in-depth investigative journalism on television. Frontline is part of a novel collaborative effort looking into allegations of violence and murder in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Fanning and Greenblatt were among more than a dozen reporters, editors, and producers honored at the annual Goldsmith Awards in Political Journalism administered by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. At the award ceremony Wednesday evening, Fanning received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Shorenstein also announced that the 2010 winner of the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting was Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for her year-long investigative series, “Cashing in on Kids.” Her investigation exposed a shocking scam involving fraud, criminal activity, and endangerment to children in Wisconsin’s child-care subsidy program. The series, which includes online video, audio, and a reader forum, earlier won the Nieman Foundation-administered Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism and a George Polk Award for State Reporting.

The prestigious Goldsmith investigative reporting prize, funded by an annual grant from the Greenfield Foundation, honors journalism that “best promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy or the practice of politics.” The Goldsmith winner, selected from among six previously announced finalists (who receive $10,000 each) and more than 100 entries, was kept secret until Tuesday evening’s announcement. The Goldsmith finalists often forecast who might emerge as victors in the Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced on April 12.

Other Goldsmith finalists included reporters at The Boston Globe for a series on widespread misuse of public pension funds; The News & Observer, in Raleigh, North Carolina, for an investigation of a former governor’s abuse of power; and The Washington Post for its in-depth coverage of systemic safety lapses in Washington, D.C.’s Metro subway system following a deadly crash.

On Wednesday, Rutledge said that her public child-care investigation started with a tip from a concerned government worker worried about a child who died after being left in a childcare van for several hours. The worker left a message with her paper’s night staff that landed in Rutledge’s box as the paper’s “public investigator,” a consumer-oriented beat that, she said, often turns “little tips” into front-page stories of systematic problems.

Rutledge turned to the traditional tried-and-true tricks of the investigative reporter, including meeting with the tipster, who fortunately had paperwork that provided “a road map that spelled out what kids should be where and when,” as well as stakeouts to gather proof. After four months, she published the first two stories in what would become a year-long investigation that has led to criminal probes and indictments, and prompted the passage of new laws aimed at eliminating fraud and improving screening of people going into the day-care business.

Rutledge’s old-fashioned, solo effort contrasts with a seemingly greater number of more digitally oriented and collaborative projects, however. Take, for example, the efforts of a five-person reporting team that has been tracking down a sordid story of alleged racism and violence involving white vigilantes and police officers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The “Law and Disorder” project started with A.C. Thompson, a dogged investigative reporter with the non-profit news agency ProPublica, following up a tip from a historian friend doing a book on disasters. It has grown into a hybrid investigative reporting model that has brought together the resources of four diverse organizations with different outlets and audiences in print, online, and on television.

The project, a Goldsmith finalist, includes the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS’s Frontline (which is posting its investigation online while it puts together the pieces for broadcast documentary). Thompson started his investigation in 2007 as a freelancer under an Investigative Fund grant from the Nation Institute, and published an initial piece in The Nation in January, 2009.

Another example of an outlet taking a more “modern” approach to journalism is The Seattle Times, long known for its award-winning investigative reporting. The paper received a “special citation” from the Goldsmith judges for its breaking local news coverage of the murder of four Lakewood, Washington police officers gunned down in a coffee shop on November 29, 2009. The paper combined traditional investigative approaches, including stakeouts, with social media to do real-time reporting on the massive two-day police search for the officers’ killer.

“We did the print job and quite a bit more online that we have ever done before,” said metro editor Mark Higgins. “It had an impact we had not seen before.” Noting that Seattle was the quintessential techie town, the paper’s Tiffany Campbell said that the paper tried using Google Wave, an online real-time communication and collaboration tool, tweeting from stakeouts, I-phone photos, and video to involve the public so they could “be there and really participate in that story.”

Goldsmith finalist Greenblatt and the rest of Houston’s Channel 11 Defenders team also combined the new and old in its reporting of a one-hour television special “Under Fire: Discrimination and the Corruption in the Texas National Guard,” as well as numerous television news pieces along the way. The program, the culmination of a two-year investigation, has already won several other journalism awards, including the prestigious 2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award in January.

KHOU reporter Greenblatt said it all started with a telephone tip from a concerned mother about an event at which a young female Texas Guard member was humiliated by being forced to parade around at a Guard leadership camp in a pink foam crown and plastic garbage bag cape as the “Vagisil Queen” (referring to a feminine hygiene product). The team’s follow-up reporting revealed a series of scandals involving the harassment of high-ranking female officers by the Guard’s male leadership, cover-up at high levels by male commanders, and financial fraud including embezzlement, double-billing, and funding of private businesses with Guard resources.

Greenblatt said that the team’s initial four-and-a-half-minute story on the 10 p.m. news just “snowballed from there.” He noted the “commonality” among all of the Goldsmith finalists in investigative reporting that involved considerable staff resources, time, and persistence as well as new media tools: “These are not single stories. One thing leads to another, and it evolves over time” into “substantial reporting that is memorable and leads to serving our communities.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.