Simon does raise an interesting question about results-driven investigative journalism. It certainly improves the lives of some people, but reforms are often short-lived, the underlying patterns unyielding. Reform, in fact, is the theme of the third season of The Wire. In the main plotline, a renegade police major, tired of watching mass arrests make no perceptible impact on violent crime, secretly tries to legalize drugs in his district. He sets up three spots in the city where the police would not interfere with the sale or use of drugs, and violent crime goes down. Word of the plan leaks to reporters and politicians, who inevitably pounce on the controversy for their own good. When the police brass find out, the disgraced major goes out on a lieutenant’s pension.

The on-screen epigraph from the first episode of the season, a line taken from a street-level drug dealer, says it all: “Don’t matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin’ the same.” The episode opens with Baltimore’s mayor standing with his hand on a pump that, when depressed, will trigger the demolition of a high-rise building that had been a violent, drug-infested housing project. He proudly announces the construction of new low- and middle-income townhouses, then depresses the pump. The building comes down, and the dust escapes the established perimeter, slowly engulfing the surprised faces of all the politicians and glad-handers in attendance. The scene was unsubtle by Simon’s standards, but it was his marquee message: obsess over the smaller problems, and the bigger problems will blow right back in your face.

Will the thousands of additional children who learned to read in Baltimore after the “Reading by 9” series thrive into adulthood? The spotlight was on the schools, but much of what determines success in learning to read is learned at home before kindergarten. Once children get to school, well over half of the variance in their achievement scores is attributable to factors outside the schools. Perhaps 15 or 20 percent is attributable to teachers. And overall early gains by disadvantaged children often disappear by high school. (Coincidentally, in The Wire’s final season, this very fact will hamper a mayor’s effort to reform elementary schools.) Ought the spotlight shine on the extracurricular socioeconomic factors that interfere with learning?

A spotlight beamed higher and wider, however, may not effect any appreciable change. Is it a greater virtue to confront deeper truths about where our country is going and how successful we are at living up to the American ideal of equal opportunity than it is to improve individual lives? Should we keep doin’ the same, no matter how many times we get burnt?

Lynda Robinson, Simon’s colleague at the Sun, now an editor at The Washington Post Magazine, says that he was on the right track before he left nonfiction. The combination of systemic analysis and narrative, she says, is the highest form of journalism, and she cites reporters like Katherine Boo as examples of the “investigative-narrative” style. “You come out of it not just understanding why the system isn’t working, but caring and understanding the lives of people affected by it,” Robinson said. Jan Winburn, who is now delighted to have the title of narrative editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also mentions Boo’s work as a model. “Ironically,” she says, “a criticism of narrative is that you paint a picture of what’s happening, but don’t get at the root cause or explore the policy that causes that problem. The great reporters are bringing those two things together.”

Simon was careful not to hold up one or two examples as a model for his vision of journalism, saying more generally that he’d like to see “problems and people portrayed in all of their complexity and contrariness.” He feels reporters who want to understand the context of urban stories should read books that capture the complexity of social forces, such as Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land and William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears. Wilson’s tract, in fact, surveys the last forty years of media coverage of the underclass and convincingly laments its increasing focus on the “culture of poverty” at the expense of structural explanations.

Lawrence Lanahan is formerly an analyst with American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. He lived in Baltimore for five years and is now a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. The fifth season of The Wire premiered January 6, 2008 on HBO.