Our comrades-in-criticism at the American Journalism Review are out with an important piece about the alarming decline of watchdog reporting at federal agencies and departments.
Jodi Enda, a pal of mine who wrote the story, has done great work here, looking at the shifting Washington media landscape and shrinking staffs at most D.C. bureaus, declaring that “the dearth of in-depth government reporting is palpable.”
As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs, fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle. Even if they are large, even if they are central to how Americans live their lives, most parts of the federal government—the very offices that write the rules and execute the decisions of Congress and the president—remain uncovered or undercovered by the mainstream media. Consider that not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government’s largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets.
And so, while reporters flock to the story of the day, on the Hill, at the White House, or maybe at the Pentagon, they’re leaving uncovered all kinds of other stories—about regulation, and what’s going on, and not going on, at government offices across the capital—with real life consequences.
Enda uses coverage of the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion to powerful effect, noting that The Washington Post and The New York Times “produced lengthy exposés detailing a plethora of safety breaches that preceded the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in a quarter century”—but only after 29 miners lost their lives.
Just one Washington-based newspaper reporter covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration “on anything close to a regular basis.” But, as a one-man bureau for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, he has a lot of other things to do, too.
Carroll, who has won numerous awards for regional reporting from Washington, says he keeps tabs on MSHA “when they’re proposing safety initiatives and when they’re not putting out safety initiatives…With MSHA, we try to revisit issues that nobody else is covering.” For years, he’s been tracking government activity on “float dust,” coal dust that floats in the air and can lead to black lung disease and cause fires in underground mines. In the 1990s, the Courier-Journal reported that mining companies were falsifying records on coal dust, prompting the federal government to crack down.
“Over the years since then we’ve tried to revisit this story from time to time, absent any immediate event,” Carroll says. “With the changing administrations, now it looks like there is going to be some new energy coming up with regulations on coal dust.”
As AJR is smart to point out, “It is those types of stories, the ‘in-between’ ones that track government’s progress or lack of it, that so many Washington reporters either choose to or are forced to skip.” Some don’t think it’s sexy enough. Others just don’t have the time.
Big Chief Audit Dean Starkman has been worrying about the hamster-wheel-like productivity demands plaguing journalism these days, and the regional reporters that Enda speaks with are confronting them every day. Here’s the Courier-Journal’s James Carroll, on how he copes:
“It’s a real challenge because you have day-to-day things that are breaking all the time. And you have additional responsibilities, like blogs,” Carroll says. “You have to treat your enterprise stories like daily stories… Otherwise, you’ll never get to them.”
There’s much more to the AJR piece, including a perhaps too-quick look at some of the new media outlets that are filling the gap, some not-too-persuasive comments from editors about the paucity of coverage, and a chart that builds on work the magazine has done before on this topic to illustrate the declining attention to agencies and departments.