Amid the hand-wringing about the downward spiral of print economics, one recurring fear has been the fate of expensive, time-consuming investigative journalism. With less money, fewer reporters and the need to feed the twenty-four-hour news monster, will newspapers and magazines still be willing and able to invest in investigative projects that tackle the tough issues of mismanagement and malfeasance in their own backyards or in the world at large?
A recent Harvard journalism roundtable featuring prize-winning investigative reporters who have uncovered health scandals from Iraq to China suggested that while a few big papers-at least for the moment-are still putting a premium on investigative coverage, other regional and local papers are struggling to do so.
Celebrated Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, whose 2007 series “The Other Walter Reed” created an uproar about the poor medical care of injured Iraq veterans in the shadow of the nation’s capitol, said that “at the Post, investigative reporting is one of the things we’re able to make a difference in that not everyone else can.” Thus far, Priest, who won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her investigative coverage of the CIA and the war on terror, said she has not seen serious cutbacks in investigative reporting despite the recent Post announcement of new cost-cutting staff buyouts.
But veteran investigative reporter Loretta Tofani had a tough time getting support for her freelance investigation of hazardous Chinese labor practices that expose workers to everything from toxic chemicals to limb amputations. She spent a year visiting twenty-five Chinese factories, interviewing workers and poring over thousands of U.S. import and health documents. She pitched her four-part series, “American Imports, Chinese Deaths,” to three papers before finally having it picked up by The Salt Lake Tribune.
“The Tribune is on a shoestring budget” and can’t afford to do investigative work that takes months of time, said Tofani, who financed her five trips to China on her own, aided in part by travel grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Center for Investigative Reporting. For family reasons, she now lives in Utah after a two-decade newspaper career that included a 1983 Pulitzer for a Washington Post series on gang rape at a Maryland jail as well as a stint in the 1990s as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Beijing bureau chief. “It was very difficult doing [the Tribune story] as a freelancer. I’m not sure if I would do that again,” said Tofani.
Priest and Tofani were among six finalists for the prestigious 2008 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy for journalism that promotes “more effective and ethical conduct of government” by disclosing impropriety, mismanagement, and excessive secrecy. Health and medicine appear particularly ripe for investigative journalism, with four of the six finalists exposing health-related scandals-two on abominable medical treatment of Iraq veterans and two on unsafe Chinese labor practices and products. The other finalists focused on political improprieties at the lowest and highest levels, including a county corruption scandal in The Palm Beach Post (Fla.) as well as a four-part Washington Post series on Vice President Dick Cheney’s secrecy and abuse of power, which was awarded the top $25,000 Goldsmith Prize.
The hunger for more investigative journalism is reflected in the overwhelming response to a new nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative journalism project called ProPublica that is headed by Paul E. Steiger, the respected former Wall Street Journal managing editor. Steiger, who was honored with the 2008 Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, said the survival of investigative journalism may depend on more localized and specialized coverage as well as subsidies from new sources.
With an independent New York newsroom staff and a $10 million foundation-funded annual budget, ProPublica believes it will become the best financed shop for investigative journalism. Steiger said that he has already received more than 1,100 applications for twenty-four full-time reporting and editing jobs. He said investigative stories will initially be provided free of charge on an exclusive basis to selected news outlets and then posted on ProPublica’s Web site for general use.
The significant impact that investigative journalism can have on institutions and public policy was illustrated by several of the Goldsmith award finalists. Freelance journalist Joshua Kors uncovered shocking abuses by Army doctors who made false diagnoses of pre-existing “personality disorders” in thousands of wounded Iraq veterans that led to discharges without benefits. His two-part series, published in The Nation and picked up by television network news, has already led to a congressional hearing, bills in the House and Senate, an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, and restored benefits to some of the veterans he profiled.