The Survival of Investigative Journalism

From Iraq to China, health and medicine under scrutiny

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.

“This was a story that had to be told. This was something I was willing to do on my own,” said Kors, an intense twenty-nine-year-old New York-based writer who earned a 2003 master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The New York Times series, “A Toxic Pipeline,” by Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker, looked at deadly Chinese exports of hazardous chemicals, including a counterfeit solvent ingredient added to cold medicine and other drugs that killed hundreds around the world. The issue continues to resonate as new evidence mounts of the Chinese role in the production of a deadly contaminated version of the blood thinner heparin. And Bogdanich, a two-time Pulitzer winner who described investigative reporters like himself as having a “low threshold of indignation,” is still on the case.

The Washington Post series by Priest and her colleague Anne Hull resulted in the dismissal of leading Army officials as well as an overhaul of the system for treating military outpatients. Tofani’s October 2007 Salt Lake Tribune series led to Democratic proposals to require overseas enforcement of worker protections in trade agreements.

But the investigative journalists lamented that fewer publications are willing to take on these in-depth projects. Kors said that he continues to hear from veterans about new cases that he often refers to local papers in hopes of sparking coverage. Priest also said that the experiences of veterans at Walter Reed were certainly duplicated at Army posts and veterans hospitals around the country. “The media can really make a difference just by asking questions…I would encourage other reporters to do the same work in their own areas,” she said.

“Investigative journalism has been in danger as long as I’ve known it,” said Marvin Kalb, the pioneering television journalist and author who started the Goldsmith awards seventeen years ago during his tenure as the first Shorenstein Center director. “It is the most expensive form of journalism, it takes a lot of time, and it requires a special kind of journalist who is willing to dig, be tough and offend people,” he said in an interview. But, “what is new is that the money crunch which is affecting all of journalism is bound to affect investigative journalism too.”

At the moment, investigative journalism is surviving if not flourishing, with this year’s Goldsmith award attracting roughly 120 entries-about the same as in past years. The Goldsmith finalists are often a preview of the eagerly awaited Pulitzer Prize announcements in early April. Recent leaks to Editor & Publisher suggest that the Priest/Hull and Bogdanich/Hooker series are among the Pulitzer jury finalists.

As a juror in the 2007 Goldsmith judging, slogging through four file boxes of entries, I was struck by the diversity and strength of investigative reporting and the importance of maintaining the news media’s unique watchdog role in American public life.

Today’s Internet bloggers may ignite a firestorm of media frenzy by detailing the juicy indiscretions of celebrities and politicians, but Web-based journalism is just beginning to realize its potential. It is the long-term investment in investigative reporting by reputable newspapers, magazines, and television networks that has really made a difference in years past and hopefully will do so in the years to come-with a little help from new Web players like ProPublica.

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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.