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.