The Center for Investigative Reporting recalibrates to cover Trump

Photo by Roger H. Goun

I jolted awake, or rather I was jolted awake, by the Northridge Earthquake on January 17, 1994. I drove bleary-eyed down the 210 freeway to the 118, careening off expansion joints that had become steps. Less than a mile from the epicenter, the San Fernando Valley office of The Los Angeles Times already was surrounded with yellow police tape. Off limits. I was a newly minted editor, suddenly in charge of a mass disaster without access to the normal tools of our trade: phones, computers, police scanners.

We worked in the hot sun of the Times parking lot for most of the day, sneaking inside to grab a battery-operated TV, laptops, pens, and reporters’ notebooks. And from that day on, nothing was the same. For weeks, for months. Actually, for years.

The news was so big that we set aside all of our stories in progress and our future story pitches. Everything was dwarfed by the size and urgency of the quake, its aftershocks, and its aftermath:  the bodies sandwiched inside apartments, the jittery families camping in the median strips, the tearing down and rebuilding that ushered in corrupt contractors and quake ghost towns.

It was overwhelming at first. Then we learned to pace ourselves, to start small, to begin with what we knew, ask questions and follow them.

These are lessons I am reflecting on frequently these days, because on November 8 we were jolted awake again and now are bracing for aftershocks. So many of the stories we had in progress are eclipsed by the election of Donald Trump, so much of what we had planned now seems off topic. So much of what we can do feels inadequate.

From this day on, nothing will be the same.

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Unlike the LA Times, a daily newspaper then relied on by 1 million people for their daily news, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has a special niche: uncovering wrongdoing and injustices, focusing our efforts on those stories with the greatest potential to drive change. That niche has never seemed more relevant.

We are a nonpartisan newsroom. So this pursuit is not about Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal. In recent years, we have not shied away from stories critical of the Obama administration, including several taking the president to task for not living up to his promises to veterans. (Those veterans chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin, by the way.) We are independent in every way; none of our donors hold sway over what we cover, no matter how generous.

And change can be good–at a minimum good for news. A new presidential administration, particularly one with a platform of disruption, offers unlimited fodder for investigative journalists.

So where do we start?

After I became editor in chief earlier this year, we defined three filters for our coverage: accountability, inequality, and sustainability. That provides a crucial and topical framework now as we re-evaluate our stories and our plans, guided by an additional filter: How is this new administration likely to shift the foundation, and the response? Who will be hurt and helped?

We have no preconceived notions of what will happen in these areas beyond what we all learned about Donald Trump and his plans during the campaign, much of it from the candidate himself. His post-election statements–such as telling Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes that he will deport millions of undocumented people–persuade us he intends to follow through. That kind of change deserves close scrutiny.

Already we have many concerns and the tools to start to address them. Sexual harassment and assault are illegal, not paying contractors and mistreating workers are, too. We have a track record of using our accountability filter to expose these problems and we will continue to do so. Destroying our planet is unfathomable, just as we have begun to make some meager headway against climate change. That’s where our sustainability filter will come in handy. Intolerance is intolerable. The ugliness ignited by Trump’s campaign in terms of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism catches in our inequality filter.

But the bigger challenge for us as journalists is confronting another fault line of this election: that no one seems to care what we report, that no one trusts us. We don’t have 1 million subscribers like the LA Times did back in 1994, counting on us to help them recover. So we realize that rebuilding trust will be difficult–and essential. We’re just beginning to think about how to begin but we already know that our work convening local and regional media around the nation as investigative partners–through Reveal Labs and our public radio program and podcast with PRX, Reveal–will be another powerful tool in meeting that challenge.

In a trending post on Twitter two days after the election, a man called one current narrative backward. It’s the rural and exurbanites who need to listen more to the urbanites, he said, not vice versa. I think it’s both, I tweeted back at him: “We all need to assume less, listen more.”

So in the coming months, watch for us to redouble our efforts to uncover wrongdoing and injustice. That draws on our core values, our mission, which will persist no matter who is president. But help us, too, as we learn to assume less and listen more.

We’ll start small, beginning with what we know, asking questions and following them. We are not judge and jury. We’re just a small but ambitious nonprofit newsroom, jolted awake.

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Amy Pyle is editor in chief of Reveal, which publishes, across multiple platforms, the work of the Center for Investigative Reporting. She can be reached via email at apyle@revealnews.org.