The new yardsticks of investigative journalism

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The gold standards of desired impact from investigative reporting have long involved the indictment of an elected official, a bill being signed into law, or a lawsuit filed on behalf of vulnerable citizens.

But conversations with investigative journalism leaders across the country reveal a shift in how to document whether their work has made a difference. Driven in part by the increased online presence of readers, top editors at for-profit and non-profit outlets and a Knight professor described placing a greater emphasis in recent years on less tangible markers like raising awareness and sparking widespread conversation.

In 2014, for example, the Center for Investigative Reporting followed its investigation into pesticide use on strawberries by commissioning a play that was performed in the affected community, according to Editor in Chief Amy Pyle. The production and other coverage contributed to higher levels of awareness among area residents about pesticides’ presence and danger. Pyle said her team is spending more time engaging with readers on spaces like Facebook and Twitter as well as holding community events.

“There are pieces that are less obvious and sometimes feel a little squishy, but in fact are real,” says Pyle, adding that for years CIR employed a social scientist full-time to help it define and quantify those more subtle measures.

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The Austin-based Texas Tribune is adopting a similar approach, according to Editor in Chief Emily Ramshaw. The publication has  operated since 2009 in a staunchly conservative state where it’s hard to generate concrete evidence of investigative impact. Ramshaw emphasized the importance of the Tribune listening to Texans as a way to heighten trust and avoid being dismissed out of hand.  “We need to do a better job of building trust around those who are not readers—to connect face to face, so that we’re not just considered the urban, liberal big city media,” she says.

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The Tribune has sought to elicit higher levels of audience engagement through public events. A daylong symposium in January on race and public policy drew hundreds of people. The organization is also working to develop measures to understand whether its work prompted readers to call legislators or vote. “You don’t always get the forced resignation or the scalp to hang on the wall,” Ramshaw says. “We’re working on ways to more accurately [determine] whether people are taking action based on our work.”

How stories are presented can influence whether they trigger widespread dialogue and subsequent change.

Steven Ginsberg, senior politics editor at The Washington Post, noted that the impetus for that action increasingly occurs on the internet, rather than on the pages of a newspaper. How stories are presented can influence whether they trigger widespread dialogue and subsequent change. “If you unburden yourself from thinking of the front page, you think about it in an entirely different way,” he says.

In some cases, as with Rosalind Helderman and Mary Jordan’s story about Melania Trump’s immigration status, a question-and-answer format was the best way to ensure wide readership and conversation. In other cases, as in recent Pulitzer Prize winner David Fahrenthold’s coverage of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a listicle of 81 things Huckabee had denounced was the most effective method.

“It is up to us to figure out how people want to get that information, how to tell people what we know they want to hear,” Ginsberg says.

 

Divided opinion on seeking change

If there is consensus about the need for engagement and flexibility in story presentation, there was less unanimity about the value of journalists explicitly striving to foment change through their work.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet argued against the idea of investigative journalism working to have a specific result. “You do the work, you ask the hard questions; that’s the job,” Baquet says. “Your goal can’t be a certain type of impact, at least if you’re The New York Times, The Washington Post or the [Chicago] Tribune.”  This is in part because of factors outside the reporters’ and publications’ control like the timing of the story, people’s reaction to it, and whether other media also cover the issue, he says.

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Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said that working from the beginning of a project to attain a desired outcome can cross the line from investigative reporting to activism.

“I think many people accepted the fact that the work is best done not with a plan for effecting change; that’s really [the work of] advocates,” says Houston.

But others, like Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, incorporate potential outcomes as an integral part of deciding whether to undertake a project. In addition to considering whether an issue is systemic and of global concern, the group also asks if the project is likely to get a result, she says.

Attaining impact has become harder since Trump became president on January 20, but support for investigative reporting has soared since his victory.

“I would say that we think about impact from the very beginning of each investigation,” says Walker, whose organization published the Panama Papers in 2016. “We want to change something; that’s why we exist.”

Walker explained ICIJ does not advocate for specific outcomes or associate with activists, and maintained that the organization’s methods lead to more effective journalism. “By thinking about impact from early on and choosing projects in part based on potential results, I feel we are doing a more responsible and useful type of journalism,” she says.

It’s a journalism driven by the conviction that journalists working together can accomplish far more than what they could do on their own. The Panama Papers, for instance, involved close to 400 journalists, many of them working in tiny newsrooms. “We achieve much greater impact through collaboration,” Walker says.  She and her colleagues also are motivated by a sense of accountability to their readers, many of whom are working people sending donations of as little as $3 to the organization.

 

Rising support for investigative work

Although attaining impact has become harder since Trump became president on January 20, support for investigative reporting has soared since his victory. Houston of Urbana-Champaign called the current moment a “golden era” in terms of the awareness of investigative journalism’s importance for a functioning democracy, while Pyle said CIR has had many new donors support their work.

“A lot of people are getting interested in funding journalism who haven’t funded journalism in the past,” she says.  “They want to make a difference.

“I’m all for it,” Pyle adds.

Houston also said that there is a lot of impactful work happening beyond the coverage of Trump. He referred to “What wouldn’t you know, if not for nonprofit news,” a collection of work published in 2016 by the 120 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Among the results: the Justice Department’s decision to stop using private prisons after exposes by Mother Jones and the Investigative Fund, in partnership with The Nation and Reveal.

And while revelations about Trump have not led to many Republicans breaking ranks or a bipartisan agreement on the need to act against him, investigative work on the Trump Administration has already led to change, according to Baquet. He pointed to The Washington Post’s revelations about former national security adviser Michael Flynn that led to Flynn’s resignation. “I guess I think investigative reporting still has impact in Washington and all over the place,” he says.

More is likely to come, according to James Henry, a longtime investigative journalist who published a lengthy piece last December that explored Trump’s Russia ties. He cited the appointment of a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, and ongoing investigations by teams of journalists in many countries,  like Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Russia itself, as hopeful signs.

“There is a gathering storm here,” says Henry, who has investigated kleptocrats for three decades. “We don’t want to miss that potential.”

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Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is an investigative journalist, author, and assistant professor of Journalism at Grand Valley State University. A Fulbright Scholar, Specialist, and Teacher, he has written or edited five books. In the spring semester of 2017, he was the David Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.