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Are the watchdogs still barking?

investigative reporting

This article takes a look at the importance of investigative reporting throughout American history and asks whether it is still practiced in today’s media.

By Alex De Marco

Investigative reporting has proven to be an important aspect of American society many times over the years.  But are we holding the media of today to the same high standards and expectations as earlier generations?

As early as 1903 America recognized the importance of investigative journalism when McClure’s Magazine published three articles which were “hard hitting in tone…well rooted in fact, and at times brutal in exposure of venality corruption,” according to the Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc Web site. These were among the first investigative reports, which helped bring an end to corruption in the early 20th Century. Without these stories, crooked cops and business owners would have been allowed to continue to poison America. 

Ida Tarbell’s “The Oil War of 1872,” included in McClure’s Magazine, was a 19-part article examining John D Rockefeller’s unethical and illegal monopolizing of oil in America. McClure’s Magazine became famous because of its muckraking — a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt to describe investigative reporting. McClure’s Magazine initiated the start of investigative reporting, and began the “whistle blowing” aspect of journalism, according to Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book “Muckrakers.” Stories like these helped to expose the corrupt business owners and politicians in America for what they were. 

Ruben Rosario of the St. Paul Pioneer Press suggested in an e-mail interview: “There’s still great investigative journalism going on. It just doesn’t get showcased often enough. It takes a back seat to the cable news channel obsession with crime and celebrity related stories.”

Arguably the most well-known and important investigative story was Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s coverage in The Washington Post after the break-in of the Democrat National Committee headquarters in 1972. The Watergate scandal became national news, and “…helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon,” according to Mitchell Stephen’s book “A History of News.”

Woodward and Bernstein received anonymous information from a man recognized as “Deep Throat.” With the help of their anonymous source, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered information connecting the Watergate break-in to the Justice Department, and eventually the White House.

Not too long after Watergate, a group of journalists created an organization in 1975 called Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.

“To create a forum in which journalists throughout the world could help each other by sharing story ideas, newsgathering techniques and news sources,” was the intended purpose according to their official Web site. It soon proved to be more than that when the Arizona Project came into being in 1976.

Don Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic and member of IRE, was the victim of a horrific car bomb that took his life. Bolles was supposed to meet with a source involving information about organized crime and corruption in the city, but when the source didn’t show up Bolles got back into his car and was killed. His fellow IRE members decided to take charge of the situation. They produced a 23-part series reporting in depth on the organized crime of the city. This action was not without controversy as many reporters felt that journalists seeking some sort of vengeance was not appropriate. 

David Donald, training director for IRE, said investigative reporting is just as important today as it has always been.

“We have had a strong number of supporters for over 30 years. Those that work on it, see it as a mission instead of a job,” said Donald in telephone interview. Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. is a resource for all investigative journalists who seek advice and help. They offer assistance with computer assisted reporting, and have many databases on their Web site that members may access.

 “We have a number of tip sheets available for reporters, as well as a listserve where members can post their problems. Most of the help reporters receive is from other members rather than IRE,” Donald said. The IRE Web site contains links to current investigative stories, as well as archives of previous articles.  “Just because there aren’t as many dominant investigative stories like Watergate, doesn’t mean investigative reporting isn’t as important as it once was,” Donald said.

There are those who disagree with him. Some feel that since Watergate there have been few investigative stories that stand out to the average person. David Hanners, currently of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a Pulitzer Prize winner, said in an e-mail interview that “Sadly, investigative reporting is becoming a thing of the past. For one thing, investigative reporting is very time and labor intensive.” Hanners said that at one point, he had spent six months working on only one story with unsatisfying results. “In most newsrooms today, that type of investment of time and manpower would be considered absurd…we just don’t have time to devote to those types of stories anymore, which is one of our biggest failings as an industry.”

Kathleen Hansen, director of the Minnesota Journalism Center, agrees with Hanners.  “I think there are definitely stories that need to be covered the way they used to be in the past. But the truth is the financial and time commitment is going down. Lots of organizations that used to have investigative teams don’t have them anymore or have reduced the number of people assigned to them. It’s because the support has gone down,” said Hansen in a telephone interview.

Susan Douglas, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan, writes a regular column for In These Times, a magazine dedicated to social justice issues. In her column “Human Nature and the Newsroom –decline of investigative reporting,” she argues that since larger corporations are running the media, there is less emphasis on what the public needs to know and more on what these industries want them to know. She writes that it is now “less the hand of ‘human nature’ and more the hand of powerful corporations and entrenched government bureaucracies playing a key role in determining what you do and do not get to see and read about in the news.”

In her book, “Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News and Why,” Douglas further explains her position.

 “At the same time those lazy, fatcat welfare moms were being bashed on a weekly basis by the pundits for bankrupting America, seven of the largest oil companies in the United States owed the federal government more than $1.5 billion in uncollected royalties, interest, and penalties. CBS and NBC wouldn't touch the story; ABC did a brief piece on” writes Douglas in Censored.

William Gaines, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, published “Investigative Journalism: Proven Strategies for Reporting the Story.” This book is more or less a case study of investigative reporting, and claims that “investigative reporting is coming back into style; there’s a resurgence of interest in it.”

Perhaps the final word should go to Hansen, Director of the Minnesota Journalism Center: “Take something like the build-up to the war in Iraq. If people had been pursuing this like they had in the past, I highly doubt it would have escalated to what it is today.”

Alex DeMarco is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This article was written as part of a media law and ethics class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The comments in these articles are the opinions of individuals and don't represent the opinions of the University of Minnesota.