Shoe leather + Sunshine/FOIA = good journalism

I know none of us needs reminding that the public isn’t exactly brimming with confidence in us, the media. But there is one area of positive sentiment that has changed little since the mid-1980s, and that’s in the public’s expectation of the media performing a watchdog role.

The stories I’m most proud of as a reporter and an editor are those that shed light on something I thought — as a citizen — the public would want to know about. Often, the reporting entailed a lot of looking at documents, numerous interviews (and re-interviews) and analysis. Sometimes, we didn’t know where we would end up.

This kind of reporting is pretty time-consuming and hard on the patience of everyone involved. It’s a gamble: What if, after all these long, hard hours, there really isn’t much of a story?

Happily, there are news organizations — some old, some new and unconventional — that are still putting in the time and getting results that prompt change.

AP photo of citizens at a Bell City Council meeting shouting at city councilors

Look no further than the L.A. Times’ Pulitzer-winning coverage of the city of Bell, Calif., “where corrupt bosses had turned the public treasury into something like their personal ATM.” (By the way, hit that link, read page one and then look carefully for the second-page hyperlink sandwiched between the ads and the sharing icons; the L.A. Times’ website it is a disgrace when it comes to usability.)

Or how about the Chicago Tribune‘s recent watchdog stories about the ease with which accused felons — including people charged with murder and sexual assaults — are able to escape criminal prosecution by slipping over the border into Mexico? This is good stuff.

Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE, will join us in class Tuesday to talk about watchdog and investigative reporting. He’s really fun to listen to because he loves this work.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a future investigative reporter, you will learn from this guy.

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8 Responses to Shoe leather + Sunshine/FOIA = good journalism

  1. kaitlinsteinberg says:

    I really enjoyed the article about the two fellas from the LA Times who won the Pulitzer (but you’re so right about those annoying ads!), particularly because they have such different backgrounds but were able to use their diverse skills to uncover some nasty stuff. I think as much as the public likes to hate on the media, they are almost always appreciative when journalists uncover an injustice and work to make it right.

  2. I have to admit that the only reason I clicked on the LA Times link is because you bad-mouthed the layout and ads. Once I was there, I was hooked. I love how journalism isn’t an instant passion for some of us, but rather is something we fall into, then realize that we really love it. The backgrounds of Vives and Gottlieb only added to the fact that they are doing something that they love and their watchdog efforts have been recognized by the public. I loved how the community in Bell rallied around Vives and chanted for their “hero” to be let in. It truly is a sign that the duo have made a lasting impact on that community.

  3. Kip Hill says:

    I’m hopeful that new economic models will allow for greater in-depth reporting. I’ve been reading about the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic abuse scandal in that city in the early 2000s (there’s some really powerful journalism that was produced by that Spotlight team, you can check it out at and others who have uncovered clandestine religious practices. Generally, the lament is that these investigations take time, and the modern newsroom demands daily content from every one of its reporters. This slows down the investigative process, which can take months and years, especially when you’re tracking down nonprofit organizations that don’t need to report to the IRS.

    Though the two articles above are from mainstream news sources, I think more and more you’re going to see the hard-hitting investigative pieces coming from places like the Yahoo! sports blog, who broke the University of Miami debacle earlier this year, and sites like ProPublica which can invest the time, energy and resources into investigations that the mainstream news sources just can’t do anymore. I mean, aside from catching a plumber on camera screwing with your pipes and charging you extra to repair them.

  4. Carlos D. Navarro says:

    The pieces from L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune provide two great examples of how journalism can and should have a positive impact on society. I believe that if we are ever to recover some of that long-lost trust from our readers, it will probably be by presenting ourselves as effective and eficient watchdogs of the people in power.

    I have quickly come to learn how difficult it can be for us baby journalists to see beyond the surface of our own stories and story ideas and try to find that extra society-changing bit. So, getting a few good examples to follow is always nice.

    I liked the story from the L.A. Times because I can easily see Ruben Vives’ personal journey to becoming a Pulitzer-winning reporter, coming from another country as an immigrant and all. It’s almost like a fairy tale. His experiences at the newsroom and how he became involved in the world of journalism show us that only by training hard and being great observators can we really achieve that higher level of journalistic quality.

    From the Chicago Tribune story, I was struck to see the huge gap that separates what the seemingly powerful U.S. government can do about these alleged criminals and what truly inspired and professional reporters can achieve. It would almost seem as if the government purposefully chose to leave these cases cool down and then trashed them.

    I wonder whether the same would happen if the crimes were committed against other social and racial groups, and not only inside what appears to be Latino communities in the U.S. I wonder what the role of journalists would be in that case.

    In any case, I’ll admit I was sort of puzzled by the framing the reporters used in that story, portrayng the criminal suspects and fugitives as having started new lives and having left whatever they were accised of behind them. As a reader, I could almost feel happy about the guys, and then I remember they were criminal suspects and had left America to evade the law. I just don’t know how to feel about that yet.

    All i all, I can’t help but feel inspired to pursue this watchdog aspect of journalism. Coming from a country where corruption and crime are proportionally more wide-spread than in the U.S., I can totally understand why serving as watchdogs is what we, the new generation of journalists, are expected to do.

  5. asussell1 says:

    I think as journalists, we are pretty lazy, which is a scary reality. If we avoid the stories that require the difficult legwork and the sorting though data, we will constantly miss out on the investigative journalism pieces. I think it is pretty clear when a hometown newspaper lacks the motivation and time to dig though some public records – all the stories are about dogs saving lives and high school track stars.

    I know it is hard to find time to be an investigative journalist – that’s why I’m thankful for organizations like the Center for Public Integrity. It it those stories that I most love to read. I just listened to an NPR story about the EPA’s secret “watch list” of facilities possibly violating the Clean Air Act. ( I’m so glad their a journalists who designate their time to keeping tabs on our government’s corrupt systems.

  6. Crystal Herber says:

    The article about the two journalists that wrote about Bell are both inspiring and interesting. I had heard about the corruption in Bell on the news when it was being covered and found it upsetting and I was glad that it was revealed by the journalists. But I love hearing the story from the side of the journalists that covered it. I know most journalists aren’t used to being the story themselves, but sometimes that story can be just as interesting as the actual story.

  7. benunglesbee says:

    I thought this…
    … was a good example of a newspaper taking the initiative to do some analysis. In this case, the NYTimes looked at cases where Wall Street firms broke anti-fraud laws that they had earlier “promised” not to break. I think this goes to what Prof. Horvit was talking about in re: digging past the surface of reality. The S.E.C. isn’t going to come out and announce that they were letting banks get away with simply saying they will never, ever commit fraud–and then going on and committing fraud.

    By the way, I was one of the people who raised my hand when Prof. Horvit asked if any of us had ever made a request for documents. Earlier in the semester I sort of accidentally made a Sunshine request with the Columbia business licensing office. The “accidental” part is a long, silly story–but it wasn’t at all my fault, I swear. Anyway, my experience may be helpful to anyone who has to analyze documents at some point.

    I sat down with taxi inspection reports from three years without any set idea of what I was looking for, nor really how to look. My search was very open ended. I made up a system as I went along, and learned pretty quickly what was worth counting and what wasn’t. Still, if I had a better idea of what to look for and how to look, it would have saved me some time. Even more importantly, I noticed toward the end of the pile that some records were out of place. They were placed in files for the wrong year. So, just as I was finishing up, I lost confidence in all my data.

    I came back later in the week and went through the whole stack again (I was lucky that the folks at the office were very nice and accommodating). This time I had a much better idea what I was doing, and so it went much faster. This time around I was systematic about checking all the identifying markers on each document–year, ID number, etc. All in all, I found FIVE duplicates in the documents plus a couple of out of place reports. If I hadn’t caught this stuff, it would have had a pretty ugly effect on any data I had collected. So the lesson there, I think, is that along with not taking the words of officials at face value, you’d be wise to also double check their filing systems.

  8. In the Chicago Tribune article, the “they’ve never looked for me” just says it all. Wow.

    I don’t live in the Chicago area, but even I’m glad the Chicago Tribune blew the whistle on what’s going on in the justice system. The reporting process took them months and they had to travel a lot, but that’s what good reporting is all about. The reporter was also very transparent about the process, and I felt like I was with him through every part of it.

    I think this really illustrated one of points of Tuesday’s lecture. Get your butt out of the chair!

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