Transparency Increases Credibility
A Web site and television show reveal how investigative journalists do their jobs.
Investigative reporters are rarely beloved. In making it our business to reveal the often uncomfortable truths behind the public reality, why should we be? But to be understood is another matter.
Early in 2006, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and WNET, the PBS station in New York City, joined forces to begin production of the television program, “Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports.” Our goal was to illustrate through this television show what it takes to do investigative reporting by retracing the steps of some of the best in the business at newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations across the country. By revealing how it’s done, we thought that the show might contribute to taking some of the taint off the plummeting public image that the profession has endured—not to mention tell some dramatic tales.
In preproduction, WNET sent out veteran producer Tom Casciato to get a sense of the media terrain. Casciato had put his documentary skills to work on behalf of ABC News, National Geographic, and Bill Moyers before taking the job as executive producer of Exposé. He came back from that initial foray and reported, “You’re all optimists!” The belief that the “system can and should work” was a common quality he noticed in the many interviews he had conducted with investigative journalists, editors and producers at news organizations, small and large, across the country.
This surprised me; I’d never heard any of my colleagues or peers define themselves using quite such buoyant terms. Upon reflection, however, his words started to seem like an accurate observation about the constellation of sometimes gruff, always driven journalists who pursue this line of work. They actually believe that bringing real information to the attention of the public might prompt change—in government policy, in the fate of politicians and government officials, in the behavior of corporations, in individuals or in entities with a link to power. His observation certainly offered a contrast with the public’s typical view of investigative journalists, who tend to rank somewhere between lawyers (another profession given an arguably bad rap) and repo men (who might deserve it). And the 24/7 news cycle hasn’t helped when anyone from Katie Couric to the local cable correspondent staking out pot dealers across from a local high school can label him or herself an “investigative reporter.”
How is the public supposed to recognize the “real” thing?
We hope the program, Exposé, now in its third season and being aired as part of Bill Moyers Journal, can heighten viewers’ ability to differentiate the real from the not-so-real by providing the critical dimension of transparency. Each episode tells through video the story-behind-the-story by showing in detail an investigative reporter’s methodical—often dramatic—assemblage of evidence. The program peels away layers of the often-mystifying process of doing investigative reporting.
In the first season, for example, the program portrayed the extraordinary efforts of the investigative team in St. Petersburg, Florida to reveal FEMA’s ineptitude in handling the destructive after-effects of Hurricane Rita, months before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and every newspaper in America was on FEMA’s trail. The segment followed the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s I-Team as they pursued one Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request after another with FEMA and constructed a scathing portrait of the federal agency’s incompetence by comparing official documents with the experiences of local residents.
In its second season, “Exposé” followed James Steele and Donald Barlett as they evoked the relentless document and source trail they developed for investigating the defense department’s largest contractor, Science Applications International Corporation, for a story that appeared in Vanity Fair. [See Barlett and Steele’s referred article.] Like many other pieces shown as part of this series, this one demonstrated how these two veteran reporters went about gathering information. What they did and how they did it involved the use of tools and strategies that the investigative journalists use all the time, but this story gave a gritty glimpse of the process to those who are unlikely to think much about how stories like this one are reported.
“Exposé” also tracks what happens after a story is published or broadcast: It then shares with viewers what happened to targets of an investigation and victims of malfeasance months after the initial story appeared. The show also is able to give a second life to revelations whose initial impact might have been limited to a local market.
Using the Web to Expose Reporting
Developing such themes on “Exposé” has enhanced the investigative journalism we do and support at CIR, a 31-year old nonprofit organization that produces investigative stories for all media. At CIR, reporters and editors endeavor to use whatever journalistic tools we can to let readers have as much clarity as possible about how we report our stories; sometimes this means revealing the step-by-step process that leads to a revelation. Or reporters explain how they got the story in the first place, or where their journey in putting together its many pieces led them to go. Loretta Tofani wrote on the CIR Web site about her series, “American Imports, Chinese Deaths,” that appeared last October in the Salt Lake Tribune. This Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist first explained how she’d left journalism in 2001, when cuts at The Philadelphia Inquirer led her to take a buyout and open a store in Salt Lake City that sold Chinese ethnic furniture.
Tofani then wrote about what pulled her back into journalism. Later she described what she went through in reporting the story of what was happening in these Chinese factories. A few of her words follow:
The store made me an importer, so I often traveled to China, where I had been a foreign correspondent for four years during the 1990’s for The Philadelphia Inquirer. As a businessperson, I saw a different side of Chinese factories than those I had been allowed to see as a foreign correspondent. Back then, I received the usual ‘foreign journalist as spy’ treatment: I was escorted by half a dozen Chinese officials who had prescreened the factories and preinterviewed the workers and managers. But as a businessperson, on a new passport, I had relative freedom to choose the factories I wanted to see, unencumbered by government escorts.
What I saw—and my inability to stop thinking about what it meant and what the stories would say—caused me to close my store and return to journalism. My series … showed that millions of Chinese factory workers were touching and/or inhaling carcinogens—nickel, cadmium, lead, benzene, toluene, n-hexane, mercury—as they made products destined for the United States. While Americans worried about lead on toys imported from China, Chinese workers were dying from lead and other toxins. They were paying the real price of cheap American imports. Using shipping documents, I linked specific American imports to specific Chinese workers dying of fatal occupational diseases. I interviewed the workers and obtained their medical records. The series raised questions: If we protect American workers from fatal occupational diseases, shouldn’t Chinese workers making American products also be protected?
We are putting CIR’s Web site to use in other ways, too. It provides readers not only with documentation that buttresses the reporting but also with explanations of how our reporters used it. It has graphic representations of a story’s central findings and shows clearly the reporter’s stepping stones of document collection and interviews. Our Web site figures into CIR’s investigations, no matter in which medium the original story appears. Flash art is used to draw the links between people, documents and revelations. On companion Web sites for our documentary films and other major projects, we include everything from raw data to interview streams, so we can show the various pieces of the puzzle that went into putting the finished product together. In my recently published book, “Exposed,” I adopted some of these techniques to carry readers along as I moved through complicated sequences of scientific evidence about the effects of chemicals on the human metabolism and into the differing responses to that evidence in the United States and Europe.
Taking people inside the work of investigative reporters increases the story’s credibility and illuminates the immense effort that journalists put into such coverage. This helps especially with complex and controversial stories, where we’ve found that a high level of transparency about the reporting process translates into greater believability by readers. (According to a similar logic, many newspapers now inform readers about the reason for an unnamed source’s desire for anonymity.)
CIR was the nation’s first effort to put into practice the notion that if for-profit news organizations would not support in-depth investigations into abuses of power, then perhaps foundations and philanthropic individuals could. Back then no one foresaw the systematic unraveling of newsrooms that we are witnessing today. The implosion of traditional support within newsrooms has heightened the necessity of finding alternative resources to support this kind of reporting. This prospect has helped to galvanize the work of the nonprofit institutions reflected in these pages. And perhaps the increasing attention to the role of nonprofit journalism reflects a broader phenomenon at work: recognition of how essential this combination of optimism and the methodical application of skepticism is to a healthy democracy. In telling the story of journalists and the efforts they make, perhaps investigative reporting can be seen for what it contributes as well as an unwelcome disruption to the status quo.
Mark Schapiro is the editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the book, “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power,” published by Chelsea Green in 2007.