Summer 2009

Filling a Local Void: J-School Students Tackle Watchdog Reporting

‘Those of us who have been investigative reporters have a responsibility to ensure that local watchdogging remains robust in our industry.’

By Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino




While investigative journalism remains a staple of many national news organizations, it’s been eviscerated closer to our home in New England. The Boston Globe, our region’s largest metro, is clinging to life. Local TV stations RELATED WEB LINK
New England Center for Investigative Reporting
- www.necir-bu.org/
are shrinking their investigative units or turning them into ratings-grabbing “shock units” with stories about health scares or sex offenders that aim to frighten viewers into watching. And radio, with the exception of our NPR affiliates, seems only to tug at the extremes of political debate, backed up by little, if any, reporting.

This demise means New Englanders aren’t receiving vital links in this informational chain. What occurs behind the scenes—the stuff unspoken in a press release or press conference—isn’t made visible, such as what’s behind a legislator’s vote or why a business gets favorable treatment or how local banks are handling debt and mortgage situations. Such bottom-line local stories require focused and dedicated time for reporting and money to support what can be slow, plodding work. Those resources are in short supply.

This is where our efforts at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University (NECIR-BU) will fill this void. Launched inEDITOR'S NOTE:
Principal media partners are The Boston Globe, boston.com, WBUR radio, the NPR affiliate in Boston, and New England Cable News. The center also works closely with ethnic media groups, including New England Ethnic Newswire, to tap into the often-ignored stories developing in ethnic communities across the region. Other local news organizations have expressed interest in becoming partners.
January, NECIR-BU is the first university-based nonprofit investigative reporting collaborative with an exclusive focus on coverage of local and regional issues. Our funding comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the university’s College of Communication, as well as from some civic-minded citizens and our media partners. The center has established partnerships with several of the region’s leading news organizations. It is also part of a national effort spearheaded by the Center for Public Integrity to create a network of regional investigative reporting centers.

Our university-based model is a sensible response to the industry’s grappling with how to keep investigative reporting alive during its transition to digital media in tough economic times. Already, the model we’ve built here is being replicated in Washington State and Colorado. There are many benefits in housing such an enterprise at a university, including these that relate directly to our situation:

  • Having available the support and expertise of faculty—not just journalism professors but on-campus experts who teach across a range of disciplines related to topics the student journalists will cover.

  • Access to a vast research library.

  • Journalism alumni, many of them leaders in the industry, who support this effort.

  • Experienced fundraising staff, as well as public relations and event planning professionals to do the kind of outreach we’ll need.

  • A student-run, on-campus radio station.

  • High-quality multimedia equipment that enables stories to be told in a blend of audio, video, print, photography, blogging and with the use of interactive data.

EDITOR'S NOTE:
Students are taught by two former Boston Globe investigative reporters, Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff.
With the support of faculty and the college’s dean, Tom Fiedler, the former executive editor of The Miami Herald, we will direct journalism students in their investigations of issues with local significance. What they find out will be produced so that it can be distributed on multimedia platforms.

Our center’s mission is clear: provide local and regional public accountability and train the “farm team” of investigative reporters. Few experiences excite or better prepare the next generation of journalists than to see semester-long reporting efforts be published or broadcast by the widely read and listened to news organizations in New England. We also offer two internships for students from Boston’s high schools; they shadow our reporters and production work and assist with research. In this way, we bring students—as soon in their educational life as possible—into the process of serious investigative reporting.

Of course, once students finish their investigations, we want to secure the best way to generate maximum impact for what they’ve found. Our partners help make this happen by providing regional distribution. This collaborative arrangement then takes us in other directions: In exchange for content we supply, our partners contribute either funding or in-kind contributions, such as equipment, staff time, assistance with audio recording and videography, and editing facilities in support of our work. In turn, we help train some of the younger reporters in their newsrooms in investigative techniques, computer-assisted reporting, and access to public records. We also provide tips for daily stories that we pick up as we work sources and do research for our investigative projects.

By mid-June, NECIR-BU will have broadcast the first set of our investigative stories. Its focus is on the economy; three other investigative projects are underway. For much of the spring semester, we’ve been educating our “reporter trainees” in techniques, such as recognizing what are the essential elements of a journalist’s investigation, teaching them how to mine public records, learning how to do database analysis and conduct artful interviews, including those that turn confrontational.

This year the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting went to The New York Times. It was a worthy project about what happens when major broadcast news organizations rely on retired military officers who are also consultants to military-related companies without alerting viewers to potential conflicts of interest. It explored the conflicts that exist when they explain the Iraq War to viewers without disclosing their financial interests. But for those families who struggle to pay the mortgage and stay ahead of the unemployment curve, what is happening in Washington, D.C., New York, and overseas wars can seem very far away. New Englanders want and need to know about issues and events directly impacting their lives, those involving their schools, hospitals, doctors, police, housing, roads and bridges (are they about to collapse?), energy and the environment, to name a few.

Our goal is to preserve this kind of reporting. Those of us who are investigative reporters have a responsibility to ensure that local watchdogging remains robust in our industry. We’re encouraged by the efforts of new local news entities such as Wisconsinwatch.org, Texas Watchdog, and the Investigative Voice in Baltimore, as well as better known entrepreneurial Web operations such as MinnPost, the Beacon in St. Louis, and voiceofsandiego.org, an award-winner for its investigative reporting about San Diego’s downtown development. It’s likely that news organizations like these will be the employers of students at our center today. Our job is to see that they are ready to do the watchdog work so critical to journalism—and to our democracy.

Maggie Mulvihill, 2005 Nieman Fellow, is cofounder and associate director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Joe Bergantino, an award-winning broadcast journalist, is the cofounder and director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.


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