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Richard Davis: Citizens and society need investigative journalism

Published: Wednesday, July 30 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Last week the New York Times published a story on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to manipulate the commission he appointed to expose corrupt practices in New York government. When that anti-corruption probe came too close to investigating the governor’s office and the governor’s allies, the commission was blocked by the governor. Now Cuomo is facing calls to explain his actions.

The next day, the Times published a story about U.S. Sen. John Walsh’s plagiarism of his master’s thesis at the U.S. Army War College. The Montana senator, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate in February and is running for the seat this November, admitted the plagiarism and now may lose the election.

The New York Times is not alone in good investigative journalism. On a local level, the Salt Lake Tribune was dogged in the pursuit of the story of the John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff campaign finance/perversion of justice stories that finally resulted in Swallow’s resignation as Utah attorney general and Swallow and former attorney general Shurtleff’s recent arrests. Two years ago, the Deseret News uncovered Salt Lake county councilman Randy Horiuchi’s failure to disclose lobbying work for the Utah Transportation Authority that led to Horiuchi’s greater transparency of his ties.

These stories were the result of dogged investigative reporting. Such reporting is at the heart of the First Amendment. It is the task of journalists to uncover illegal or unethical actions by government officials. Without this role, the public is ill-served and ultimately unable to make intelligent judgments about politicians come election time.

However, investigative reporting as journalistic practice has been declining. Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.’s survey of 20 newspapers in 2007 found that more than half had severely reduced or even eliminated their investigative reporting teams. Indeed, the number of investigative reporters fell by over 30 percent in just six years. Also, the number of entries in the Pulitzer investigative reporting category fell by 43 percent from 1985 to 2010.

Why is this happening? First, the cost: Assigning a reporter a long-term project that requires extensive, painstaking research is not cheap. For example, the Boston Globe ’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the early 2000s was the result of eight months of reporting prior to the story going to print. Cost becomes important to news media organizations in an era of declining revenues. Second, beat reporters are overwhelmed with 24/7 deadlines and the need to cover more territory with fewer colleagues. Leaving the reporting of daily events to investigate is impossible for most reporters.

Non-profit groups, such as ProPublica, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and the Center for Investigative Reporting have attempted to fill the gap. But they are a shell of the former investigative reporting efforts of news media organizations. And they rarely get attention from the public compared to media stories.

News organizations should not abdicate their historical responsibility. Newspapers, particularly, have a long history of investigative journalism that stems from the “muckrakers” of a century ago whose reporting exposed the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil (leading to anti-trust legislation), the shortcuts in the food industry (that produced the Food and Drug Act and the Food and Drug Administration) and the linkages between large corporations and members of the U.S. Senate (resulting in campaign finance laws and the direct election of U.S. senators). The legacy of investigative journalism — from Watergate to uncovering local scandals — is too valuable to lose. It would be a tragedy if news organizations abandoned a role that citizens so desperately need.

News media organizations once considered investigative reporting to be part of their mandate of service to the community. This service component needs to be maintained, if not increased. Government cannot be held accountable unless the public is informed, and there is no better medium for such information than traditional news media organizations. When one investigative reporter was asked what would happen when journalists like him disappear, he answered: “The bad guys get away with stuff.” Some today don’t. But with fewer investigative reporters, how many others do?

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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