‘Public records are cool again’: The role of investigative journalism

Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor of ProPublica and Louise Kiernan, editor-in-chief of ProPublica Illinois, participated in the afternoon’s keynote panel, moderated by Jonathan Kaufman, director of the Northeastern School of Journalism. They joined the ranks of a host of other journalists representing radio, television, online, startup, and print news organizations throughout the country at the event held in the Cabral Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In an era when newsrooms are shrinking, local and regional journalism is all but evaporating, and those in power continuously brandish established news organizations as “fake news,” resource-rich investigative journalism is harder and simultaneously more important than ever. So said a dozen journalists with numerous Pulitzer Prizes among them at a conference hosted by Northeastern’s School of Journalism last week.

The event—titled, “Is Trump Making Investigative Reporting Great Again?”—focused on the partisan and financial pressures on newsrooms across the country today.

“The halcyon days when newspapers were making money hand over foot are dying,” said Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor of ProPublica. “There’s an enormous deficit in the financial model of journalism, but there’s no less corruption, no fewer injustices out there.”

Umansky and Louise Kiernan, editor-in-chief of ProPublica Illinois, participated in the afternoon’s keynote panel, moderated by Jonathan Kaufman, director of the Northeastern School of Journalism. They joined the ranks of a host of other journalists representing radio, television, online, startup, and print news organizations throughout the country at the event held in the Cabral Center.

Umansky said journalism is increasingly scrambling for financial viability but is essential to a healthy democracy. Nearly everyone who spoke echoed this message, including Elizabeth Hudson, dean of the College of Arts, Media and Design, in her opening remarks.

Hudson recalled a conversation she’d had with Kaufman shortly after they’d both returned from living in foreign countries. “When you live outside America, you really understand how critical investigative journalism is for democracy,” she said. “I’m so pleased Northeastern and CAMD can provide this ecosystem for how to foster the skills in our students that will help create great newsrooms.”

Is there a market for investigative reporting?

Five journalists at the helms of five different news organizations comprised the “bosses panel,” as nicknamed by Kaufman. Following Hudson’s remarks, these reporters discussed how, exactly, to finance those great newsrooms.

The panel included Anne Galloway, founder and editor of VTDigger.org; Burt Glass, executive director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting; David Hurlburt, executive producer of special projects for WCVB; Tom Melville, executive news director of WBUR; and Phil Redo, general manager of WGBH Radio.

Each answered emphatically “yes” when Kaufman asked whether there was a market for investigative reporting.

“I really think journalism and specifically investigative journalism is the immune system of democracy,” Redo said. “There’s a huge market for what’s described as investigative journalism, but we want to be sure we don’t just limit that focus to a separate unit, but evangelize it to the rest of the newsroom.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Galloway, who started VTDigger in 2009 “with just a crazy idea and a laptop,” said that while deep, investigative stories can be expensive to produce—when manpower hours, fees for public documents requests, and more are factored in—they’re crucial for the communities they impact.

“We’ve been able to break some big investigative stories because we’ve developed a reputation and people trust us,” she said. “People see that we’re responding to a need.”

Hurlburt made the same point in considering WCVB’s audience. “For us, the big time and money investment is having someone out there,” he said, “but people need to know that someone is listening to them and fighting for them.”

Kaufman asked the panelists how they work to combat the “fake news” phenomenon, especially in cases in which significant resources were expended to produce an important, if controversial, story.

Melville articulated something that wound up being a theme of the day. “Transparency about the process is so important,” he said. “We’re more focused than ever on explaining how we came to a story, where we looked, and who we talked to.”

That sort of transparency in explaining the reporting of a story only helps to build news literacy, numerous panelists said throughout the conference.

Tips, techniques, and tales from investigative reporters

Northeastern professor of the practice Walter Robinson, editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe Spotlight team that famously reported on years of abuse by the Catholic Church, moderated a second panel Friday afternoon that brought to the table expertise from a wide range of journalists.

David Armstrong, senior enterprise reporter for STAT; Casey McDermott, political reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio; Michael Morisy, co-founder and general operations manager of MuckRock; and Michael Rezendes, another Globe Spotlight alum, offered some of their hard-earned tips for budding journalists.

The first of which was, as Morisy said, “Public records requests are cool again.”

Like Melville, he noted the importance of Freedom of Information Act requests in establishing transparency and trust with readers. “Contrary to the cliché, everyone loves seeing how the sausage is made when it comes to records requests,” Morisy said. “FOIA is a great way to regain trust.”

Rezendes, no stranger to submitting FOIA requests himself, emphasized the importance of not just solid public records and data, but of shoe-leather journalism in cultivating sources and reporting on stories.

Describing a scene in the movie Spotlight wherein he received “the tip of a lifetime” from attorney Mitchell Garabedian outside the Springfield Superior Courthouse, Rezendes said, “I had made myself a fixture in Mitch’s office for about six weeks before he gave up the goods.

“We’re living in this incredible era of data and information,” he said, “but people can neglect the art of cultivating and nurturing sources, which is critical to tell you where those data are.”

Similarly, Armstrong highlighted the need to get offline in reporting, as so often key information is stored in physical files and boxes rather than the internet. “Material that’s not digitized risks being neglected in this particular moment in journalism in a way it would not have been in the past,” he said. “It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of the best stuff is not online.”

Advocacy journalism vs. investigative journalism

Umansky and Kiernan discussed with Kaufman their unique approach to journalism for the conference’s keynote discussion. In particular, Kiernan described a story her team was in the middle of reporting. Without revealing the topic, she described the way in which ProPublica Illinois planned to distribute the story—by U.S. mail with a community discussion to follow—to the community most impacted by it, out of concern that they might not see it otherwise.

As it bucks the traditional model of publishing a story and then waiting for its impact, Kaufman asked, “Do you worry that that tips over into advocacy journalism?”

“We’re very careful not to cross that line,” Kiernan said. “But I also think that sometimes this talk about ‘Let’s put a story out there and let the government do its job’ is why so much injustice goes unchecked.”

Umansky agreed. “Investigative journalism, like all journalism, is something that’s evidence-based, humble in its conclusions, careful, judicious, fair, and true,” he said. “These are things I believe in my bones. Do I also believe that when we write about injustice we have a point of view? Hell yeah we have a point of view; we believe there’s an injustice.”

He continued, “At its base, most investigative reporting is making an argument. It’s a nonpartisan, fact-based, vigorously investigated argument that serves to inform people. And informing people is a key part of any democracy.”