Investigating the Re-Invention of Investigative Journalism
Photographs by Michael J. Leahy
Investigative journalism – defined for us by Ginger Thompson, who hosted a luncheon for Scholarship Plus at the headquarters of ProPublica – exposes corruption, wrongdoing or harm by public agencies or companies. It is hard and very expensive work – spending months or a year researching a single major story is unsurprising – and many news organizations across the country have cut back or abandoned it. For the last 10 years, ProPublica has been bringing innovative techniques to every stage of its journalists’ arsenal, including sophisticated data research, creative presentation techniques, continuing engagement with readers to advance the stories, and distribution both on the web and through partnerships with local and national organizations.
ProPublica’s offices are a few minutes’ walk from the WNYC studios where our scholars have internships, and the current class made that walk on a day in late July. Our host was Ginger Thompson, who won a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times, where she was Mexico City bureau chief, as well as a member of the Washington bureau and an investigative reporter. Her award-winning journalism has continued at ProPublica, where she covers immigration and continues to cover Mexico. She also has another role, as a Scholarship Plus supporter and mentor.
Ginger spoke about her work, and then introduced a series of her colleagues, each of whom described facets of how ProPublica operates. Topher Sanders recalled how a casual conversation turned into a data-driven look at who gets jaywalking tickets in Florida; he found that the tickets, which typically cost $65 and can harm credit ratings or lead to suspended drivers’ licenses if unpaid, were issued overwhelmingly to poor and black people, a process detailed under the headline “Walking While Black.” Annie Waldman, who covers education, described using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to federal records that showed that 1,200 civil-rights investigations into schools that had been opened under the Obama administration had been shut down by the Department of Education. The online article came with a searchable database of all school civil rights cases closed in the last three years, and of those still pending. “If you ever want to collaborate,” she said, “let me know.”
Other ProPublica staff members described a process meant to make each of their articles – typically 5,000 words long – accessible and impactful. Graphics and design are important parts of the mix, as are podcasts and video. The aim, Ginger said, is “making 10,000 words beautiful online.” Continuing engagement with readers is a goal, in part as a way of expanding and following up on the coverage. Editors and designers are part of the process from the beginning. “We want to write in a way that people will read it,” said one. Among the readers kept in mind are officials and political leaders, because, in the words of Senior Editor Tracy Weber, “We ultimately want to change something.”
One of the questions asked as the session neared its end was from Absetou, a Cornell sophomore who is being mentored by Ginger. How, she asked Ginger, do you get people on the ‘bad side’ to talk with you? “When I call,” Ginger said, “they know I have the story.” Perhaps, she said, they feel bad about it – angry or ashamed. They know the story will be published, and they may want their side reflected in it.
When the ProPublica staff members went back to their newsroom next door, the scholars lingered. Many of them wanted photos to be taken on their cell phones of them with Ginger. When the last of the Scholarship Plus staff members took the elevator to the lobby and walked out of the building, they found the scholars in a group on the sidewalk. Xabier seemed to speak for all: “Amazing!” he said.