This week’s child sex trafficking charges against wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein are a testament to the impact of investigative reporting, in this case by determined journalists from The Miami Herald, who dug through documents, tracked down victims and told a story not only of horrendous crimes but also of enablers and leniency from the court system. It wasn’t easy. Investigative journalism never is. And alarmingly, it’s getting harder to do.
In a way, all news reporting is investigative. But the label customarily applies to in-depth, time-consuming stories that expose some previously unknown instance of wrongdoing or injustice that someone in power wishes to remain secret. In some places, thankfully, this kind of work is becoming more common, as new organizations recognize it not only as fulfillment of civic mission but also as an effective way to gain subscribers and reputation. The Washington Post, for instance, announced last month it is adding 10 positions devoted to investigative journalism in multiple newsroom departments. Membership in the national trade organization Investigative Reporters & Editors stands at an all-time high. Matthew Purdy, who oversees investigations at The New York Times, told The Associated Press: “With the attacks on the press and on facts, there has been a reinvigoration of the investigative mission of journalism. I don’t mean just at the Times but across the industry.”
But that does not tell the whole story. Uncovering malfeasance is becoming more difficult for multiple reasons. Start with rising government restrictions on access to information (laws and court rulings), non-compliance with open-records statutes, and threats of costly lawsuits by news subjects. Further, the boffo investigations by major national outlets are not being replicated to the same extent at the local and regional levels. The well-documented shrinkage of newsrooms across the U.S. has taken a big bite out of community watchdog journalism, reflected not only in fewer staff to do the job but also in newsroom priorities.
Most newsrooms seek to do investigations, but internal considerations often get in the way. It is not easy for a small or medium-sized organization to decide that one or more reporters should spend weeks or months working on a single story when other, basic stories beg for coverage, the website and social media channels demand new posts constantly, and the newsroom’s web metrics look a little low this month. But it can be done.
Moments after then-colleague Brett Blackledge, now the editor of The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, Louisiana, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while working at The Birmingham News, he was asked in front of the gathered newsroom about the keys to such an accomplishment. His first reply: “Three months without a byline.” On the Epstein story, Herald lead reporter Julie K. Brown worked on her centerpiece story for 18 months. But those confounding internal pressures. To wit: According to a New York Times story, Brown’s collaborator, visual journalist Emily Michot, “sometimes returned from a wrenching interview with one of Mr. Epstein’s accusers and was immediately assigned something unrelated, like a piece about the most outrageous food available at a county fair.”
Investigations cost money, too, and that’s not something that local and regional news companies have a lot of. Note this part of the Times’ story about the Herald’s work: “The two reporters tried to keep costs down by renting less-expensive rooms at Airbnbs, booking low-cost flights and occasionally not filing expenses.” The barriers to publication aren’t all external. Sometimes they’re cost-conscious managers in the same office.
Some painstaking investigative reporting never makes it to publication. Occasionally, sadly, presumed legal consequences or political connections keep it in the dark. But sometimes it’s for journalistic reasons: The story hunch was wrong or just couldn’t be supported sufficiently to meet legal and journalistic standards. So the effort goes dormant, with hope for a new development someday. That’s the responsible decision, but a tough moment nonetheless.
When all those hours, dollars, sacrificed bylines and lost page views end up producing nothing publishable, the key question is how will a news outlet react going forward. For the sake of an informed community and the public service obligation of journalism, I hope the reaction of everyone in the room is, “Well, damn. Now let’s go try another one.”
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a new BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.