Thursday, June 18, 2009

Watchdog journalism: Where are we headed?

The first time I went to an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 1998 I knew I'd found a Reporter's Paradise. What could be better than spending a weekend soaking up ideas and advice from the best investigative journalists in the country? I could hardly wait to get back to my newsroom and try out what I'd learned.
So much has changed since then. The feisty, beloved Seattle Post-Intelligencer is gone. Newspapers are melting down all over. This year alone, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Watchdog reporting has taken a body blow.
That made for a strange mix of anxiety, exhiliration and angst among the 700 journalists at last weekend's IRE conference in Baltimore. Great work is still getting done -- just a lot less of it.
I was inspired by two journalists who spoke on a panel that I moderated about Covering Invisible Populations. Mimi Chakarova is a photojournalist producing remarkable work on sex trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, rapes of Iraqui women and other tough topics. Karyn Spencer, a reporter with the Omaha World-Herald, looked into how Nebraska's shoddy death-investigation system is letting people get away with murder. She found rural coroners who admitted they just wrote down "heart attack" if they didn't know what killed someone. I kid you not.
What ran through my head like a sad tune all weekend was, "This is what we're losing."
Sure there was buzz about the new non-profit investigative centers popping up all over. But those ventures, however exciting, can't replace the sheer exodus of talent from our profession. Journalists who used to spend their days prying documents from the hands of government officials are now writing press releases.
That can't be good for democracy.
(Photo: by Roger Blackwell)

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