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Reporting is only part of the investigative story

COMMENTARY | April 21, 2008

The legendary investigative team of Barlett & Steele write about the importance of translating the details of reporting into ideas and language and visual images and constructions that will attract and sustain the interest of readers and viewers.

(The following article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Nieman Reports. Barry Sussman describes highlights of the issue dedicated to investigative reporting here.)

By Donald L. Barlett
and James B. Steele

Hardly a week goes by without someone lamenting the death of investigative reporting. It's a familiar litany: The media are cutting back; crucial stories aren't being covered; democracy will suffer.

All of this is true, but consider this: With a few notable exceptions, even in the best of times investigative reporting was little more than window-dressing in the American press. To be sure, notable examples of reporters and their publications ferreting out wrongdoing and exposing public corruption run through the past century. But the stories, like Paul Y. Anderson's Teapot Dome dispatches for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1920's, were the exception to the rule.

What's more, investigative articles often were published only when indefatigable reporters spent nights and weekends pursuing leads after covering their regular beats. A favorite line of editors was, "Why don't you spend a little of your time and see what you come up with?"

More often than not, editors embraced investigative stories with all the enthusiasm of a drunken sailor at a prayer meeting. When Seymour Hersh documented the My Lai massacre, a Vietnam atrocity in which U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 300 infants, children and unarmed women and elderly men, he did so without the support of any newspaper. That more than a year went by between the March 1968 massacre and Hersh's November 1969 disclosure spoke volumes about the news media's attitude toward investigative reporting. As Hersh noted at the time, "A source of amazement among all those interviewed was that the story had yet to reach the press."

A little-known example of the hostility that some reporters have had to endure from editors who were less than thrilled by their investigative efforts is the tale of Alvin S. McCoy. In 1953, as Kansas correspondent for The Kansas City Star, McCoy began writing about the questionable business dealings of the chairman of the Republican National Committee, C. Wesley Roberts. The articles did not please the Star's powerful editor, Roy Roberts, who was a pillar of the Republican Party. (They were not related.) Nevertheless, McCoy kept plugging away, and eventually Wesley Roberts was forced to resign.

It was a remarkable journalistic coup, but McCoy's great reporting might never have been given its due had it not been for someone who had no connection to The Star: Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., editor of the St. Louis-Post-Dispatch. He nominated McCoy for a Pulitzer, effectively forcing The Star to submit the articles to the Pulitzer board. In 1954, McCoy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. The Star dutifully reported the news in a four-paragraph story headed, "Award for Alvin M'Coy."

It's good to remember that before the 1970's the number of newspapers with even one person assigned specifically to investigative reporting as a full-time beat (as was the case at most papers for coverage of the movies or city council) could be counted on the fingers of one hand. During the 1960's, the tide had begun to shift. In 1965, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer became one of the first newspapers to carve out a beat devoted exclusively to investigative reporting. So, too, The Miami Herald and Newsday. The Philadelphia Inquirer established formal investigative beats in the 1970's, as did The Boston Globe. Many medium-sized and smaller newspapers followed suit.

Even during these so-called "golden years" of investigative reporting, many subjects remained off limits in some newspapers. While reporting about labor corruption always found a receptive home, corporate malfeasance went largely untouched. Also, an unwritten rule with some editors was that investigative stories had to document illegal acts. This rule existed even though the practices most in need of exposure—ones with the largest impact on ordinary citizens—are usually legal, such as when health insurance companies deny medical treatment, campaign contributions inspire favors, and tax policies get rigged for the benefit of special interests. And investigations that touched on the unsavory practices of advertisers were always off limits, except at publications where the commitment to independent reporting ran deep.

Through the years, we have been fortunate to work for editors who were dedicated to pursuing stories wherever they led and who never wavered in that commitment. Yet in newspapers' current state of uncertainty—with shrinking newsroom staffs and declining, but still comparatively substantial, profits—owners and editors find the perfect excuse for abandoning investigative reporting. Instead they concentrate on the "he said-she said" school of journalism, requiring much less investment in staff and time but rendering a huge disservice to readers by often concealing the truth.

All is not bleak. The Internet and emerging technologies have democratized the process of newsgathering in general and investigative reporting in particular. For the first time, reporters at small newspapers have access to the same tools as those at larger ones. And while unimaginative editors and those too insecure to support aggressive reporting might turn a blind eye, there are more options than ever for getting information to the public. Without minimizing the chilling effect the Bush administration has had on the flow of public information, reporters—and the public—have access to government documents and business records on a scale unlike anything we could have imagined just a few years ago. And the possibilities are breathtaking.

For example, we now take for granted the availability of documents of public companies filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Yet not so long ago it was difficult, time-consuming, and often prohibitively expensive to obtain those records unless you were based in Washington, D.C., or near a depository of such documents. Today they are always available free of charge to anyone who has an Internet connection.

With every story we do these days, we are reminded of the Web's limitless possibilities. In our recent article in Vanity Fair, "Billions Over Baghdad," we told how billions of dollars in U.S. currency intended for the Iraqi people simply vanished in the months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A pivotal part of the story focused on an obscure company in San Diego that the Pentagon hired, ostensibly to keep track of the money. The company's mailing address was a post office box in the Bahamas. Thanks to the Internet and a search engine, in just minutes we turned up an astonishing fact: The same mailbox also had been the locus of a Caribbean stock swindle involving hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent transactions. The box number was listed in a Florida court document that had been posted on the Web.

Only a few years ago, we would never have been able to make that connection.

Putting Reporting in Perspective

Just getting the information, of course, is not enough and never has been. All too often our readers and viewers are left to connect the dots or a potentially riveting story is related in a boring or dense way that turns off potential readers. A great, ongoing challenge is to translate the details of our reporting into ideas and language and visual images and constructions that will attract and sustain the interest of readers and viewers.

In 1988, we wrote a 50,000-word series for The Philadelphia Inquirer called "The Great Tax Giveaway." The articles told how Congress had inserted tax breaks into legislation for some lucky individuals and corporations. Lawmakers didn't identify the beneficiaries by name, but singled them out in the legislation by the date of a business deal, the state where their company was incorporated, or by some other very specific piece of information, like this: "For purposes of section 2656(b)(8) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, an individual who receives an interest in a charitable remainder unitrust shall be deemed to be the only noncharitable beneficiary of such trust if the interest in the trust passed to the individual under the will of a decedent who resided in Tarrant County, Texas, and died on October 28, 1983, at the age of 75, with a gross estate not exceeding $12.5 million, and the individual is the decedent's surviving spouse."

That provision applied to a lucky Texas widow. In all, we identified scores of beneficiaries. But to explain to readers the outrageous nature of what Congress had done, the story needed a lead that would link our findings on this complex issue with an example that everyone could relate to. Our editor, Steve Lovelady, conceived this lead:

Imagine, if you will, that you are a tall, bald father of three living in a Northeast Philadelphia row house and selling aluminum siding door-to-door for a living.

Imagine that you go to your congressman and ask him to insert a provision in the federal tax code that exempts tall, bald fathers of three living in Northeast Philadelphia and selling aluminum siding for a living from paying taxes on income from door-to-door sales.

Imagine further that your congressman cooperates, writes that exemption … and Congress then actually passes it into law.

Lots of luck.

The more than 80 million low- and middle-income individuals and families who pay federal taxes just don't get that kind of personal break …

But some people do.

Investigative journalism succeeds only when the work brings this kind of personal perspective to an issue of public significance. It's not enough to drop a big number into a story—as difficult as it might have been to find that number—and expect people to be wowed or even grateful. A lot of our effort involves coming up with a perspective that will succeed in connecting our findings with the experiences and/or feelings of those we hope will read about them.

In "Billions Over Baghdad," we knew that simply reporting the costs of the Iraq War in mind-numbing billions wasn't good enough. The figure—and the related malfeasance it represents—is so large that merely stating what we had learned would hold little meaning for most potential readers. To provide the necessary context—and a pretext for readers to take a chance on hearing more of what we had to say—we came up with words that paint a stark comparison to the reconstruction realities of an earlier war:

To date, America has spent twice as much in inflation-adjusted dollars to rebuild Iraq as it did to rebuild Japan—an industrialized country three times Iraq's size, two of whose cities had been incinerated by atomic bombs.

Our highest responsibility is to make information meaningful. In this regard we would each do well to carry with us at all times a quote that is often cited by Lovelady, our longtime editor at the Inquirer and Time magazine. He credits this wisdom to the legendary editor, Barney Kilgore, who transformed The Wall Street Journal: "The reader is always looking for an excuse to stop reading—at the end of every sentence and at the end of every paragraph.

"Don't give it to him."

Barlett and Steele's Web Site
Includes links to their work.

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