What Are Newspaper Journalists Investigating?
What follows are a few examples from the wide range of investigations being done by mainstream media outlets throughout the United States. The examples—grouped by general topic and .compiled by Rachel Schaff, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Brant Houston, former IRE executive director and now Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois—are culled from Extra! Extra!, an online service provided by Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Before and after the August 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, both print and broadcast outlets did numerous stories on deficient bridges and the underfunding of repairs to bridges across the United States. To a large extent, reporters used the National Bridge Inventory—a database on bridges and their conditions—as a launching point for investigations. Using this information, local journalists showed the location of defective bridges, did additional reporting about what is wrong with them, and examined why structural fixes have not been made.
Wildfires, especially those last year in Southern California, resulted in some strong investigative journalism. The (Riverside, Calif.) Press-Enterprise mapped new home permits and fire threats and in doing so discovered that many new homes were going up in areas highly susceptible to wildfires. USA Today employed a similar approach using census data and showed that since 2000, nearly 450,000 people have moved to Western areas with a high risk of being affected by wildfires. The San Diego Union-Tribune made good use of interactive maps and provided online access to information as part of their investigations.
Water pollution was well covered by newspapers such as USA Today and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, as each showed how mercury had tainted lakes and rivers. The San Jose Mercury News reported on pesticides contaminating land in Santa Clara County, while the Star Tribune in Minneapolis analyzed databases and pollution reports to identify 20 locations of groundwater contamination in the suburbs around the city and the threat to the drinking water supplies. In Connecticut, The Hartford Courant found that 17 of 35 companies covered by the Clean Water Act were dumping toxic chemicals into the state’s waterways under permit limits that have expired and, in California, the Contra Costa Times reported on an aging maritime fleet that was shedding toxic metals in the local bay.
Criminal Justice System
Investigative reporters at many news outlets throughout the country examined inequality in the criminal justice system. Several investigations revealed disparities in sentencing: The Dallas Morning News reported that in Dallas County more than twice as many convicted murders receive probation than go to death row, while the Chicago Tribune found that mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were being applied unfairly. Several investigations focused on prisons: both The Dallas Morning News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed misconduct and abuse in detention centers. The San Francisco Chronicle found that overcrowding and understaffing in prisons cost the state more than $500 million in overtime pay.
Real Estate Crisis
Subprime lending practices and high foreclosure rates are the topic of an increasing number of investigative reports by journalists. Excellent coverage of this widespread problem was done early by reporters at The New York Times, and this was followed by other newspapers using a variety of approaches to examine the direct impact of the crisis. The Sacramento Bee dissected 61,000 mortgages to reveal the devastating effect of no-proof loans on the area’s housing market, while The Orange County Register focused its reporting on just one street to show how predatory lending negatively had affected a community of neighbors. Similar investigations were done by news outlets in North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal revealed that crisis extended well beyond subprime loans and included other adjustable rate loans.
Following the Money in Politics
Campaign finance took center stage as the 2008 election cycle began. The Washington Post revealed suspicious, multithousand-dollar donations made by very young children. The Los Angeles Times broke the story about a prominent fundraiser for Hillary Clinton having been a fugitive for the past 15 years. The Seattle Times kicked off an occasional series on congressional earmarks, tracking those companies that benefit from their passage and the political fundraising connected to these pork projects. The Oregonian reported that lawmakers from its state chose not to place limitations on how campaign money could be spent despite promising campaign finance ethics reforms. Increased focus was put on exploring the ties between nonprofits and the funding of activities related to political campaigns.
Sports and drugs
Reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel built a database of every baseball player who George Mitchell named in his report, which detailed the former senator’s findings about steroid and human growth hormone use among Major League players and analyzed how their performance improved over the time they were allegedly using prohibited substances. The Salt Lake Tribune found major discrepancies in how drug tests are administered among Division 1-A schools, while The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that it was common for trainers to dope up racehorses.
Numerous investigations were done about pharmaceutical companies and prescription drugs. The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer found that the FDA’s “Fast Track” drug review program proved to be beneficial to investors while doing little or nothing to speed up the availability of new medical treatments, compared with expedited review options that existed before the drug industry lobbied to create Fast Track. The Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle investigated the growing use of mind-altering drugs on foster children, as it uncovered cases of children as young as one-year old being prescribed psychotropic drugs. The (Baltimore) Sun reported that the drug buprenorphine, which is prescribed to addicts to help them kick their addictions, is now showing up on the streets where abusers are using it to get high. The Wall Street Journal reported on conflicts of interests by authors of articles that appear in medical and scientific journals