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From AJR,   December/January 2006  issue

Is Investigative Reporting Here to Stay?   

The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism
By James L. Aucoin
University of Missouri Press
256 pages; $37.50


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Investigative reporting dates all the way to the first American newspaper in 1690, but, until fairly recently, it has been associated more with fringe media than the mainstream.

Over the past 30 or 40 years, the investigative function has worked its way center stage, becoming an accepted mainstay of the major media. Will it endure there?

James L. Aucoin, a University of South Alabama professor, finds that many investigative reporters are "grim" and "not optimistic." They fear further newsroom cutbacks, government clampdowns on access and information, and a softening of corporate commitment.

But Aucoin believes otherwise.

His book provides not just a solid overview of 300 years of exposÚs and watchdogging. It also argues, based on a close look at the 1960-1990 period, that investigative reporting has taken on the qualities of a lasting social institution.

For this, he credits many changing conditions, especially the professionalization of the practice through the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, known as IRE.

"More investigative reporting and semi-investigative reporting is going on today than at least since the golden age of muckraking at the turn of the twentieth century," Aucoin writes. "Moreover, today there are more journalists involved in investigative reporting than ever before."

IRE, he says, has been crucial to defining investigative reporting, advancing its methods, propagating its ethics and inspiring its practitioners. "Instead of looking to the [news] institutions for leadership in the skills and ethics of investigative journalism, reporters and editors look to IRE," he concludes. It should be noted that I have been a member of IRE for more than 20 years and appreciate its work. I do think, however, that Aucoin may focus disproportionately on its influence and write too much from its point of view. Still, he does not spare the organization, which has had its controversies, or investigative journalism itself, which has suffered from anonymous sources, carelessness and sensationalism. His book is fair and informative.

His brisk historical overview begins with the first English-language American newspaper, Benjamin Harris' Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, which on September 25, 1690, carried articles about the French king's sexual dalliances and the torturing of prisoners by American Indians. For this, the colonial governor suppressed the paper after one issue.

Aucoin fast-forwards through Revolutionary and Civil War exposÚs, Nellie Bly's work in the late 1800s and the muckrakers. He shows how exposÚs fell off around World War I, picked up after the Depression and World War II, then generally languished during the 1950s. The 1960s brought what he calls "the reemergence of investigative journalism," driven by the alternative press and fueled by civil unrest.

Major media, he says, began accepting "a duty to report beyond the superficial handouts from those with social and political power." Impetus came from the U.S. Supreme Court's 1964 Sullivan decision lessening the libel threat and the federal Freedom of Information Act in 1967, plus a growing public wariness of government.

Technology played a big role, too, in ways both obvious (computerization) and unexpected (photocopiers opened a faucet of paperwork and documents).

IRE arrived in 1975, begun by 13 journalists gathered in Reston, Virginia. After a couple of potential missteps (taking money from dubious donors, toying with a restricted membership), the organization grew rapidly. Its first national conference, in 1976, drew 300 people. It settled at the University of Missouri, providing publications, conferences and rank-and-file networking probably unmatched in journalism history.

IRE has contributed most crucially, the book suggests, by defining and defending investigations as a distinct genre: work originated mainly by journalists, exposing significant scandals or problems and using massive research, documentation and verification.

All this has helped solidify the practice in mainstream media. Though its position may not be impregnable, Aucoin's book makes clear that what began at journalism's margins has developed some pretty tough roots.

Briefly...

Homefront Confidential: How the War on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right to Know
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
84 pages; free

This important book should arouse all journalists and liberty lovers. In "Homefront Confidential," the highly respected Reporters Committee, adapting the familiar color codes, finds a red "severe" threat to freedom of information and a yellow "elevated" threat from the Patriot Act. It concludes that closed records, dubious security practices, and secret arrests and imprisonments are making it "virtually impossible to exercise oversight of government."