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From AJR,   February/March 2013  issue

Journalism that Makes a Difference   

That's the kind that appeals to Robert Little, NPR's new investigations editor.Fri., February 22, 2013.

By Sandra Muller
Sandra Muller (sandra.mueller1987@googlemail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Finding the hidden truth, holding officials accountable and digging up that one little piece of news that make a difference to the world that's Robert Little's vision of investigative journalism.

And that's the approach he'll take when he starts his new gig job on March 4 as senior editor for investigations at NPR. "It's what NPR's audience is expecting," says Little, 45, a Baltimore Sun veteran whose last job at the paper was investigative and enterprise editor.

And NPR is expecting big things from its new "first class editor," says Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president of news. "With him we want to take reporting to a higher level."

Robert Little. Credit: Robert Little.

The broadcaster's history of investigative journalism is relatively short, she says. Its investigative team, which now has nine members, has been around for just two-and-a-half years. But, Smith says, NPR now considers investigative reporting a "major task" that helps distinguish it from its competitors.

"Bob is an ambitious leader who likes guiding and who is great in inspiring other reporters," she says. She adds, "Our audience wants to hear and see things that nobody else knows and that's what Bob was hired for."

As for making the jump from a career in print to radio, Little says that while working for the Sun he got used to developing stories on multiple platforms. However, the need to "catch the sound" that would best tell a story is a challenge he is excited to take.

"It's a team process and people bring different strength," he says. "We can all learn from each other."

Besides, there are some good precedents. NPR mainstays David Folkenflik, who covers the media, and Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon, came to NPR from the Sun.

Born on an army base in Virginia, Little grew up in the Baltimore suburbs, taking his first steps into the world of journalism by watching the news, reading the paper and delivering the Sun when he was in junior high school.

After graduating from Towson University with a bachelor's degree in mass communication in 1991, Little interned at the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland, and then joined the paper's staff.

Before going back to school to get a master's in journalism at Columbia University, he covered state government for Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot. He joined the Sun in 1998 as a business reporter. He later covered major national stories (among them 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans) and served as a correspondent in Russia, Europe and the Middle East.

Traveling can be crucial to investigative reporting, Little says, recalling two stories related to medical treatment of soldiers in Iraq.

In one of them he found that before the war in Iraq started, specialists had recommended that every deployed soldier should carry a tourniquet. But "it was fairly simple to determine that some units were deploying without being issued tourniquets," Little recalls.

Ultimately, he says "finding soldiers who suffered injuries that could have been treated with tourniquets that were unavailable to them" was the most crucial part to his coup, and also the greatest challenge. The research took "several hard months of interviewing grieving wives and mothers," he says.

The second story, he says, developed out of the first. Having been able to build a strong network of sources in the combat medicine field, he was approached by some of them telling him about a drug called Factor VII. "They thought it was a miracle drug" stopping severe bleedings because it would cause the blood to clot, Little says.

However, he discovered that the Federal Drug Administration had only approved Factor VII to treat rare forms of hemophilia, He found that Factor VII had been given to over 1,000 wounded soldiers, in some cases causing dangerous blood clots that lead to heart attacks, strokes and deaths.

His story led to the end of the drug's use in combat zones--and earned him the George Polk Award in 2006.

Four years later, in 2010, Little was dispatched to Haiti to cover the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince. It was one of his last reporting assignments before he became the Sun's investigative and enterprise editor.

He believes his extensive reporting experience serves him well on the other side of the desk. "I think being able to approach the stories with the background of a reporter makes me a good team leader," he says.

Scott Calvert worked on Little's investigative team at the Sun for more than two years. "It's really been a strong collaboration," says Calvert, recalling that he had admired Little's award-winning Factor VII story before the two met. "Bob is very serious and knowledgeable."

In 2011, Calvert remembers, when the Sun was covering the mayor's race in Baltimore and the discussion about high tax rates was heating up, the investigative team was searching for a special angle on the issue.

"We analyzed all property tax bills --237,000 of them," Calvert says about the six-month project. The team created a database that revealed that hundreds of property owners were receiving unfair tax breaks, depriving the city of revenue and creating "incredible disparities among house owners," Calvert says.

"Bob is very involved in projects from start to finish," Calvert says. "And he often made suggestions about things that I haven't even thought of before."

That's not to say that editor and reporter didn't have their share of disagreements. "But we had this mutual respect, and Bob would always hear out other ideas, and he was open to change his mind," Calvert says. "He wasn't imperious."

Little, says he very much enjoyed his work at the Sun. "I am very proud of the investigative journalism we did," he says. But he's clearly looking to the broad scope of his new employer. "I think I don't have to explain why somebody would want to join them," he says.

When it comes to his job, the married father of five doesn't believe in luck. For him, success is about tenacity, resources and patience. "It's about exploring complex topics in detail and showing commitment," he says. "And eventually, you'll create your own luck."