May 16, 2013

See the Results of Investigative Journalism

By: Jason Stverak

My last post discussed the context of investigative journalism. Now let’s look at some success!

The new era of state-based online investigative journalism stems not only from the decline of resources in newspapers around the nation, but also the growing vacuum in state-based coverage on numerous topics. Many traditional newsrooms no longer have the financial resources to retain a capitol news reporter on staff. In fact, an American Journalism Review study found that only 355 full-time newspaper reporters are still based in the nation’s state capitals and that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago.

Our team of investigative journalists has reported on every subject from healthcare to energy, in every corner of the country. From misuse of taxpayer money in Nebraska to voter fraud in Ohio, reporters are investigating the stories that the traditional media is overlooking. This type of journalism is not just fulfilling the role of small-market media. In some cases, it is drawing audiences away from traditional media outlets.

Melissa Daniels, an investigative reporter for the Pennsylvania Independent, found that a member of the state cabinet was using a state vehicle to commute to work from his home in Rhode Island—four states and 350 miles away! By combing through monthly vehicle use records that traditional media outlets didn’t bother to look at, Melissa discovered that this official had logged over 40,000 miles per year on his state car commuting back and forth to the capitol every week, and that taxpayers were footing his huge gas bills. Melissa’s story brought the public’s attention to this needless waste, and the official in question resigned his post less than two months after her story was published.

Although many state-based investigative reporters are local in focus, sometimes their discoveries lead to major national news stories. In 2009, Jim Scarantino of the Rio Grande Foundation was doing research on when he noticed that a few of the congressional districts that received stimulus funding in New Mexico did not exist. The story he wrote about that obvious error prompted a number of reporters in other states to look into their own states’ information.

As more and more reporters looked into their own state’s data on, more congressional districts proved to be misnumbered or entirely fabricated. What came to be known as the “Phantom Congressional District Scandal” led to the discovery of more than 440 phantom congressional districts nationwide and hearings on Capitol Hill. The Colbert Report even refashioned its popular “Better Known as a District” into a new segment, “Know Your Made-Up District.” And although there was no serious fraud behind these clumsily misnumbered districts, the discovery highlighted the inefficiency of the federal government, and cast doubt on the competence of the bureaucrats managing stimulus spending.

By utilizing technology and the internet, today’s investigative reporters have the potential to extend their audience reach and create a community of loyal readers. As an investigative reporter, you are both a truth-seeker and an educator, promoting liberty to the citizenry by shining a light on government’s wrongdoings.

Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. This post is a revised version of a chapter in the Institute for Humane Studies Public Policy Career Guide.