Words from the Big Man

Paul Steiger, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, has some interesting ideas when it comes to the transformation of investigative journalism. According to Steiger’s article, investigative reporting is “on the cusp of major transformation—in the way it reaches its audiences, how news and information is gathered and distributed, and the topics on which it is focused.”

Let’s explore a few of his main points:

Reaching Audiences: The first thing Steiger mentions about the transformation of investigative reporting is how they will reach audiences. The old traditional newspaper format no longer works for the majority of readers. Not many people will sit down and read a five-part series or long story that continues on for pages. Instead, audiences have a much shorter attention span and want more creative communication techniques. According to Steiger, reporters can use humor, irony, photography, video, animation are all great ways to reach readers. But, Steiger stresses that there is a right and wrong way to do this. Merely adding a couple of pictures and a graph or two to a newspaper story and putting the same story on the Web is not effective. Instead, reporters must completely rethink how the story is told. They must piece video clips and graphics together to create a seamless story. Then after the visual element is complete, reporters can then back up their stories with narratives, interview transcripts, supporting statistics and data sources from the Internet. Steiger has noticed that some audiences will read the writing and statistics first, and others will skip them entirely and go straight for the video. Either way, it’s important that they supporting facts are present.

Reporting Tools for Gathering: Steiger’s second point discusses how reporters can use technology to their advantage. Today’s investigative reporters have the opportunity to master computer-aided devices and use them to their advantage. Steiger mentioned his experience at a seminar he attended for Wall Street Journal reporters and editors. Interestingly, the seminar was led by the youngest person present, Vauhini Vara, a San Francisco-based reporter just a few years out of college. The topic? How to use Facebook in combination with other databases to find sources inside major companies. Steiger explained the reaction of the seminar attendees upon hearing this concept:

“I watched jaws drop all around the table as she demonstrated in two or three minutes that she could identify a dozen present or former employees of a given company who were all within two degrees of separation of a reporter in the room. She convinced many veteran reporters that these people could be reached through friend-of-a-friend contact instead of being cold-called.”

This was a huge breakthrough for the journalists at the meeting. Who would have thought that the notorious Facebook would prove to be such an asset to reporting? Steiger noticed that Vara’s approach is similar to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, and greatly reduces the time and effort required to gather sources. As more and more information becomes digitized on the Internet, reporters will have more information at their fingertips.

Topic Choices: Steiger mentions how most investigative reporting focuses on where the most power resides – government or big business. Although it is important to exposing abuses by these institutions, there are many other areas to investigate as well. Institutions such as unions, school systems and universities, doctors and hospitals, lawyers and courts, nonprofits and the media, should not be overlooked. People such as the elderly and immigrants are increasingly becoming targets of abuse or fraud by such institutions.

Unfortunately, there are many crucial topics to be investigated and a small number of well-trained investigative reporters. That’s where bloggers come in. Obviously, blogs can be extremely opinionated and should not be trusted as credible news sources. However, some bloggers have actually uncovered errors in traditional news organizations published stories. According to Steiger, “bloggers also have the ability to add information and insight to build on what reporters have unearthed.” As long as the bloggers are accurate, they have the power to enrich public knowledge on a topic.

On a side note, Steiger mentions that ProPublica launched a blog of its own, which will be aimed at “aggregating any noteworthy investigative reporting that we can find that day.”

Overall, Steiger gives some good advice on investigative journalism and how to utilize the Internet during all steps of the reporting process. This is more of an overview, and I plan on going more into depth on specific techniques such as database mining in later posts.

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