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Region’s Top Investigative Journalists Discuss Shifting Tides of Reporting at Rhode Island College



Five of New England’s most respected investigative reporters came together at Rhode Island College on April 8 as part of a panel discussion on how journalism has changed in recent years, in large part because of a growing preference for digital news sources, a lack of newsroom resources and changes in the audience’s interests.

The forum, “The Shifting Tides of Investigative Reporting: Perspectives From Leading Practitioners,” was sponsored by the American Democracy Project (ADP), a campus initiative that promotes political engagement throughout the state.

Jim Taricani, an I-Team investigative reporter for NBC10 WJAR-TV, served as moderator. Taricani covered the New England mafia for over 25 years, and continues to specialize in government corruption in his investigations.

Taricani opened the session by asking the panelists how the rapid growth of and preference for online news has impacted investigative reporting.

Lisa Chedekel, co-founder and senior writer for the non-profit Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT) and a former reporter for The Harford Courant, said most major newspapers had investigative teams until about five years ago. That’s not the case anymore.

Mike Stanton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Providence Journal, said he remembers when his investigative team consisted of five full-time writers and one editor in the 1990s. But today, there is no investigative team at the Journal.

In addition, Stanton said, journalists around the world are facing more pressure from editors to turn out more stories in less time, he said.

Josh Israel said he faces these same challenges at his job in Washington D.C. Israel, the senior investigative reporter for ThinkProgress.org, said some of the website’s 25 bloggers write 5-10 stories each day. 

“Today it’s less about the information, and more about getting the story out,” said Stanton. “Time is truth.”

Journalists are now also expected to do more than just write, said Mark Curtis, an investigative reporter and political analyst for ABC6, who said he often does the research, conducts interviews, takes pictures and records videos for stories he writes.

“Resources are a challenging thing,” he said. “I’m a jack of all trades…this makes it more and more difficult to do investigative journalism.”

Jim Hummel, executive director of the “Hummel Report,” agreed. “A few years ago, you would ask your editor how often they wanted you to submit a story, and they would say ‘As often as they’re good.’ … That’s something we’ll never see in journalism again.”

The panelists also talked about the economics of online journalism, and how that could impact reporting in the future.

“Funding is our biggest concern,” said Chedekel, who added that many investigative journalism sites are funded by private donors who still want to see these in-depth stories.

A major problem for C-HIT is that potential donors will ask them to write with bias, or advertisers want to market to a specific audience and C-HIT has to turn them down because of the content, Chedekel said. Instead C-HIT makes money by selling its stories to 17 different news, radio and television stations across Connecticut, she said.

The potential costs of lawsuits are also a concern for investigative journalists, said Taricani, who in 2004 was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to reveal a source for one of his stories. During the two-year legal battle, NBC paid about $660,000 in legal fees to protect him, he said.

At ThinkProgress.org, a full legal team must review major pieces before they are posted onto the website, Israel said. However one advantage of online stories is being able to link other documents referenced in the story, which makes it difficult for people to accuse him of libel.

Panelists also spoke to the issue of audience expectations of investigative journalism. Many people view these stories as being shown primarily on TV with hidden cameras and the classic “gotcha moment,” said Taricani, asking panelists: has this spoiled present-day investigative reporting?

“Most of these stories are not about confrontation; the facts speak for themselves. People want that dramatic moment, but that’s the exception rather than the rule,” said Curtis. “There is less and less ambush now because people are becoming more media savvy and are willing to tell their side of the story.”

Hummel agreed, saying, “The ambush doesn’t always have to be behind a hidden camera. Sometimes a better confrontation is just sitting down with the guy.”

After all, Hummel said, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. You can sit with me and have a civilized discussion or I can chase you like a criminal, and I’ll be happy either way.”

Other issues panelists touched on included what news people want to read, and whether there is too much focus on politicians and government and not enough on corporate America or professional and college sports.

“We’re trying to piece together a new model to keep investigative journalism alive, and there are similar efforts happening across the country,” said Chedekel. “You have to be the ones to keep it moving forward.”

“Five years from now, hopefully we can recreate this panel and have the answers to these questions,” said Kay Israel, RIC associate professor of communication and associate director of the ADP.

This event was offered with the support of the Rhode Island College Committee on College Lectures.

The goal of the ADP is to produce active, involved citizens in the community. RIC is the only college in the state to participate in the ADP and is considered one of the leading programs in the country for political and civic engagement, often used as the model for initiatives by other colleges.