Charlie Peters’ $50,000 Idea: Preventive Journalism

What is preventive journalism, and why is the foundation I head, Understanding Government, offering a prize of $50,000 for the best example of it published in the next year?

We define preventive journalism as reporting that identifies inept leaders, wrong-headed policies and bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disasters like the bad intelligence about WMDs and the travesty that was the response to Katrina.

I now realize that I must have had my first glimmer of the need for preventive journalism as a young West Virginian who would hear of a mine disaster, then read heartbreaking stories of weeping widows and indignant editorials demanding effective safety regulations.

But in the years that followed, no reporter went down into the mines to see if they were safer. We only found out they were not after the next disaster when a new round of heartbreaking articles and indignant editorials would appear.

It is to stop such cycles of tragic futility that Understanding Government is giving the Prize for Preventive Journalism — and offering enough money to wake reporters and editors up to the crucial importance of finding out what’s wrong in time to keep bad things from happening.

An ample reward is necessary for two other reasons. One is that in a time when shrinking newsroom budgets are cutting back coverage of government agencies, an incentive is needed to begin to counter the trend.

Another reason for the reward is that too many reporters yawn at the prospect of covering government. But what is going to happen to the rest of us if no one takes a hard critical look at essential agencies like the Centers for Disease Control? We have already seen what the failure to give timely scrutiny to the CIA, the FBI and FEMA has cost us.

The reporting that we seek will look at government with a determination to find out not only what’s right and wrong but to understand why — which means penetrating a tangle of factors that include policy, leadership and the culture of a particular bureaucracy. The ultimate aim is to find solutions — to solve problems before they lead to serious harm.

All of this is likely to prove difficult even for able reporters. That is why we want to give recognition to those who rise to meet the challenge.

What about other contests?

Don’t existing awards for investigative or explanatory journalism already provide such recognition?

Investigative reporters too often simply provide a flat one-dimensional account of what went wrong. They usually fail to explore the “why” behind the story. And when they do, as happens in the case of the better explanatory journalism, the reasons they identify are only political or economic. Rarely are cultural factors examined.

We learn, for example, that the FBI still has only six fluent Arabic speakers among its hordes of agents. But we are not told what it is in the bureau’s culture that produces this absurd result.

We learn that the CIA ignored a cable warning that two of the 9/11 terrorists had come to the United States, but we are not taken inside the agency to understand why, as George Tenent testified, “no one read that cable.”

The CDC cries for a reporter determined to explore its culture to understand why its officials delayed letting the public know about the danger presented by Andrew Speaker until after he had returned to the United States and after he had possibly exposed the Czech airline passengers to his disease. And to learn why Dr. Julie Gerberding initially defended the CDC employee who, aware of Speaker’s illness and travel plans, did not tell the rest of the agency what he knew.

What we desperately need are solutions to whatever is wrong at the CDC so that we can make the changes that are necessary to ensure that the response to the next threat of dangerous disease is both swift and decisive.

It is this combination of investigative and explanatory reporting with solutions that makes the reporting sought by the Prize for Preventive Journalism unique.

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