Investigative journalism, long criticized for a lack of diversity, has made significant developments since March

Journalists of color have taken the helm of investigative news operations and claimed some of the most prestigious investigative journalism awards

May 13, 2020
Category: Business & Work

There’s been little in the news lately besides coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic — and rightly so, as it is likely to be one of the defining episodes of our lifetimes — but around the time most of us were learning what “PPE” meant, there were several milestones emerging in our industry.

Over the course of just a few weeks, there were a handful of significant developments in diversifying investigative journalism — a specialized reporting area long criticized for its lack of diversity. Just as the mysterious disease was about to manifest itself disproportionately in several urban areas of the country, journalists of color were being announced as taking the helm of investigative news operations or claiming some of the most prestigious investigative journalism awards in the business.

Starting in mid-March:

Going back a little further, Matt Thompson is little more than a year into his tenure as editor-in-chief at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, as is Susan Smith Richardson, who became chief executive officer of the Center for Public Integrity, one of America’s oldest nonprofit investigative journalism organizations.

At another level, Cheryl W. Thompson is in her second term as board president of Investigative Reporters & Editors, the 6,000-member international organization dedicated to supporting investigative journalism.

Also in late March, I began my appointment as editor-in-chief at Type Investigations, a nonprofit investigative newsroom headquartered in Manhattan. Type Investigations, formerly known as the Investigative Fund, works with independent investigative reporters to produce accountability journalism published in partnership with a variety of print, broadcast and digital media outlets.

I’ve overseen investigative reporting in newsrooms from New York to California for the last 25 years. Until recently, I held out little hope that I ever would see many more investigative news leaders that looked like me.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the leader of an investigative team for a global news organization,” Nixon said. “My team includes seven Pulitzer Prize winners. Several others on the team have won other major awards such as the Polk and Goldsmith. It’s amazing to lead this great group of journalists. Still pinching myself.”

The need for more journalists of color leading investigative teams couldn’t have been demonstrated more clearly than by the current pandemic, journalists say, as COVID-19 spread and claimed lives in far greater numbers in African American communities around the country. Documenting the racial disparities and attempting to understand the underlying reasons for them came late to the coverage, they say.

“You need people in the room when decisions are being made about stories or angles, or how to cover something, who are going to speak up when something feels off,” Type Investigations senior editor Alissa Figueroa said about the need for journalists of color in key editing roles, during a recent Maynard Institute for Journalism Education panel discussion on COVID-19 accountability reporting. “You’re seeing the numbers going up and you don’t have anybody in that room who can think from a different perspective about why. You need those people in the conversation when stories are being assigned.”

The recent appointment of journalists of color in key management positions like the Associated Press doesn’t represent an avalanche of change, Nixon said, but they do signify a major step in the right direction.

“It’s inspiring to see so many people of color in these positions,” he said. “While we have seen people of color in leadership roles in the newsroom before, this is somewhat of a sea change. Investigative reporting units are the high-profiled departments that produce agenda-setting journalism. These are not positions where you have seen people of color in any large numbers before. So, this is significant.”

Thomas, who founded MLK50 following a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, said COVID-19 has left little time to reflect on the recent accolades she received after winning some of the most coveted awards in investigative journalism. Those awards recognized a series on predatory health care debt-collection in Memphis.

“If this pandemic weren’t consuming all our attention, one of the first things I would want to do is take time to celebrate the successes that so many of my colleagues of color are having across the industry. (Them) ascending to these higher roles, it gives me an example to follow,” she said.

“Journalism is getting better, but in many ways it hasn’t changed. Many of the people who are making decisions on what deserves scarce reporting resources are white men and they are not as likely, I don’t think, to immediately identify some of the issues that are most challenging to (underserved communities), for example black women.”

RELATED TRAINING: Make Diversity a Priority During the Pandemic 

Diversity and inclusion was the subject of the entire issue of the most recent IRE Journal magazine, just published under the bold headline, Publication Without RepresentatIon: Our diversity problems stretch back decades. IRE took the unusual step of making the magazine available to anyone, even non-members.

IRE executive director Doug Haddix noted the significance of the recent managerial hires and noted the organization’s own diversity efforts, such as featuring multiple panels at recent conferences focusing on covering underserved communities, racial inequities and other topics connected to diversity and inclusion.

“These organizations have significant impact in shaping news coverage in communities across the country, so it’s heartening to see more journalists of color tapped for these leadership jobs,” Haddix said. “Journalists of color bring different life experiences, perspectives, skills and source networks to newsrooms. That wealth of talent and knowledge surely will help improve and broaden news coverage.”

Prior to Type Investigations, I held a masthead-level position overseeing investigations at the Detroit Free Press. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to leave, but as an African American journalist, it allowed me to fulfill a long-term ambition — the opportunity to bring greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity to investigative reporting in a systemic way.

That’s an objective shared with Type Media Center, where the investigative newsroom has been woman-led for the past nine years.

“Mark’s career as a reporter, editor and manager exemplifies Type Investigations’ mission of delivering stories that drive social impact,” said Taya Kitman, executive director and CEO of Type Media Center. “Mark takes over as editor-in-chief at a time when our partnerships with independent journalists are creating stories that reach more people and have greater impact than ever before. He has overseen award-winning, groundbreaking work that has pushed the boundaries of investigative storytelling while influencing events and changing lives.”

The responsibility of shaping what kinds of investigative stories get pursued in newsrooms and whose voices shape that storytelling is the key takeaway from these appointments, several of the editors said.

Thompson, the first African American elected board president in the 43-year history of IRE, said any time you can increase the number of investigative journalists of color in the editing and top management ranks it is a positive development, but that “we need to make sure they don’t just end there.

“The only way this won’t be a ‘short-term blip’ is if folks like Rochester, Nixon, Matt Thompson and others, hire and groom investigative journalists of color, particularly women, to be decision-makers. They finally have a seat at the table. Time to pull up an extra chair.”

Mark J. Rochester is editor-in-chief of Type Investigations. He was previously senior news director for investigations at the Detroit Free Press. His career includes other senior leadership positions at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Associated Press, The Denver Post, Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He served on the national board of directors of Investigative Reporters & Editors and is currently on the national advisory board of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C.