December 20, 2006

Update: Leann Frola’s investigative Q&A will be posted Wednesday (Jan. 3) instead of today (Dec. 29) due to breaking news on Saddam Hussein’s execution.

By Al Tompkins (more by author)

I can’t think of a time when investigative reporting has faced more pressures than right now. And yet, once again, in 2006, journalists in print, broadcast and online newsrooms have managed to tell remarkable stories:

  • An ongoing special report by The Washington Post investigated federal agriculture subsidies, which totaled more than $25 billion in 2005.
  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviewed thousands of records from the Department of Mental Health and found that the state’s mentally ill and mentally retarded “have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers in a system that for years has failed at every level to safeguard them.”

In all of the years I have worked in and around investigative reporting, I have heard journalists say every year, “It is getting harder and harder to do our job.” It is more than a feeling these days.

We will begin 2007 with many new pressures. Newspapers are laying off staffs. TV stations are changing from measuring households to measuring individuals with “people meters.” As this new technology moves into the ratings systems, sweeps periods that TV stations used to measure Nielsen ratings are becoming a thing of the past. Pushing up ratings during sweeps periods has long been the reason many broadcast investigative units existed. But with sweeps periods gone, every day will be a ratings day.

Commercial radio has all but ceased investigative work, except in a handful of markets where radio news has managed to remain strong. Public radio and television have stepped forward to fill the need for thoughtful and in-depth reporting on complex issues.

So, how do great investigative journalists still do what they do? Poynter Online’s Leann Frola interviewed six investigative reporters and editors to find out how they do their jobs in these days of cost cutting, homeland security and new pressures on journalists to give up confidential sources. Check back Tuesday to see what they had to say.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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