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16- Investigative Journalism

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16. Investigative Journalism

Jason Stverak, President, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity

 

 

As each new day brings another story of corrupt politicians, unprincipled officials, and government boondoggles, there remains one strong and effective way to fight back: a free and vocal press.

 

Investigative journalism, the most effective weapon of the press, has all but disappeared from newsrooms. This comes as a result of the struggling newspaper industry that can no longer afford to invest the time and resources into delving into the story and uncovering the details that could be easily overlooked.

 

The disappearance of the investigative reporter has left many wondering, how is corruption supposed to be caught? Who is delving into the mountains of paperwork to find a misuse of taxpayer funds at the mayor’s office? Who is protecting the public from fraud, abuse, and exploitation?

 

The answer to those questions is: reporters who are seeking employment with think tanks. These think tanks provide journalists from all over the nation an opportunity to investigate and report on the stories that matter. At think tanks, reporters get the opportunity to re-emerge as hard-news reporters of yesteryear who investigate stories traditional media now cannot or will not cover. Think tanks also provide young journalists with the unique opportunity to learn what journalism truly is by doing instead of merely watching.

 

The rise of think tank investigative journalism stems from not only the decline of resources at newspapers around the nation, but also the growing vacuum in state-based coverage on numerous topics. Many traditional newsrooms no longer have the financial resources to retain a capitol news reporter on staff. In fact, an American Journalism Review study found that only 355 full-time newspaper reporters are still based in the nation’s state capitals and that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago.

 

The success of investigative reporters at think tanks is being felt in every state around the nation. Think tank investigative journalists have reported on everything from national security to health care. From misuse of taxpayer money in Nebraska to voter fraud in Ohio, think tank reporters are investigating the stories that the traditional media is overlooking. This type of journalism is not just fulfilling the role of small -market media. In some cases, it is drawing audiences away from traditional media outlets.

 

Kathy Hoekstra, a think tank reporter in Michigan, found herself investigating a union day-care scandal when her organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sued Michigan’s Department of Human Services. The lawsuit stemmed from two home day-care owners receiving notification that they were members of a union, and that dues would be taken out of the subsidy checks they receive on behalf of low-income parents who qualify for aid. The lawsuit alleged that these home day-care providers are business owners, not government employees, and therefore it is illegal to siphon union dues from government subsidy checks. Weeks of investigating the details of this case paid off when Kathy’s article was welcomed with open arms in all the major news outlets in Michigan, exposing this story to millions of readers.

Although many of the think tank journalists are local in focus, on several occasions, one reporter’s local discovery has led to a major national news story. In November 2009, Jim Scarantino from the Rio Grande Foundation was doing research on Recovery.gov when he noticed that a few of the congressional districts that received stimulus funding in New Mexico did not exist. The story he wrote about that obvious error prompted a number of other think tank reporters in other states to look into their own states’ information.

 

As more and more reporters looked into their own state’s data on Recovery.gov, more congressional districts proved to be fabricated. What came to be known as the “Phantom Congressional District Scandal” led to the discovery of more than 440 phantom congressional districts nationwide and hearings on Capitol Hill. The Colbert Report even refashioned its popular “Better Known as a District” into a new segment, “Know Your Made-Up District.”

 

By utilizing technology and the internet, thinks tanks have the potential to extend their audience reach and create a community of loyal readers. With local focuses, specific targets, commitment to using highly trained and professional journalists, and a strategic approach to using and distributing resources, think tank investigative reporting is the future of journalism.

 

 

Jason Stverak is the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. An expert in nonprofit journalism, Stverak works to promote social welfare an d civil betterment by leading initiatives that advance investigative journalism. His support of nonprofit journ alism has played a vital role in exposing corruption in our elected officials and encouraging transparency in government. Through his leadership, the Franklin Center has continued to grow and attract talented journalists. Prior to working with the Franklin Center, he was regional field director for the Sam Adams Alliance, where he worked with state groups and associations committed to promoting free-market policies. Stverak also served as North Dakota executive director for the Rudy Giuliani Presidential Committee and spent six years as the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. Stverak is a lifetime member of the association of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). A native of Rapid City, S.D., he received his B.A. in foreign service and Slavic studies from Baylor University in 1996 with a minor in economics.

 

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