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Investigative Journalism

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If you’re interested in becoming a journalist, you’ve probably read so much about the pending death of newspapers and news magazines that you’ve read a number of laments over the death of investigative journalism too. Don’t believe them. They may be appearing under mastheads and supported by new organizational models, but there is still a market for investigative journalists. In some ways, it’s stronger than ever.

 

While it’s true that newspapers and the general newsweekly are in trouble, they’re being replaced by national nonprofit investigative journalism programs like ProPublica and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; state nonprofit programs like the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch; and nonprofit political magazines like Reason, Mother Jones, and the Nation. Web-only publications like Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Alternet, and Salon on the left and the Blaze on the right also publish investigative pieces, as do the Independent chain of newspapers on the left and the Examiner papers on the right. Think tanks of all stripes and ideologies are also increasingly funding journalism programs. From ambitious bloggers to elite large-circulation glossy magazines like Esquire, GQ, and the Atlantic, there’s still an appetite and market for good reporting.

 

You should also dispense with the idea that you need a big budget and a large support staff to produce reporting with real-world impact. I’ve been a full-time journalist for about five years. In that time, my reporting has helped to get a death row inmate released from prison and helped to get a state official in Mississippi fired. All that was done while I was at Reason magazine, a magazine with a small circulation and, in comparison with large-circulation newspapers and magazines, a tiny budget. I had no support staff, no team of fact checkers, no legal team, and no stringers to handle the grunt work. I and my former colleagues also were nominated for, and won, a number of journalism awards. This is true of a number of smaller magazines, not just Reason.

 

The good news is that all you really need to be a good investigative journalist is curiosity, ambition, and a strong skepticism of government. Since your reading this implies some sort of affiliation with the Institute for Humane Studies, I’m going to guess that most of you already possess most or all of those attributes.

 

At its core, the most important function of journalism is government watchdog. Yes, corporations sometimes—often, even—do immoral things. So do individuals. But only government has the legitimate power to force people to do things they wouldn’t do voluntarily. Only government can create monopolies for itself, depriving citizens of the options they have in a voluntary society (the marketplace, for example). Keeping a close watch on government at all levels and in all its forms, then, is the most critical responsibility of a journalist. You’d think this would make most journalists libertarians. Oddly, it doesn’t. Most, in fact, support government power. (And not just from the Left, as conservatives often claim.)

 

This does, however, create an opening for libertarian journalists. In fact, those of us with some built-in skepticism of government may be at an advantage. I’ll give you another example from my own career. In late 2005, I was writing a paper for the Cato Institute on the overuse of SWAT teams. In researching it, I found an AP write-up about a raid in southern Mississippi in which a suspected drug dealer killed a cop. The Gannett paper in Jackson, the Clarion-Ledger, also wrote about the raid. But both stories were standard “here’s what happened” stories, followed by lots of praise for the slain police officer and an obligatory quote or two from the suspect’s lawyer and family. The man, Cory Maye, was later convicted and sentenced to death.

 

But I had just reviewed hundreds of drug raids and found the story while researching a paper that was skeptical about how law enforcement generally uses these tactics. A number of things jumped out at me. Maye had no drugs in his home (other than a roach, which would have garnered him a fine under other circumstances). He had no criminal record. After shooting the cop, he surrendered with bullets still remaining in his gun. None of these things are consistent with a coldblooded cop killer. Instead, they suggest a guy who was home alone with his infant daughter, thought he was being invaded, made a poor decision out of panic, then surrendered as soon as he realized the men who had just broken down his door were cops.

 

My reporting on Maye’s case eventually caught the eye of the Covington & Burling law firm in DC, which took on Maye’s case pro bono. Within a year, they got his death sentence thrown out. In late 2010, they won him a new trial. And in June 2011, they negotiated a plea bargain with prosecutors: Maye pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was given a sentence of time served. After ten years in prison, he got to go home to his family.

 

What’s interesting is that there has since been near-universal consensus that Maye’s initial conviction and sentence were a gross injustice. But none of the media outlets that reported on the story for the first several years after the raid picked up on that. The New York Times even reported on the Maye case just a few months after the raid. Longtime crime reporter Fox Butterfield was in Prentiss, Mississippi, to write about how the drug trade was devastating the rural south. He referenced Maye’s case on the front page. But he’d already committed himself to a different narrative. His story was about how the drug war was devastating the rural south and the government wasn’t doing enough about it. A black suspected drug dealer killing a white cop during a drug raid fit that narrative, so it didn’t raise any red flags, even for a left-leaning reporter like Butterfield. Butterfield admitted as much to me when I spoke to him over the phone a few months after I began writing about the case.

 

Libertarian journalists, then, can have a comparative advantage over journalists of other ideological stripes. If you understand the principles of public choice theory, for example, you’ll be better equipped to sniff out stories of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, and regulatory capture.

 

Beat reporters tend to be especially reluctant to question or antagonize the government officials they cover, because they rely on those officials to do their job from day to day. That presents an opening for an enterprising, libertarian-minded journalist to, for example, ask the police chief after a botched SWAT raid why a SWAT team was necessary to serve a warrant on a couple of low-level pot offenders in the first place. Or to submit an open records request asking how many teachers in the local underperforming school system have been fired or disciplined in the last five years.

 

There’s also a “fish don’t notice the water around them” problem. When I started reporting on the jaw-dropping corruption in Mississippi’s forensic autopsy system, I couldn’t believe no one in the local media had yet reported on the problems. They had been going on for more than twenty years. But for reporters who had spent their careers there, who might even have grown up there, that was just the way things had always been.

 

These sorts of stories are easy to find if you develop a topical niche and thoroughly educate yourself on that beat. Corrupt institutions are still institutions, which means they’ve been around (and they’ve probably been corrupt) for a long time. It sometimes takes the eyes and perspective of an outsider, someone who knows how things can be and are done differently, to see the problems.

 

Investigative journalism is immensely rewarding work. I like it because it rises above the partisan sniping of political journalism. Left and Right can disagree over the death penalty, but there’s no Left versus Right when it comes to wrongful convictions. Or a story about a kid who gets killed in the crossfire of an ill-advised SWAT raid. Or when public school teachers who have underperformed, or even assaulted a student, get paid to sit in rubber rooms. These kinds of stories force partisans to reexamine their premises. That’s not only rewarding, it’s also fun to watch.

 

I know most young journalists with a strong political identity aspire for the op-ed page. I did. But, done right, investigative journalism can be just as high-profile. And it’s a heck of a lot more substantive. You’ll have the opportunity to write stories that change lives, that have a real impact on public policy, and that effect real accountability for public officials who abuse their power. Pick a beat, stick with it, develop comprehensive knowledge about that beat, then watch as your reporting shifts the public debate about the issues you cover. It’s a great feeling.

 

I’m continually surprised by how few libertarians are in the field, given how cohesively its objectives align with libertarian ideas and principles. There’s plenty of room for more investigative journalists, and there’s definitely room for more with a libertarian bent. Unfortunately (or, I guess for us, fortunately), when it comes to government malfeasance, corruption, and abuse of power, there’s also an endless supply of material.

 

 

Radley Balko (radleybalko1@gmail.com) is an investigative journalist at the Huffington Post.

 

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