News about the news media has been chilling for longer than any self-respecting journalist would care to admit. Last fall, public trust reached a historic low, when Gallup pollsters found 57 percent of respondents did not trust the news media to report stories “fully, accurately or fairly.”
In an era when Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Bill O’Reilly are considered “journalists,” the public’s cynicism is unarguably well-deserved. But commercialized news is only part of the story. The best traditions of American journalism are alive, if not necessarily well, at nonprofit outfits like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), whose chief reporter and Web producer visited Bloomington from March 1 to 4.
Here’s how the Columbia Journalism Review described the work being done in Madison in a piece titled Investigative Reporting for the Badger State in January 2011.
“In just under two years, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has broken over 25 major stories, ranging from the increased dependence on immigrant labor in the dairy industry to the stories behind the alarmingly high Native American suicide rates.”
"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government." - Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
WCIJ is a two-person team led by Executive Director Andy Hall and is housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Hall is a native Hoosier and graduate of the IU School of Journalism.
Investigative reporter and Web producer Kate Golden is the team’s other half. The extended crew includes a handful of UW interns, editorial support providers and a lawyer, she told IU classes during her visit.
All of the organization’s investigative pieces are presented in cutting-edge, multimedia packages -- text, photographs, audio and video -- on the nonprofit’s WisconsinWatch Web site.
The site is not high-traffic by, say, Talking Points Memo standards, Hall said during a conversation in the WCIJ office in January. Its impact is achieved via a “collaborative” model through which its work is made available to media across the state for republication, when and if an outlet chooses. While WCIJ embargoes stories until specific release dates, it isn’t uncommon for stories to run weeks after they are released, Hall said.
WCIJ partners with the state’s public radio and television operations and offers its story packages for free. As the Columbia Journalism Review article explained, its work is “picked up by numerous news organizations throughout the state, including the La Crosse Tribune and WBAY-ABC in Green Bay.”
Golden, who specializes in environmental writing, has averaged about one story a month since joining WCIJ almost a year ago. She also has covered subjects ranging from sexual assaults on campus to Native American suicides to for-profit colleges.
Three of her most recent environmental packages are “Deer, coyotes and turkeys, oh my!,” “How a polluter gets stimulus money -- and avoids environmental review” and “Toxic Legacy: Gas customers may have to eat some costs for plant cleanups.”
"WisconsinWatch.org is one of over 50 worldwide members of the Investigative News Network, a consortium of nonprofit news organizations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada." - Columbia Journalism Review
The kind of work WCIJ produces in these packages represents a journalistic ideal whose roots date to mid-17th century England -- the independent, comprehensive search for the best obtainable versions of the truth that citizens need to be free and self-governing. In 19th century America, James Madison called it the “bulwark of liberty.” In the 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously observed: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
In the “How a polluter gets stimulus money” story, Golden exposed a 21st century example of governmental deception. The story begins:
“Last December, when Gov. Jim Doyle announced $14.5 million in federal stimulus funds for energy-efficiency projects involving nine companies, he called it ‘a tremendous opportunity to be one of the greenest manufacturing states in the country.’
“What Doyle did not mention was that ethanol producer Didion Milling Inc., which got the largest share at $5.6 million, is one of Wisconsin’s most chronic air and water polluters -- and a firm designated by the federal government as a ‘high priority violator.’”
Golden quoted 13 separate human sources in the piece, including Didion neighbors and their lawyer, environmentalists, officials from state and federal governments, and consultants and technical experts involved in the issue. She told students she interviewed more sources that she did not use in the story.
Gov. Doyle and Didion representatives refused interviews. The company provided a statement that touted “the job-creation and clean-energy benefits of the stimulus-funded project,” the story said.
Golden also cited a half dozen official documents, mostly obtained through public records requests, and government databases as sources of information in her story.
That’s public-interest journalism in its purest form.
The good news doesn't end there. WCIJ is part of a growing movement of similarly directed investigative reporting centers.
“The collaborative network extends well beyond the University of Wisconsin campus,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported. “WisconsinWatch.org is one of over 50 worldwide members of the Investigative News Network, a consortium of nonprofit news organizations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada.”
"In just under two years, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has broken over 25 major stories." - Columbia Journalism Review
And it’s a multi-faceted movement, as the Christian Science Monitor (one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit papers) reported in a Feb. 12, 2008, article titled “Nonprofit journalism on the rise.”
The bad news, however, is that no one seems to know yet how to make this type of reporting economically sustainable. At the moment, it’s primarily funded by foundations, subsisting by the grace of their benevolence.
WCIJ practices its preaching on transparency and discloses its funding sources, most of which are foundations like the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Ford Foundation and McCormick Foundation.
The question before those who seek to restore the public’s trust in journalism is how these repositories of investigative excellence can function -- independent of the interests they must confront -- and still survive economically.
A growing cadre of nonprofit journalists across the nation are seeking the answer. And they have taken the first and most critical step to achieve their goals. They produce full, accurate and fair journalism the public can respect.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .