Anger can be a motivation in journalism

Note from the Center: What we're working on and thinking about

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A victory delayed is still a victory

Anger can be a pretty good motivation in journalism, or perhaps passion. The Pulitzer-prize-winning series on black lung disease from Jim Morris’ Environment team last year, "Breathless & Burdened" was enough to make anyone angry. To remind you, it exposed how a program at Johns Hopkins unaccountably detected lower levels of black lung in miners than others had.

It seemed to me a story from the past, the 1950s perhaps when miners struggled in difficult and dangerous conditions in Appalachian hell holes. Well, it seems they still do, based on reporting by Chris Hamby, now at BuzzFeed. 

Jim’s team has stayed on top of the story and tracked the confidential, of course, investigation at Johns Hopkins. Almost by accident last week Jamie Smith Hopkins (yes, correct name) found out that the prestigious university had terminated the program after a nearly two-year-long investigation.

Let me remind you of the key finding of our investigation, that Dr. Paul Wheeler from the Johns Hopkins unit didn’t find a single case of severe black lung in 1500 cases for which he was asked an opinion. To see how nuts that was it’s worth taking a look at the x-ray data in this stunning comparison by Chris Zubak-Skees.

In the same week Jim reported how members of Congress were pushing for reform of black lung benefits based on the Center’s work.

Measuring the impact of Public Integrity’s reporting — like all investigative non-profits — is a fraught business between page views, social shares, and dissemination on other sites. But real, verifiable, action by authorities like this is hard to beat and very much in the spectrum of the “theory of change” on which major donors place us.

It doesn’t mean becoming advocates but it does mean caring about outcomes, the consequences of what we report: whether it is this black lung fiasco or the EPA’s decision to investigate its own civil rights unit recently.

Also on the policy impact front, Susan Ferriss’ indefatigable work on the subject of kids being treated like criminals at school — built in part around the case of an autistic Virginia boy called Kayleb Moon-Robinson, keeps getting closer to triggering legislative action, again because advocates and politicians are moved by our reporting. Susan reports that a bipartisan alliance has emerged in Virginia to try to tackle the way the state is criminalizing kids.

State corruption and collaboration

Collaboration is a journalistic buzz word more often honored in the breach. It was a big topic at the recently Online News Association conference #ONA15 and several of our donors and others are pushing non-profits and media groups to collaborate in order to shore up some of the decline in State and in-depth reporting given the newspaper industry crisis.

Our own International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is probably the most effective journalism collaboration in existence but the state reporting consortium led by Kytja Weir at Public Integrity is also remarkable. A great example was this series with the Post & Courier in South Carolina. With some data and reporting horsepower from the Center and the local knowledge of the Post & Courier the true Tammany Hall picture of the state legislature was exposed.

I believe our state coverage is a core competence and future strength of the Center and something major media donor foundations as well as concerned individuals keen on as they fret over the democratic deficit at state level with cuts in local media across the country. A superb example is this expensive tracker of advertising spending at the state level for the 2015 elections. It is a great indication of where the money is really going and beyond the reach of any one statehouse reporter to produce. More to come soon too from the epic State Integrity project tracking how well — or I am afraid badly – states across the nation are doing in combatting corruption and creating at state level.

Within the stories there are some gems too. Liz Essley Whyte and Ashley Balcerzakkicked off their piece with the “must-read” introduction: "U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana, would like voters to forget his past connection to a notorious prostitution ring."

911 – we are where we are, not where our cell thinks we are

Allan Holmes, our long-term finance reporter and newly appointed head of the Business in Politics unit, touched a nerve with his analysis on how the wireless telecoms industry has influenced legislation on location detection of users. He showed how dangerous a problem this is with 911 calls. The chart by Chris Zubak-Skees on how the problem has gotten worse is telling and the recording he presented of one of those calls is chilling.

What we’re reading (or thinking about)

I’m writing this in London which is why it is a little late from normal delivery. 

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has a major exhibition at the Royal Academy and I was struck at the conjunction between investigative journalism and his brand of critical and revealing art often dealing with the secrecy and control of the Chinese Communist Party and its apparent fear of him personally.

For example, a current major A-Z of world artists is displayed with him under A in the English version and absent entirely in the Chinese version. An almost physically painful exhibit is SACRED, six near-shipping container-sized boxes, reproductions of the cell in which he was held for 81 days, interrogated and subjected to soul-destroying psychological tactics designed to grind down his spirit and eliminate his dignity. On the walls of the room in which the boxes sit he’s done a wallpaper with his face on the Twitter bird logo surmounted with golden surveillance cameras and handcuffs.

I found most powerful a video in which his freshly constructed art gallery and workspace – commissioned by a local authority to create a new artists’ district — was demolished and erased from the landscape by Beijing authorities before it could open.

I welcome any feedback on this note.

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