From the Archives - "Can Public Radio Resurrect Investigative Reporting?"

Mar 25, 2019

From PRNDA Newsletter April 1992

By Morgan Holm, News Director for Oregon Public Broadcasting Radio, Portland, OR

At last year’s Public Radio News Directors Association conference, CNN Investigative Unit, senior correspondent John Camp (who started out in radio himself) addressed the need for investigative and enterprise reporting.  The words he used are especially important for public radio journalists to consider.  He pointed out that constitutional freedoms of the press ‘were not adopted to let us cover news conferences, traffic accidents, etc.’  Camp encouraged journalists to focus on the “whys”, search for cause an effect relationships.  In short, Camp argued that journalists are obligated to investigate.

Compared to most broadcast news outlets, public radio is far ahead of the game in this respect.  NPR and its affiliates have a well-deserved reputation for comprehensive, in-depth reporting.  But does our reporting go far enough?  Are public radio journalists as a group prepared to uncover stories beyond the news conferences, news releases and constant drivel delivered by political interest groups?  The answer is a qualified “Yes”.  The qualification is this: public radio can not and should not feel it has reached a satisfactory level of reporting.  If we don’t push ourselves to become better, more thorough journalists, it’s unlikely anyone else will.

The specter of mounting an investigative unit is, for most public radio stations, the stuff of dreams.  Two major obstacles immediately arise:  time and money.  There never seem to be enough of either one to warrant devoting a reporter to “investigative” reporting.  In fact, public radio stations often find themselves with only one or two news producer/report/writer/anchors, anyway.  So, how can public radio fulfill what is clearly an obligation and should be an expectation of our role in broadcast journalism?

A few modest proposal worth considering.  First, remember that investigative reporting doesn’t necessarily produce the likes of Bartlett and Steele’s America: What Went Wrong? Every time a project is begun.  Investigative reporting is simply good reporting that goes beyond the obvious.  Public radio news shops should be making sure that their coverage is not simply a rehash of daily newspaper’s front page or a product of the wire service’s daily calendar.  Public radio journalist should be trained from the first day on the job to seek more facts, more sources, more documents (on the infamous “Paper Trail”), to keep asking “Why?” until there are no more answers.  In sort, the motivation must be bred into public radio journalists in order to produce the desired results.  Moving from the abstract to the practical, it seems that public radio news people should seek out partnerships with other journalists in nearby towns or states to pool intellectual and physical resources.  Dividing the workload makes the job easier.  It also brings in valuable diverse opinions on where investigations should be heading.  Until better internal structures are available, perhaps a few interested journalists should pursue loose working groups in each region of the country focusing on a couple of projects with broad appeal that could be shared over a regional network or some other fashion.

Two investigative reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times recently shared several easy ideas for investigative pieces that are easy to track down and may serve as a good introduction for some stations thinking about getting started in this area on the strength of their own resources.  They suggested investigative profiles on people with clout in city or state politics (find out everything you can about them through an extensive records search and interviews with friends and business acquaintances; then do an interview with the subject that really takes people inside their character, their raison d’etre) or root out charity scams which can often be discovered with the help of IRS Form 990 PF, a public record required of non-profit agencies.

Investigative reporting doesn’t have to be a tremendous investment of money, but it does take time, dedication and patience.  It’s the type of reporting public radio has an obligation to provide and it’s an additional way to set ourselves apart from the commercial broadcast and print media.  Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries are our audiences who end up with a better grasp of the way their world works.

Let’s help each other!  My phone is always open: [deleted since this is a 1992 article].