Watchdog Journalism: The Art of Investigative Reporting. Stephen J. Berry. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. 304 pp.
Even seasoned journalism instructors with substantial industry experience face the same problem year after year—how can journalistic writing, particularly about complex topics, be “taught?” Having students read example after example of interpretive stories, investigative stories, or other samples of long-form journalism — complete with discussion — seems like the simplest way, although many students quickly get bored with this case-study approach.
In his book Watchdog Journalism: The Art of Investigative Reporting, Stephen J. Berry combines a variety of techniques to form a very readable and informative guide that will probably keep the interest of students with even the shortest of attention spans. Berry, who was a reporter for more than thirty years before joining the faculty of the University of Iowa, uses a combination of case study, interviews, and Socratic method to weave a series of six separate stories that form the backbone of his book. And he includes some nice touches — mainly that most of the individual cases he presents are not the product of work by the elite press. Berry shows that with energy, perseverance, and a bit of knowledge of public records, staff members from mid-size and small dailies and weeklies can turn out high-quality projects.
Interestingly, Berry points out a few times that it was his disappointment with some contemporary reporting that triggered his interest in writing an investigative-reporting guide. Not only has the volume of investigative reporting declined, so has often the quality: “When impressive investigative reporting projects do emerge, they do more than reveal deeply entrenched long-standing problems,” he writes. “They also reveal the failings of daily journalism.” These failings include the fact that many of the stories were left uncovered for years, or they weren’t covered adequately before.
Berry has a folksiness and candor that will appeal to seasoned journalists as well as students. So many textbooks and guides on writing refer repeatedly to the “craft” of writing and reporting; that is a term you won’t find in Berry’s book. More than thirty years in the business has taught him one thing, he writes in the introduction: “In reality there is little that resembles craftsmanship. It is, instead, a chaotic wonder that produces stories that are craft-like.” And the reporters themselves become “characters” in his book: in most cases, Berry describes their personal and professional backgrounds and how that background frequently triggered their interest in a topic.
Berry‘s book consists primarily of the stories of the six Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative stories. He interviews the reporters of each at length, focusing not just on the nuts and bolts of sourcing and writing, but also on their everyday activities, how they came up with the idea for their series, and their thoughts and feelings while covering it. Each chapter ends with a concise but comprehensive discussion of the “lesson” of that series of stories. For example, does the zeal to “get” a big story conceal a tendency to overreact or fail to admit, ultimately, that no story really exists? How can a bit of investigative work incorporated into the job of everyday beat reporters lead to bigger and better stories? And how do two or more very different people learn to work as a team? These are some of the questions the author poses at the end of each chapter.
In one of Berry’s most interesting studies, the uncovering of sexual abuse of a minor by a powerful Democratic ex-governor of Oregon, staff members at the weekly Willamette Week were faced with questions of conflict of interest, when to rely on anonymous sources, the importance of face-to-face interviews, and other issues that can prevent the pursuit of investigative pieces, or at least hurt their accuracy and fairness. The target of the series, former Governor Neil Gold-schmidt, was a “king-maker,” as he is described, who knew everyone from the publisher of the paper to low-level public officials and community leaders. The staff learned that the combination of personal interviews and a reliance on public records can often yield phenomenal results.
And the revival of a long-ignored story—one that could have been done years before it finally appeared in the New York Times—was triggered by an almost- routine fax sent to the paper, announcing that an advocacy group was suing an adult home for the mentally ill in Queens, N.Y. The suit, which claimed that the home was putting some of its residents through unnecessary prostate surgery, led to a page-one Sunday story outlining how twenty-four residents underwent unnecessary surgery. Six of those suffered complications.
The “lessons learned” in that project? That some topics, particularly those not on the public agenda, are rife with possibilities for investigation if staff members take a bit of time to do some initial background work. Perhaps most important is the refusal to be sidetracked. The reporters working on that story were nearly done with their investigation on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Although the lead reporter in the series did some initial work on 9/11 coverage, his editor did not pull him off the story about the neglect of the mentally ill. He then pursued the story from his home.