Panelists reflect on experiences to highlight challenges of investigative journalism

Jack Dodson/WSOE News

There is no such thing as objectivity — journalists just attempt to come as close to that as possible.

That’s the view of Alex Goldman, of NPR’s On The Media; the News and Observer’s Andy Curliss; Jennifer LaFleur, from ProPublica; and Pendulum editor Anna Johnson. The four working journalists spoke for a panel at Elon University’s Politics and the Media conference Tuesday, with one of the centering focuses being on bias in the media.

Their suggestion was for news writers to be as fair as possible. And for consumers: understand that you need to be as broad as possible in your scope.

The session, called “Challenges for journalists,” covered everything from different ways to pore through data, ideas on how to conduct a thorough investigation, the ethics involved in attempting to be objective and ways to read news and gather information from credible sources.

Much of the discussion revolved around the journalistic experiences of the panelists as they’ve been working on in-depth stories. Curliss is an investigative reporter for the News and Observer–part of what the paper calls its I-Team–and his work has led to the arrest of a public official, and exposed corruption within the North Carolina governor’s office.

He said as far as objectivity goes, especially when writing a long story, things are never quite straight. Reporting, he argued, takes a bit of art.

“As much as we try to be objective, everybody brings something to the job of reporting,” Curliss said.

Tone is important, he said. So is thoroughness, and fairness.

“You hear this phrase a lot now: ‘fair and balanced.’ I’m not really interested in balanced,” he said. “Not every story is he-said-she-said.”

As for Goldman, he had a different suggestion for thoroughness. As a producer at On the Media, which is run by WNYC, he said there’s not a lot of time to make phone calls and track people down on-air. They have one hour a week with their audience. That’s why, when his colleagues and he decided to work on an in-depth piece attempting to expose the senator that put the anonymous hold on a bill to protect whistleblowers, effectively killing it, he suggested a different kind of idea: crowdsourcing.

“It kind of started as a lark,” Goldman said.

He said the idea was pitched to his coworkers almost in passing — this concept of inciting the audience to take on some of the reporting themselves, engaging them with the investigation — but that the more they talked about it, the more they liked it. They asked their audience to take part once they announced the investigation, telling them to call their senators and ask them to go on the record saying it wasn’t them who put the secret hold on the whistleblower protection bill.

He said early on, the reaction was huge, but later, it died down as only about 20 people stayed with the investigation.

With LaFleur, focus tended to remain on data analysis. For ProPublica, she acts as a computer-assisted reporter, frequently having to pore through data sets and gather information. She talked about the need for open government in this way, pointing out that sometimes agencies will post a document that seems like it’s useful information but doesn’t actually shed any light on real issues. For example, she said with the National Endowment for the Arts, rather than a consolidated budget report, the group had posted a data set about American interest in the arts.

“I don’t care about what people think about the arts. I care about how the money that’s being sent to the NEA is being spent,” LaFleur said.

And Johnson, who worked as the police reporter for The Pendulum when she was a reporter, tried to relate investigative pieces to student work. Because in-depth pieces can sometimes take years and then require meticulous and attentive follow-up, she said, investigative pieces are hard for student media to do. But she said open government affected students just as much as professional journalists, as incident reports are sometimes held illegally by police departments and meetings that should be open to the public are occasionally closed.

And when asked about how they read their news, the panelists agreed they double check what they’re reading. That way, when there is a clear bias — or the information is just wrong — they have another source to check it out.

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