Expert Commentary

Six powerful examples of journalism’s importance: Recent civic impacts of the press

Six powerful investigative stories from 2013, finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, that make for a strong reading list for classrooms and those interested in journalism.

Journalism’s crucial role in helping democracy function is sometimes forgotten amid the clamor of partisan debate and the messy nature of the news business. But anyone who stops to examine recent examples of journalistic success — and the substantial civic impacts of various news media investigations — cannot help but be impressed by the vital role of the press.

Six examples from the past year that show journalism’s impact are enumerated below. These stories helped root out corruption, create better laws and practices, and changed the way we live for the better. They make for a powerful reading list, whether for average citizens, aspiring journalists or anyone concerned with the press and public policy.

As many journalistic outlets continue to struggle financially — and the news media contracts as an industry, leaving many statehouses, public agencies and local governments under-examined — there can be little doubt that many problems in society might be forgotten were it not for some smart, persistent and courageous news professionals. These stories speak to that truth.

Although the Internet can help as an investigative tool and platform for engaging the public, it takes professional reporters to initiate and follow-through on everything from interviews to document requests. Further, turning raw data and information into easily digestible knowledge for public consumption — putting it into narrative story form or making it clear through visual means — takes painstaking, creative work. Of course, it takes the will of public officials to act on these investigations and formulate concrete policy responses.

Below are the six finalists for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Northeastern University media critic Dan Kennedy, one of the prize jurors, noted at his blog, “At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work.”

The civic impact of each story is provided below each case; those descriptions were furnished by each reporting team.


“Cheating our Children”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Alan Judd, Heather Vogell, John Perry, M.B. Pell

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s year-long series on irregularities in standardized testing revealed that pressure for ever-higher test scores had led to apparent cheating by teachers and school administrators across the nation. The newspaper’s reporting, based on its unprecedented analysis of tens of thousands of test results, initiated a national conversation about the long-term effects of the accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Impact: It took three years of relentless coverage by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, followed by a state investigation, to get school officials to acknowledge that their system had engaged in the worst case of adult-directed school cheating ever detected in the United States. The series prompted numerous large school districts across the country — from Baltimore, Md. to Mobile, Ala. to Denver, Colo. — to reevaluate test scores. Investigations were launched in other cities; these may ultimately result in criminal charges.


“The iEconomy”

The New York Times

Charles Duhigg, Keith Bradsher, David Barboza, David Segal and David Kocieniewski

This series revealed the harsh, at times deadly conditions under which Chinese workers assembling iPhones and iPads live and work; the low pay and high turnover at Apple’s retail stores; the lengths to which Apple went to reduce its tax bill, and the shortsightedness of its conclusion that Apples couldn’t be manufactured in America.

Impact: As a direct result of the Times series: More than a million workers at the Chinese factories that make Apple’s iPhones and iPads got 25 percent raises. Their working conditions vastly improved after Apple’s supplier plants were opened to outside inspections for the first time. Apple tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China, and reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed. It publicly identified its suppliers for the first time. Apple announced it would invest $100 million to manufacture some computers in the United States. Other computer companies like Hewlett-Packard and Intel began to rethink how they deal with overseas suppliers. Congress opened an investigation into technology companies’ tactics to reduce their tax bills.


“Playing with Fire”

The Chicago Tribune

By Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne

The Chicago Tribune’s investigative series revealed how a deceptive, decades-long campaign by the chemical and tobacco industries brought toxic flame retardants into our homes and into our bodies, despite the fact that these dangerous chemicals don’t work as promised.

Impact: As a result of the Tribune investigation, the U.S. Senate revived toxic chemical reform legislation and California moved to revamp the rules responsible for the presence of dangerous chemicals in furniture sold nationwide. The paper’s investigation prompted two hearings in the Senate and one in the California state house; the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission move to increase safeguards; an industry front group touting flame retardants shut down; a retailer halted sales of a baby mattress containing chemicals linked to cancer; and California announced it would overhaul its rules, which were the de facto national standard.


“The Shame of the Boy Scouts”

The Los Angeles Times

By Jason Felch, Kim Christensen and Times staff

The Los Angeles Times made public thousands of files documenting sexual abuse of Boy Scouts by their troop leaders, resulting in reforms that will help ensure the protection of children. The Boy Scouts of America has launched a comprehensive review of the files, with a promise to report to law enforcement any cases not previously disclosed. The Scouts also apologized to victims of abuse and offered to pay for their counseling.

Impact: Within days of the Times disclosure of the long-suppressed Boy Scouts’ sexual abuse archive, more than 100,000 people had pored over the newspaper’s online database of 5,000 abuse files and case summaries. Some sought to learn whether their molester had ever been caught, or had abused other boys. The Boy Scouts of America has launched a comprehensive review of the files, with a promise to report to law enforcement any cases not previously disclosed. The Scouts also apologized to victims of abuse and offered to pay for their counseling. A Milwaukee pediatrician was forced to surrender his medical license after the state examining board learned — from the Los Angeles Times — that he had admitted to molesting two Scouts.


“Wal-Mart Abroad”

David Barstow
The New York Times

In his series, David Barstow demonstrated not only that Wal-Mart’s conquest of Mexico was built on a secret foundation of corruption, but it also revealed how top executives feared exposure of their practices and made attempts to keep them in the dark.

Impact: As a result of this series, the Justice Department and the Securities Exchange Commission are investigating for violations of the federal antibribery law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Times revelations brought a sudden halt to a growing movement to ease up on Corrupt Practices enforcement. In Mexico, authorities are investigating Wal-Mart, the country’s largest private employer, for possible violations of its anticorruption laws. Even before the first Times article was published, the investigation shook Wal-Mart into action. The company hurriedly notified federal authorities of the Mexican situation and reopened its own investigation. In mid-November 2012, Wal-Mart disclosed in a regulatory filing that it was examining possible violations of the antibribery law in three of its other primary overseas markets — China, India and Brazil. Amid shareholder suits and protests, Wal-Mart has also radically overhauled its compliance and investigation protocols, and a number of employees implicated in the scandal have left the company. By year’s end, Wal-Mart’s investigation had cost it nearly $100 million.


“State Integrity Investigation”

Collaboration among the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, Investigative News Network

The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of each state’s laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and openness.

Impact: Results of this series include an ever-growing number of states that have sparked or accelerated reform in government, ranging from the increase in disclosure requirements for lobbyists and government officials, to the formation of panels to explore ideas for an ethics reform package. Coverage of the project and reaction to it has been massive, and its findings have been featured in local outlets across the country, prompting action at the state level. Three states — Delaware, Iowa and Maine — have passed laws that improve access to open records and increase disclosure requirements for lobbyists and government officials. Five additional states — California, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and North Dakota — have proposed laws that would increase transparency in government. Good government groups and legislators in at least seven states — Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, New York, Ohio and Texas — have launched reform campaigns.


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