Expert Commentary

Why the press matters: Six compelling investigations and their broad civic impacts

2014 review of the six finalists for the Shorenstein Center's Goldsmith Prize; the social impacts of each story is articulated by the reporters.

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 presented 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.

Below are the six finalists for the 2014 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In several instances, these path-breaking investigations were then picked up by other media outlets, who then advanced the original story by using the original data or insights produced.

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


“Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine”

The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News

By Chris Hamby, Ronnie Greene, Jim Morris and Chris Zubak-Skees (CPI); and Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz (ABC)

A year-long investigation by The Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with the ABC News Brian Ross investigative unit, examined how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped defeat benefit claims of coal miners who were sick and dying of black lung disease. The team explored thousands of previously classified legal filings and created an original database of medical evidence that showed how prominent lawyers withheld key evidence and doctors at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, hired by the coal industry, consistently denied the existence of advanced black lung on X-rays. Following the online and network news reports, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program, U.S. senators began crafting reform legislation and members of Congress called for a federal investigation.

***Note: This story was the eventual winner of the 2014 Goldsmith Prize.


“Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze”

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ): ICIJ is a project of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Public Integrity.

Based on more than 2.5 million leaked files, this 50-article, world-wide investigative project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington involved 112 journalists and 42 media partners in 58 countries. It took more than 18 months of challenging and risky work to reveal more than 120,000 names and companies in a secret parallel economy of offshore tax havens that benefit the few at the expense of the many. The stories prompted international tax investigations, led by the IRS, in partnership with UK and Australian tax authorities.


“Rape in the Fields/Violación de un Sueño”

The Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), FRONTLINE, Univisión Documentaries, KQED

By Andrés Cediel, Bernice Yeung, Lowell Bergman, Lauren Rosenfeld, Grace Rubenstein, Stephanie Mechura and Ariane Wu

In an unprecedented media collaboration that spanned two languages, television, radio and print, “Rape in the Fields/Violación de un Sueño” uncovered pervasive sexual assault against immigrant women working in the agricultural industry. As a result of the report and the national discussion it spurred, local rape crisis centers are doing outreach to farm workers, district attorneys are beginning to file criminal charges against perpetrators, and state officials are drafting legislation to combat this widespread sexual abuse.


“Biogenesis: Steroids, Baseball and an Industry Gone Wrong”

The Miami New Times

By Tim Elfrink

Miami New Times’ year-long series on doping and so-called “anti-aging” clinics resulted directly in suspension of 13 players, including a record 162 games for Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. It was the largest round of such discipline in the history of American sport. The series also revealed systemic failure in Florida that allowed felons to own clinics like Biogenesis employing physicians with long disciplinary histories to sell federally restricted drugs such as steroids, testosterone and human growth hormone. The New Times probe forced baseball to confront its doping problems and the state to move toward policing its clinics.


“Deadly Delays”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Ellen Gabler, Mark Johnson, John Fauber, Allan James Vestal and Kristyna Wentz-Graff

The Journal Sentinel’s groundbreaking investigation found that thousands of hospitals — and dozens of state agencies that oversee the nation’s newborn screening programs — are failing America’s children due to an ineffective and unaccountable system. In a first-ever data analysis, the investigation revealed that each year hundreds of thousands of blood samples arrive late at labs across the country — in some cases because they were held and “batched” to save a few dollars in postage — putting babies at risk of disability and death. The story has produced policy changes in hospitals and laboratories across the country, and new legislation has been proposed in Congress to help address these problems.


“The Lobotomy Files”

The Wall Street Journal

By Michael M. Phillips

In his series, Michael M. Phillips detailed how the U.S. Veterans Administration lobotomized more than 2,000 mentally troubled troops after World War II. Using documents the government didn’t know it had about a shocking medical practice it didn’t remember performing, the articles challenged the deeply held myth that the Greatest Generation came through war emotionally unscathed.


Keywords: news, investigative reporting

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