Follow the Money: A Call for More Local Investigative Reporting


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It’s an infamous scene in a famous movie about journalism. Playing Deep Throat, Hal Holbrook tells The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, to “follow the money” to discover who planned the Watergate break in.

Across the country in 2018, journalists and media experts are calling for more local reporting that follows the money.

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In a recent column, Paul Fanlund, editor of The Capital Times, examines the evolution of journalism and illustrates why now more than ever, local investigative reporting is needed right here in Madison.

Fanlund cites the work of Michael Massing, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and an author and media critic.

“[Local reporting] is essential not only to keep citizens informed but also to uncover stories that can be picked up by national organizations,” said Massing.

Emphasizing the need for high-quality, investigative local news, Fanlund and Massing point to an issue that’s sweeping the nation: journalism that functions in bubbles. While coastal journalists may know little of middle, small-town America, sometimes journalists in places like Madison may also operate inside of a pocket.

“I’d like to see more in-depth reporting. . .which you can really only get at by going out and talking to people in restaurants and bars and parking lots at shopping malls and in churches,” Massing said.

The failure of local news to explore certain questions is dangerous. It creates news deserts, spaces wherein the absence of substantial local reporting leads to shared misconceptions and public “knowledge” based on unchecked, misinformed, and sometimes even biased agendas.

Recently, graduation rate scandals in several large school districts were caused by—at least in part—this lack of local reporting. The Department of Education estimates that 84 percent of students in four-year high schools graduate on time. But, in a ground-breaking, nationwide report, National Public Radio investigators found that school districts in Washington D.C. and Baltimore used questionable strategies to graduate seniors.

Education advocate and parent Laurie Frost believes that recent reports on local grad rates provide a similarly skewed version of reality. Frost’s refusal to accept grad rates prima facie reflects the wariness of education experts around the country who say there’s much more to grad numbers than meets the eye.

“When we put our efforts into increasing completion rates without also increasing proficiency rates, we are putting the District’s need to have attractive graduation numbers ahead of our students’ need to fulfill their own intellectual potential and be successful in the world. We are also simply kicking the can down the road, making others responsible for doing what we failed to do,” said Frost.

While the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is graduating more high school seniors of color, the number of students meeting ACT college-ready benchmarks in core academic subjects is down or remains largely unchanged. This means new graduates might be slipping through the cracks and entering adult life less than prepared for higher education and the professional world.

Puff pieces that praise school districts for increasing grad numbers can mislead the public, according to a recent report by Phi Delta Kappan, a professional magazine for educators.

Reporting by Kappan describes how and why these types of stories fail to explain adequately to the public that newly-lowered standards often lead to rising grad rates.

Superfluous, puff-piece journalism comes with inherent dangers, Massing suggests. He says there’s little room for feel-good stories—or political propaganda veiled as such—when lives and livelihoods are at stake.

“The main obstacle to truly groundbreaking reporting is intellectual. American journalists need to break free of their current constricting emphasis on ‘exposes’ and ‘scoops’ and adopt a more expansive program that seeks to bare the underlying realities of money, power and influence in America—to show how things really work,” Massing said in an article he wrote for The Nation.

That’s not, of course, easy in these days of newsroom budget cuts.

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Andy Hall, co-founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, agrees with Massing. He says it is difficult to follow the money “in this time of economic chaos in the journalism industry,” but he urges local journalists to continue producing pieces that “provide the public with insight into issues, into problems that weren’t previously understood—pieces that “serve as catalysts for solutions.”

Fanlund, too, cites the “tension” between “a news organization’s desire for a high volume of stories” and “the need to invest much more time and energy in fewer high-value ones.”

But Massing points out that journalism that follows the money reveals how things really work, why they work that way, and who’s pulling the strings behind the show. He says that in-depth local reporting ensures that those in power stay honest. And that’s why education experts aren’t the only Wisconsinites petitioning for a return of whole-picture, investigative journalism that encourages readers to think rather than doing their thinking for them.

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Hall and his wife Dee Hall launched the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, in part for this purpose. The organization’s goals remain essentially the same today.

“Events in the past several years illustrate the fact that our democracy here in Wisconsin and here in America is more fragile that we realized,” said Hall, who believes local investigative journalism is key to preserving democracy.

Hall notes that journalists’ ability to access and analyze public records and data is a critical part of their ability to bring important issues to the attention of both the public and policymakers.

“That’s what it takes [for journalists] to keep our democracy vibrant—never-ending vigilance and a never-ending determination to rally when democracy is threatened,” Hall said.

In a recent interview with The Capital Times, former director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Mike McCabe spoke of the looming threat to democracy. McCabe said that for democracy in Wisconsin to flourish, for the Wisconsin Idea to survive, “the people at the local level” must be able to “decide for themselves.”

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William Evjue famously said, “[g]ive the people the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well.” We agree. The simple phrase captures precisely why the craft of journalism so affects democracy.

[Sources: The Capital Times; madison.com; NPR; The Washington Post; The Nation; Phi Delta Kappan]

What an important article! I agree that local investigative reporting is critical in Madison (and other places) right now, even when publications have multiple interests to balance and low budgets to do so. Good work SSFP. – Emily HydeMadison, WI (2018-07-30 11:34)
Thanks for the story! I think the connection between the inflated grad rates and local journalism is key. Journalists are instrumental to keep the public informed! – Abby LevenhagenMadison, WI (2018-07-30 11:38)
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Author Bio:
Mckenna Kohlenberg

Mckenna Kohlenberg is an SSFP Literacy Specialist and Editor. She is also a JD candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a Masters student studying Educational Policy and Analysis.

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