Even in Tough Times, Keeping Eyes Open Is Cheap

The New York Times yesterday tied together two themes that we've been following — journalism's responsibility to report out crime cases where innocence may remain in question, and the decline of newspapers.
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The article, "Death Row Foes See Newsroom Cuts as Blow" by Tim Arango noted that as papers cut their reporting staff, the wherewithal to take on lengthy and expensive efforts to examine sketchy death penalty cases is likely to be the first against the wall. It takes a lot of leg work and a commitment from the papers' powers-that-be to engage in these kind of courtroom post mortems, plus the kinds of skills that investigative reporters have honed.

"It's extremely troubling, some of the leading investigative journalists in this country have been given golden parachutes or laid off," Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project in New York, told Arango. "When procedural mechanisms begin to fail, the press is the last resort for the public to find out the truth."

(As a more cynical colleague pointed out, failing newspapers also provide one less venue for collect phone calls and handwritten pleas from inmates at the local lockup.)

Last September, Steve Weinberg told our readers that journalists — he didn't specify newspaper journalists only, although most of his examples involved them — had an obligation to follow such innocence cases. In his story "Innocent Until Reported Guilty," he urged even greater vigilance and effort by reporters and news organizations.

The cuts in papers certainly makes that harder, and a lot of the things Weinberg, former executive director of the group Investigative Reporters and Editors, called for would take more resources, not fewer.

But he didn't only point to things that cost money. He also called for those still employed to keep their eyes open, listen more closely, not accept the authorized version of events unblinkingly and ferret out obvious contradictions. Luckily, those can usually be done on the cheap.

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