Dispatches: The Power of Investigative Journalism

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.
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Freshly printed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle roll off the printing press at one of the Chronicle's printing facilities on September 20th, 2007, in San Francisco, California.

Freshly printed copies of the San Francisco Chronicle roll off the printing press at one of the Chronicle's printing facilities on September 20th, 2007, in San Francisco, California.

What makes an investigative story? Think about how the world should ideally work—and then think about how it actually does. The bigger the gap between those two worlds, the more important a story you have. That's how Philadelphia Inquirer editor Jim Neff put it when speaking to a group of journalists last week. Neff has shepherded hard-hitting stories, such as the Inquirer's Toxic City series, which reported on children being poisoned by carbon monoxide (from construction work) and lead (from peeling paint), while at school. There's a chasm between that and how safe and healthy schools should be for kids.

I saw Neff speak while spending four days at the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. I've received a fellowship from the center to spend the next six months working on a data-driven health story. My story will examine the availability, in California, of the gold-standard treatment for opioid addiction. (It should be available everywhere!) During my training days, I happened to amass a great reading list of investigative journalism, which popped up as examples during the classes the other fellows and I took. Here's a short list:

  • Toxic City, by several journalists, Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "Overlooked," by Cary Aspinwall, Dallas Morning News—What happens to children when their mothers are jailed?
  • "Intake," by Rosalind Adams, BuzzFeed—About a chain of psychiatric hospitals that kept patients locked up unnecessarily, for the insurance payments.
  • "The Land Alcoa Dammed," by Rich Lord and Len Boselovic, Pittsburgh Gazette—How a Pittsburgh-based aluminum company transformed a small South American country called Suriname–and then abandoned it, a century later.
  • "Millions of People Post Comments on Federal Regulations. Many Are Fake," by James V. Grimaldi and Paul Overberg—This one is sort of fun! Read about how interest groups generate fake public comments, attributed to dead people, live people who didn't give permission for their information to be used in this way, and seemingly fake people, such as "Elzor the Blarghmaster."

Investigative journalism can be a tough read. These stories are about some of the most serious problems in society. But I like to see them as hopeful too. They show that somebody cared enough and was skilled enough to unearth these important inequities. Plus, the best stories prompt action. In Philadelphia, for example, the school district tried to clean the worst-off schools over the summer and the mayor promised millions toward clean-up and repairs of the city's most run-down schools. At Pacific Standard we are looking to do reporting that is also capable of creating a better and more just society. Thoughtful investigative journalism is one of the main ways we hope to do that.

This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive early access to feature stories, an ad-free version of PSmag.com, and other benefits.

What makes an investigative story? Think about how the world should ideally work—and then think about how it actually does. The bigger the gap between those two worlds, the more important a story you have. That's how Philadelphia Inquirer editor Jim Neff put it when speaking to a group of journalists last week. Neff has shepherded hard-hitting stories, such as the Inquirer's Toxic City series, which reported on children being poisoned by carbon monoxide (from construction work) and lead (from peeling paint), while at school. There's a chasm between that and how safe and healthy schools should be for kids.

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