Thursday, September 20, 2012
First Steps in the realm of investigative journalism
Reporting Intern, Healthcare
ProPublica, New York
Recipient of John R Wilhelm Foreign Correspondence Internship, 2012
M.S. Journalism, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Being an investigative journalist is a tough job, and completely without the glamor until your story creates a big splash. Even then, the next story is also another rather rigorous investigation before it goes live. Investigative journalism is probably deemed to be the most interesting and valuable, but the work done by an investigative journalist rarely comes to the fore. Only a few investigative journalists ever catch public attention, others are silent guardians, tirelessly working to expose problems and anomalies in the system. The only thing sustaining them is the overwhelming evidence that they are doing good. As my first month at ProPublica as a healthcare reporting intern draws to a close, I see this as a vital takeaway during my time here.
ProPublica is a serious organization, working against the tide in a time when the media is getting shallower, and stories are pandering more to the needs of the market and advertisers than the needs of societal needs. ProPublica journalists sometimes don’t seem to be journalists, they seem to be an investigative committee investigating the many wrongs happening in American society and government today. They study huge amounts of documents which are almost always available, accessible and readable, to get a story which is powerful to rock the most dominating centers of power in the country; governmental organizations, large corporate houses, and even presidential campaigns (whose funding is one major ongoing investigation right now).
The project I am working on is a major project on healthcare which ProPublica is doing. It is a project investigating patient safety and medical errors in American hospitals. My work is a mixed bag of doing background research for the project, speaking to researchers about some topics in medicine and eventually, writing blog posts for the newly launched page of the patient safety project. ProPublica seems to have a very different environment when compared to the conventional news-based journalism organization, the journalists are not always in a frantic hurry, there is no ticking clock which everyone is nervous of, and the flurry of the day does not rise as the day progresses. There are no last minute additions, no cut-throat deadlines, and the atmosphere in the office is a mixed one of composed silence tinged with some polite humor. Unlikely, we feel, for a top notch news organization that has won two Pulitzers in a span of four years.
The pressures at ProPublica are different. Here, the race is not for speed, but for quality. Every word in a ProPublica story which says something meaningful has to be documented, backed by rock-solid evidence and substantiated through credible sources. This does not always mean sources, it means studying a lot of documentation and bringing evidence to the story which usually few people have looked at. This sometimes means that reporters are working on stories for weeks at a time, poring over documents over mugs of coffee, huddled in meetings with their editors who demand highly from their reporters. This is a new environment for me to work in as a young journalist.
The reputation of journalism as a high-octane profession is somewhat negated when someone sees ProPublica working, but it is a different kind of rush, a rush when you pore through a hundred pages and find something significant hidden away in a report or research many pages long. Journalists at ProPublica are seekers of deep truths; secrets hidden below the daily facts of news happening across the country. It’s a different kind of journalism, exhausting, time-consuming, but highly interesting and exciting. Work at ProPublica has changed my impression and beliefs about the power of journalism. It is a profession whose power can be incessantly magnified if done right, and at ProPublica, I hope to learn how it can be used as a powerful tool for change.