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This is the Golden Age of access

Pulitzer-winning James Steele says newspapers need investigative reporters to stand back from the rush of daily news and catch things that go under the radar

James B. Steele(Source: Courtesy of James B. Steele)

TELL me something I don’t know. That is the inner drive that James Steele follows when looking into a source; whether an ordinary person from the street or a gigantic file of governmental statistics alike.

He knows that the readers of his stories are driven by the very same force as the journalist who wrote them. Tell me something I don’t know.

This basic curiosity, so familiar to all journalists, is the essence of journalism. Steele, recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a number of other prestigious journalism awards, spoke to The Slovak Spectator in October, prior to his visit to Slovakia, about that, as well as other qualities investigative reporters must possess, and the reasons why investing into investigative journalists is worthwhile for every media outlet.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You were the pioneer of data journalism in the 1970s. What is your view of the use of data analysis in journalism today, in the digital era?

James Steele (JS): It really has been a marvellous new frontier for journalism. Years ago, before data journalism came into being, you would sometimes wonder when you came up with certain facts about a story or a situation: Is this just anecdotal or does it represent a broader pattern of what might be going on in an institution? I can’t speak for other journalists, but I think an awful lot of us in the investigative field do not begin with an agenda that we want to prove. What we want is to collect the information, analyse that information, and see what conclusions we can reach.

I judge a lot of journalism contests from time to time and it is astonishing how deeply ingrained computer analysis is into so many stories anymore. Having said that, I want to emphasise that none of this takes the place of all the usual methods that we use, like interviewing people. But it supplements that, and brings much more authority to the story. So I think that’s the greatest plus for data journalism. Whatever story you’re doing, what kind of data can you find, what kind of information can you analyse, what numbers can you crunch to help you broaden it out and bring more authority to the story, rather than just using data for the sake of data?

You find this little division. Some journalists say, let’s take any data pack and see what we can find, but in my case it’s always been the other way around. It’s an additional tool that you bring to make your story stronger and better.

TSS: What are the main qualities an investigative reporter must possess, and can any of these be learned? Do you need to be born an investigative reporter, or is it something that you can learn?

JS: The heart of all journalism is just basic curiosity. You see that in all the best journalists, whether they’re writing stories every day or beyond that. Why is this such an issue? What caused this? What explains this? Journalists are just naturally curious. Can curiosity be taught? I think in a way it can. I think some people are naturally more curious than others, but I’ve also become aware of the questions that sort of lurked behind every subject.

I think almost all of us in journalism begin by doing shorter-range things, as Don [Donald Barlett] and I did the first years. And that tunes you to working on a short-range basis. So when you switch to investigative reporting, one of the great challenges is the need for patience. Because on a daily basis you work on a story that just takes a few days, you make progress in a short period of time. But in an investigative piece patience is one of the paramount requirements, because there are many days when nothing is happening. Those are the days that are very frustrating, that require great patience. So I think patience probably is the most important asset to have as an investigative reporter. Another one is certainly a low threshold, anger about things that you’ve seen and believe are unfair, unjust or hypocritical, or in some way or another violating public trust.

Large stories can start from very small things

TSS: How do you recognise a story? When you start working on something, how do you know it is worth investing a lot of your time into?

JS: I think it’s an instinct that most investigative reporters attain. There’s also a big difference in the kinds of stories. When you are analysing some major public issue, you know in general that there is a story there. One of the stories that Don and I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer and that won our second Pulitzer in 1989 had to do with some provisions that were written and inserted into the Tax Reform Act that basically gave private tax breaks to very wealthy people and corporations. When it is one of the issues like that, you know that there’s going to be a story in some form or another. In every newspaper that I’ve ever been associated with, somebody would come in from time to time and say, ‘my brother is in jail for a murder he did not commit’, and they would lay out the facts, they would lay out the information, and it’s very compelling. That’s the kind of story that I would call a roll of the dice. You can spend months on that and never really be able to write the story, because you’ll never be able to conclusively prove this one way or another.

Many years ago there was a huge international oil crisis, and there was an oil shortage also in the US. Dan and I began looking at this question, not knowing where the story would lead us. But we were pretty confident that there was a kind of story there, because there were these shortages. So the question was - what caused them. We didn’t know when we began, and it took really months and months looking into it before we came to some conclusions. It turned out the story was much bigger than we originally envisioned. It was really part of global control of the international oil industry, largely by major American oil companies. When we began, we had no idea about that. And I think that’s what happens with a lot of our projects. We start with something small.

We wrote a book on the American health care system. As you may know, the US, the richest country in the world, has this really shameful health care system that excludes many people from being covered. This is what Obamacare has been tempting to rectify. Long before this, ten years ago, we wrote a book on this. One of the things that led us into this was an article in a small weekly newspaper, on a fundraiser for a man that was in a bad car accident, all his friends were going to get together and have a barbecue, they were going to have some little prizes, all this just to help pay his medical bills. So we got curious about this, because it rang the bell, we’ve seen this kind of thing before. We ran a database search on this, and there were hundreds, really thousands of this kind of events all over America. And this became the way we got into whole health care issue. What kind of country is it that lets all kinds of small social events like this take care of people who have health problems not of their making?

Sometimes these very large stories have begun on a very small basis. And then as you get deeper into them you can see the whole magnitude of the problem.

TSS: Does the opposite happen sometimes, you start working on something and then it turns out to be nothing?

JS: We’ve never spent months on something and had to give it up. Sometimes the original idea may change into something else. And that goes back to your earlier question; as an investigative reporter you have to try to stay very flexible, because however you start out, the world is not an orderly, neat place. What may lead you into a topic, may turn out to be a little different than you had envisioned, so you need to be flexible as you get into that and try to adjust to see what larger theme is out there. It’s a funny thing about reporting. All reporters have to be very intensively focused on whatever it is they are trying to prove or look at. But at the same token you also have to be flexible, to see what the story really is and adjust to that. And that’s also where a very good editor comes in. Even the best reporter needs somebody else. This was one of the great things about working together with Don. It’s a great advantage to have two people gathering information, but I think the principal advantage is that you have someone to really help you assess what you’re finding and to reach the conclusions on the overall story.

Cooperation can’t be forced

TSS: What about the disadvantages of working as a team? Have you ever felt like you’d rather do things your way, on your own?

JS: Obviously over time Don and I had some minor disagreements about some things. But once we got our methods and once we knew how each of us worked we also realised the great similarity of how we go about things. We both just love the research, and neither of us loves to write, which is very hard. So there was great similarity in terms of the depth in which we wanted to look at things.

I think editors should be careful with putting people together in pairs or even a trio to cover things. Because sometimes a lot of very, very great people end up hating each other in forced journalistic marriages like that. The trick is to figure out the way in which people can work together. Dan and I just happened on our own, and it turned out we really liked the partnership from day one. What’s interesting nowadays you see more and more of these kinds of partnerships, not just the investigative stories, but everything. If you look at the stories in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal you see two, three, sometimes four bylines. So there’s actually far more teamwork today than you would have seen 20 - 30 years ago. Working together, you can tackle many more things and topics.

TSS: There are big teams of people behind some investigative reports, such as researchers and fixers. Is that the way you worked?

JS: Sometimes toward the end of the project somebody would be assigned to us for a last-minute collection of information and interviews. We worked for the Time magazine for ten years where we actually did have a full-time researcher who worked for us. The last book we did we collaborated with the American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop and we had a great deal of assistance from people doing research, interviews, collection of reports and files. That was a great help in doing that work. But again, you can’t force this, everybody has to be able to work together, know their role, and enjoy being a part of the whole project.

TSS: Investigative reporting takes a lot of time, a lot of labour, and that’s one of the reasons some newsrooms have even given up on investigative reporting altogether. Why would you argue that a good newspaper needs to have an investigative desk?

JS: I think every newspaper and magazine of any size needs somebody to stand back, away from the rush of daily, weekly news, and analyse what’s happening in government, society, because some of the most remarkable things go on under the radar. And the only way you can spot them is to step back and devote a little time to that.

People ask me how investigative journalism has changed, and on the most fundamental level it hasn’t changed a bit. What investigative reporters need more than anything is time. The expense of the reporting itself is usually the pay, the hours, the benefits for whoever is doing that work. It’s not travel or buying computers or things like that. Sometimes that’s involved, but usually it’s not a big factor. So many things happen below the surface and so many things need to be exposed or at least have light shed on them. This is why investigative reporting is so important.

When I began in this business, that was my first year in college in Kansas City, Missouri, in the middle of the US, and I went to work for my hometown newspaper, Kansas City Star, a very respected paper where Ernest Hemingway had began his journalism career before writing novels. There was virtually no investigative reporter on that newspaper. And that was very common for a lot of papers around the country in that period. It wasn’t until first the Vietnam war and then the Nixon presidency where doubts began to really become entrenched about what governments are telling the people. An underlying problem with the Vietnam war was how the government lied to the people that it was all worthwhile. This was followed by the Nixon presidency where people felt betrayed. Cynicism and scepticism developed as a result of those two events, and out of that grew modern investigative reporting.

There’s been investigative reporting over the years in the US, this was not the first, but that was kind of the boomlet that just ignited the whole modern era of this kind of reporting. Overall there’s a lot more of it now than when I got into the business. I just hope we won’t lose what we have at this point. Because it’s absolutely essential to every democracy, it’s crucial to let people have some idea of what’s going on.

The most promising thing in the US is that while investigative reporting has shrunk on major dailies and magazines, a lot of this gap is being filled by non-profit investigative entities like Pro Publico. There’s another one at Berkeley, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and they have a newsroom of 60 people doing investigative reporting on many different topics. It’s a different model. Those entities are depending on grants, philanthropy as opposed to the traditional model of newspapers and magazines selling advertising. Nobody knows how this is going to work out. All I know is the desire is there, the need is there. 

The national convention of Investigative Reporters and Editors was held earlier in June in Philadelphia. I was at the founding convention of this organisation in 1976 when there were about 50 of us. In Philadelphia this summer there were about 1,800 people at the convention, an all time record, many of them young people, many of them from these nonprofits, many of them students. Nobody knows how all of this is going to work out. Is it going to be the nonprofits partnering with newspapers and magazines? That’s already happened in the US, and that’s increasingly becoming the model. There’s never ever been enough of investigative reporting. It is astonishing how much of it is going on in the US even in these hard economic times for the newspaper business.

People are hungry for information

TSS: In one interview you said people need to learn to read the laws and various governmental decrees, including, for example, the state budget. At the same time you admit this is no easy task and people rarely do it. What is the role of journalists in this process?

JS: This is the major role of especially an investigative journalist. And this is one of the great things about our era now. So many things are freely available through the internet, and I mean real information, not somebody’s rant on their blog. Government, state means, congressional records are now online. And if people have the time, they can tackle them. But it’s still going to be up to journalists to analyse and shed a light on somebody’s complicated issue. Journalists have the authority to dig down deep in complex matters and see what is causing that particular problem. It’s the role of journalists to interpret stuff, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think there’s a great hunger of the public to read things that shed some light on complex matters that they may know nothing about. We did a huge series for the Inquirer that led to our book in the late 1990s called America: What went wrong? and this was an attempt to explain a lot of the legislation, so that people could understand why their incomes were stagnant, why some of the benefits were a lot lower and in jeopardy, why the jobs that many had had for a long time were suddenly mysteriously eliminated. People were really hungry for information that they felt would shed some light on their own lives. What has changed is the access to this information. The speed with which I can obtain information on some court records, congressional reports, hearings, reports by think tanks, on this subject or that subject. All of that information was technically available in the past, but the actual process of obtaining it was so laborious. So despite the economic pressures on the print industry in some ways this is the Golden Age of access and it’s revolutionising an awful lot of journalism, because you can ask all kinds of questions.

Another example is congressional hearings. The US Congress has committees that cover everything from health care to terrorism. They hold hearings. Many years ago, when you wanted one of those hearing books, maybe the committee would mail it to you from Washington, but maybe not. You’d have to go to the library to access it. All of this is now online, all the hearings are online. That’s just one example, but it becomes a great research tool for any investigative journalist, or for any other journalist, to find the people, to see who’s an expert in what particular field. And with all the other pressures in the business there are still opportunities that weren’t there not so long ago.

TSS: Most journalists now live under constant time pressure, trying to be as fast as they can with writing and publishing their stories, to be the first to come up with an issue. This is the drawback of information being readily accessible to everyone. Does this affect the investigative field as well?

JS: Even investigative reporters face some of the time pressures that you are describing and worries over someone else picking up on the story they are researching. When you work on an investigative project and you uncover facts that are quite dramatic or revealing as part of the story you are doing, you are faced with the difficult question of whether you break off that information for a standalone story or whether you hold on to it and make it part of your larger story. There's no easy answer to this. Sometimes you have to go with the immediate story, but my preference most of the time is to hold on to that information and include it in the larger story. I believe a story has the greatest impact when you tell it as fully as possible.

Tell me something I don’t know

TSS: You have devoted much of your work to covering taxation, tax avoidance and tax evasion. Is there a universal remedy that could be applied in countries struggling with this problem?

JS: Some of the taxation issues with the large corporations are truly global issues. We have written a lot throughout the years about the whole offshore industry, both in terms of how it’s used by corporations and also by individuals, and this is something that concerns all developed countries. And the OECD actually has attempted to develop some general directives that all the members could follow. My memory is that in the Bush administration there was some resistance to joining forces with the other OECD countries on this issue of offshore tax evasion and avoidance, and one of the problems was that some of the congressmen and senators felt that it would have been an invasion of privacy, which I think is ridiculous. So I think the biggest challenge for developed countries is to try and come up with systems that make this process more transparent. I don’t think we’re ever going to get a system we could put on the pedestal and say that’s a great tax system there. The best you can do is to try to eliminate the unfairness and the avoidance and make people pay. Because usually those who don’t pay are at the top and they can afford to pay. And we’re penalising those at the bottom or in the middle who are less able to pay.

TSS: Writing about things like rich corporations not paying taxes generates a lot of anger and frustration for the readers, and also for you as the author. Can you still say you love your job, even though it often puts you face to face with injustice, unfairness?

JS: Sometimes over the years people have read our stories or books and they would say: I just got so angry reading that I had to put it down for a minute. That’s something we’ve heard from time to time. I guess in our case, we get angry too, we get upset, but the information comes to us slowly. It’s seeping in slowly, rather than hitting us all at once like it does for the reader.

TSS: If you should name just one thing that you love about your job, what would you say?

JS: What I love is to dig deeply into an issue that is important, whether it’s how people live, whether they’re being properly treated in the society, whether they’re having the same opportunities as someone else. I like to dig deeply into public issues and I like to talk about something that people don’t know much about. My motto has always been “Tell me something I don’t know”. And that remains something that guides me, and that’s what my reporting is about. What has always driven me were two things: one is research, and two, which is related to that, is interviewing people. The good, the bad, people who tell the truth, people who don’t, that’s what makes journalism so exciting; this whole tableau of people. Over the years I have interviewed everybody from very high politicians, to corporate leaders, actors and actresses, to those who were hanging there by their fingernails trying to make a living. And the ones who made the dearest impression on me were average people whose names are not known to anybody at all. I love to hear about their lives and what they’ve gone through, and try to communicate that to the readers as best as possible. I never get enough of those stories.

Jim Steele is coming to Slovakia in early November. His lecture, Truth Telling in an Age of Global Secrecy, will take place on Tuesday, November 3, 2015 between 4 – 5.30 p.m. at the Assembly Hall of Comenius University on Šafárikovo námestie in Bratislava and on Thursday, on November 5, 2015 between 10 – 11.30 a.m. at the Historical Assembly Hall of P. J. Šafárik University on Šrobárova 2 in Košice. Free entry, however due to limited capacity you need to register at www.uniba.sk. Organisers: Petit Academy, Tatra Banka Foundation, Comenius University in Bratislava.

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