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The Future of Investigative Journalism Part 2: Pulitzer prize winner Lowell Bergman - "It is at its root a non-profit activity"

The Future of Investigative Journalism Part 2: Pulitzer prize winner Lowell Bergman - "It is at its root a non-profit activity"

Lowell Bergmann is a ground breaking investigative reporter, a producer/correspondent for the PBS documentary series "Frontline" in the US and spent 14 years as a producer with CBS's "60 Minutes".

Bergman shared a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with The New York Times in 2004 for "A Dangerous Business," (which detailed a record of egregious worker safety violations coupled with the systematic violation of environmental laws in the iron sewer and water pipe industry) and is a Professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Furthermore, he is a co-founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism and a consultant at ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

The story of Bergman's investigation of the tobacco industry for 60 Minutes was chronicled in the 1999 Academy Award-nominated feature film "The Insider", in which Bergman was portrayed by Al Pacino (below left).

The Editors Weblog contacted Lowell Bergman - who was an early adopter and advocate of the multimedia model - to discover his views on the key issues facing investigative reporting and its future.

EW: What do you see in the future for investigative journalism? Do you still see it as having a home at newspapers?

LB: Investigative journalism in America has always been done by magazines and in books as well as in newspaper. For many years newspapers were not doing much of it. It was a 'freelance' occupation usually with writers like I.F. Stone and others who left newspapers because they were too restrictive. Personally, I have been using the web and been 'online' for more than a decade.

But it remains true that it is newspapers and traditional news organizations that produce almost all the new information everyday.

Pure web based operations with a few new exceptions recycle information they get from those organizations. We will see web based sites becoming the providers of more and more news and quality information in the future, but the transition will take time.

EB: What do you see as the key issue facing your profession?

LB: I am not sure it is a 'profession' in the traditional sense. In this country it is open to everyone. It is not licensed. Right now the transformation of the media endangers the collective experience of news people who chose to make gathering, investigating and presenting quality information their life work. That is why non-profits and educational institutions [Universities] will become more and more important. They do not have the same pressures. Its a time of transition, a kind of "Middle Age", that will not see a resurgence of real reporting until the economic questions are resolved.

EW: How has new media changed the way you work?

LB: Obviously, the availability of databases, newspaper archives and all sorts of information on the Web makes many things easier. But the old techniques and standards have not been replaced. To do investigative or in depth reporting you have take the time to meet people, and not meet them in a chat room.

Confidentiality on the internet is virtually impossible. It depends on trust. And trust is the weakest link in terms of the reliability of information offered up on the Web by so called 'new media'.

EW: Do you think there is more pressure from editors with the advent of the 24-hour news culture? Are investigative journalists getting the time and resources necessary?

LB: At a certain point you are a stenographer, if you don't have enough time to do the kind of reporting that advances what we know. This is not just true of 'investigative' reporters.

All good reporting involves asking some skeptical questions and not assuming what you are told is true. When I think of 'investigative reporting' I mean reporting in the public interest that looks deeply into a subject or story. Often it involves developing sources or hunting for documents or both and having the time to explore what they mean. At the same time in the best of all world's your editor is happy if you come back and say there is no story, or the story you originally went in pursuit of changed.

So, in answer to your question the pressure of a failing economic model by definition means there is less time. Prior to the decline of newspapers, broadcasters in the U.S. freed from the strictures around licensing that once forced them to present programming in the public interest along with operating with the threat of punishment created worldwide news gathering organizations. They had the incentive to do documentaries and present them even if the ratings were far below those of entertainment. That is no longer the case so you have less in depth reporting on the air as well.

EW: Is the law now having an impact on your profession? Is the law becoming more restrictive for journalists in general, and investigative journalists in particular?

LB: Not really. There has been a squeeze on the confidential source privilege, but it appears that Congress and a new President will sign a federal 'shield law'. The issues surrounding what is called national security reporting and/or criminal cases where a prosecutor or defendant has no where else to turn for information are unlikely to be resolved by the legislation. It is more of a question of the attitude/discretion of the prosecutors.

EW: Do you feel protected by the law?

LB: I never expect 'protection'. My sources do.

EW: How do you think an editor should best manage an investigative reporting team or reporter?

LB: Briefly, they should provide insight, encouragement and support, especially when the going gets tough.

EW: Who are the main competition to newspaper investigative reporters now? What are your thoughts on groups such as ProPublica?

This work is non profit. I have even called it 'anti-profit' by its very nature. So ProPublica, I am a consultant, or the Center for Investigative Reporting, I am one of the founders, are non profits working the public interest. Basically, that is what a very good newspaper newsroom does: report stories without fear or favor, and without considering the resources needed to do that. It is at its root a non-profit activity.



Katherine Thompson


2008-09-03 13:02

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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