Panel makes case for watchdog journalism


By Jeremy Izzio

More watchdog, less lapdog.

That’s the prescription David Cay Johnston, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, offered for American journalism Tuesday to an audience of about 140 people at Burchfield Penny Art Center.

Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner and best selling author, headed a panel to consider “The State of Investigative Reporting”  hosted by Investigative Post.

“Government derives its power from the consent of the people,” Johnston said. “Government is a fiction we create to make our society work. But if the only people paying attention to the government are those who make money off it, it can very quickly be turned into an institution.”

“It is investigative reporters who go to government and say ‘I’m sorry, we want to see records of this,’” Johnston said. “Our government, at every level, has become increasingly hostile toward investigative reporters.”

Other panelists included Jim Heaney, editor and executive director of Investigative Post; Jeff Woodard, news director of WGRZ TV News; Mary Pasciak, education reporter for The Buffalo News; and Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative.

First Amendment attorney Joseph Finnerty moderated the event and Lee Coppola, former investigative reporter and retired dean of St. Bonaventure’s School of Journalism, gave the opening remarks.

Panelists discussed how the Internet has undermined the business model of mainstream news outlets, promoting staff cutbacks and a scaling back of investigative reporting. At the same time, technology has provided reporters with an array of tools to research and present and distribute content.

Pasciak, The News’ education reporter, said the use of blogs and live chats has expanded the circle of sources she deals with, which improves her reporting even as the number of staff devoted to cover education has shrunk.

“Most really good reporting begins as a whisper in your ear,” said Pasciak. “What’s happening over time is that there are fewer and fewer ears to be whispered into. That is happening in every single newsroom across the country.”

Woodard said that when he took over as news director of WGRZ, he began asking those in the community what they as a news station could be doing better. The response: “This community has been going downhill for 20 years and all you are giving us is Mr. Food.” Although Mr. Food was not on WGRZ, Woodard got the point.

People wanted less fluff and more hard-hitting investigative journalism. Woodard obliged and WGRZ has since climbed in the ratings.

Connor, who has done groundbreaking research on topics ranging from the economic impact of Bass Pro to conflicts of interest involving academic research about hydrofracking, said the press needs to do a better job linking the influence of money on public policy. He and Johnston both emphasized the need for reporters to scrutinize the claims of business and government officials rather than simply amplifying them.

“We have freedom of the press in this country not because the government needs a platform to distribute press releases but because the press challenges those in power and holds them accountable. That is a critical function of our democracy,” Connor said.

Johnston lauded Investigative Post, which launched in February, as an important development for Western New York.

“What Jim Heaney has created with the Investigative Post is the idea that a community will support an institution that will be the community’s watchdog,” said Johnston, who just released his third book,  “The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use ‘Plain English’ to Rob You Blind.”

And watchdogs are just what’s needed, he said, not just in Buffalo, but across the nation.

“I don’t need more lapdogs, I need more watchdogs,” he said.

Heaney said some 50 non-profit investigative reporting centers have been established around the country, most of them in the past five years in response to staff reductions at newspapers and television stations that has limited their ability to produce investigative stories.

“The old business model has been based on competition,” Heaney said. “That’s not the model of a non-profit investigative reporting outlet. It is to collaborate with the existing media outlets. You want to use them as your distribution partners.”

Investigative Post have partnered with WGRZ, Artvoice and WBFO-FM to distribute stories. This cross-media collaboration appears to be the future for many news outlets.

“What we are trying to do is create investigative content, put it on our website, then when it makes sense we create a story for television for that platform, we create a story for print, we create a story for radio and we put it on social media,” Heaney said.

Heaney is also looking at other ways to tap community resources.

“Ultimately what we are trying to do is reinvent the news gathering system,” Heaney said. “Resources are becoming scarcer so we want to go beyond just having a reporter go out and do their thing. We want to partner with people in academia. We also want to do things with community volunteers and crowdsourcing to really tap the community intelligence.”

Heaney interviewed Johnston earlier Tuesday at WGRZ studios. Highlights of that interview will air Saturday about 6:45 a.m. The complete 20 minute interview, along with a transcript, will be posted on investigativepost.org over the weekend.