Lang Center Hosts Panel of Pulitzer Center Journalists

On March 20, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility hosted a panel on “Investigative Reporting and Police Accountability” as part of its ongoing partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The event was moderated by Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change and investigative journalist Ted Gup. Gup has written for The Washington Post and TIME Magazine, authored three books, and now teaches journalism ethics and government. He opened the conversation with an explanation of how investigative journalism has changed throughout history and how it remains critical to protecting vulnerable populations:

“Every investigative story is important. It’s important to the locales, important to the people that are in it, and important to the nation as a whole, because every one of these investigative stories is essentially a biopsy of the nation,” Gup said.

Panelist Linn Washington Jr., an award-winning journalist, commentator, and professor of journalism at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, spoke to how investigative journalism has uncovered police abuse in Philadelphia specifically. Washington recounted the history of journalism’s role in prompting police reform in the city during the 1970s. 

“[The Philadelphia Inquirer] brought in this guy named Gene Roberts and he changed the culture. One of the things that he did was he started taking a look at abusive policing in Philadelphia. That reporting gave an echo monitor to other legacy media in the city to start reporting on it and that was like a real sea change. And that has continued on to this day.”

Panelists Jerry Mitchell and Ilyssa Daly shared similar thoughts on investigative journalism’s importance regarding accountability but offered a different perspective coming from rural Mississippi

Mitchell is the founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Daly is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former Local Investigations Fellow at the New York Times.

Mitchell and Daly shared details of their current project, in which they are investigating county sheriffs in Mississippi. Daly detailed the complex journalistic process through which the duo was able to uncover corruption, sexual assault, and subsequent cover-ups committed by multiple sheriffs.

Mitchell and Daly’s work led to the prosecution of multiple sheriffs. Outside of their reporting, the only formal accountability mechanism for the sheriffs is an election that occurs every four years. 

“Abuse among police persists because of prosecutors and judges turning the other way. They know what’s going on,” Washington said.

According to the panelists, investigative journalists’ goal is to bring the truth to light, allowing the public to do with the information what they will and giving them the opportunity to understand the full picture.

Daly, citing her mentor and fellow panelist Mitchell, said, “There is no justice without truth. While we may never have justice, whatever that looks like, we will always have truth and accountability.”

Regarding the sheriff investigation, Daly noted that “People in their community were gathering to talk about the story and it opened their eyes to something that they had no idea was going on right under their noses for twenty years. People in this community have been tortured by deputies stretching back two decades.”

The truth is valuable, but not always easy to find. There is substantial work that goes into uncovering relevant information and investigative journalists must be persistent in the pursuit of the objective truth. Daly explained one common challenge in investigative reporting. 

“Sometimes when it comes to reporting in rural areas and communities where data, information, and documents aren’t readily available, you have to get creative.”

Washington mentioned modern technology as a profoundly helpful tool for investigative reporting, particularly relating to police accountability.

“These eyewitnesses have seen this stuff for decades, but the first response was, ‘Well, we don’t trust you. You’re Black. You’re a minister. You’re college-educated, but we don’t believe you. How could you accuse a police officer?’ Well, now there’s reputable evidence.”

Prompted by an audience question, the panelists also discussed the intended goal of investigative journalism.

Mitchell advised, “Do not presume that one story is going to change anything…Sometimes you have to embarrass authorities into doing the right thing. You have to stay after it and don’t give up.”

Washington added, “Sometimes when you write the story, it may be a couple of years before an impact happens.”

Another question surrounded the emotional investment that is inherent in investigative journalism and the difficulty of coping with unfavorable outcomes for those involved. Gup suggested that journalists should avoid emotional involvement in their work and avoid focusing on the immediate result of their work.

“I don’t get emotionally involved. I don’t shed tears. That’s not my job. And you know, as far as results, half the time results are choreographed. They’re scripted, to satisfy the public…The substance is elusive, because a lot of it is rooted in the culture. And changing culture is not something that can be readily done…I’m not the one that’s suffering, and I don’t want to pretend that I am.”

An audience member then asked about the most successful method for countering injustice.

“Investigative reporting,” Daly replied.

Gup closed the event with a note on the greater role of investigative journalism:

“Investigative reporting is one arrow in the quiver. It goes along with education and matters of faith. It goes along with community service with a million other things and when you put them all together, then you have a force that can actually address cultural change…It has to build on with hope.”

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