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Inside FRONTLINE The Value of Investigating...

June 12, 2010

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding funding for investigative journalism, enterprising reporters continue to do indispensible, impactful work.

Below are some examples from Friday's (6/11) panel at the IRE Conference -- "Year in Investigative Reporting." It was hosted by Doug Haddix and Mark Horvit from the IRE and was a powerful demonstration of the public service and enduring relevance of these projects. It also served to highlight journalists' creative use of the Internet to clarify complex issues. (Thanks to Doug Haddix for sharing the PowerPoint. The descriptions below are adapted from the presentation, which will be posted on the IRE Web site soon.)

The Boston Globe: "Jobs Program Lost Its Way -- And Tax Money."

The Globe reporters looked at 16 years of data on a Massachusetts program designed, like others across the nation, to give tax breaks to incentivize corporate investment in the state. But do these taxpayer funded incentives actually pay off? They found that, while the incentives always helped the companies, they frequently didn't come close to giving tax payers their money's worth.

Click here for a interactive map of the results.

Chicago Tribune: "Nursing Home Sexual Violence: 86 Chicago cases since 2007 -- but only 1 arrest."

More than any other state, Illinois relies heavily on nursing homes to house mentally ill patients. A Tribune investigation found that government, law enforcement and the nursing home industry have failed to adequately manage the resulting influx of younger residents who shuttle into nursing facilities from jail cells, shelters and psychiatric wards. The number of residents convicted of serious felonies has increased to 3,000. Among them are 82 convicted murderers, 179 sex offenders and 185 armed robbers.

The Tribune also created extensive profiles of especially dangerous homes, along with a freely accessible database for citizens to search the safety records of all homes in the state.

The New York Times: "Toxic Waters" Series

The Times comprehensively tracked the causes, extent and effects of polluted water across the country. They found more than 20 percent of water treatment systems violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This 35-year-old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks -- and still be legal. In the past five years, companies and workplaces have violated pollution laws more than 500,000 times, but the vast majority of polluters have escaped punishment.

The Times created graphics showing pollution levels across the nation and the decline in EPA enforcement. They also enabled citizens to find water polluters near them and gauge the safety of their own tap water.

Hearst Newspapers: "Dead by Mistake"

Heart journalists worked across newsrooms in a number of states to investigate preventable medical errors. They found that over 200,000 Americans die each year from such errors, and that states' reporting of the mistakes was "sparse and secretive."

Hearst created a map showing states' reporting requirements and a searchable database of hospital safety records in five states. They also created a tip sheet to help patients reduce their risks, along with a guide on ways you can demand change to the system.

NPR: "Unintended Acceleration Not Limited to Toyota"

While Toyota's recall dominated the headlines, NPR analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and reported that unintended acceleration has been a problem for many auto manufacturers. The NPR team also revealed that Toyota's problems went back farther than the year that the automaker's recall began.

NPR made the data on unintended acceleration complaints for all carmakers available and searchable by year on their Web site.

This is just a small sampling. If investigative journalists want to tell the story of their impact, there's no shortage of examples to highlight.

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