Teaching Our Journal: New Views of Investigative Reporting

New Views of Investigative Reporting in the Twentieth Century
Volume 31, No. 4, 2014

By Gerry Lanosga, Indiana University

When students are asked about investigative reporting, they tend to think immediately about Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Watergate. This instant identification is testament to the powerful mythos of Watergate and the implicit notion that it represents the beginning of the adversary press. It is a creation story of sorts that casts an outsized shadow on both public and professional discourse about the development of a modern journalistic practice.

Investigative journalism, of course, did not emerge fully formed from Woodward and Bernstein’s notebooks. The journalistic exposé has found expression throughout American history, from early colonial newspapers and the revolutionary press to abolitionist writings and Gilded Age newspaper crusades to the muckraking in national magazines around the turn of the twentieth century. And although the decades after the muckrakers (and before Watergate) are sometimes viewed as a journalistic wasteland, investigative journalism endured in those years as well, especially in local newspapers.

“New Views of Investigative Reporting in the Twentieth Century” documents the essential continuity of this investigative tradition from 1917 to 1960. Historians generally agree that muckraking had all but died out by around 1917, which happens to be the year the first prizes were awarded in a new contest endowed by and named for the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The Pulitzer Prizes, which constitute the main source of evidence in this article, were journalism’s first national award and are generally regarded as one of the profession’s top honors. While many scholars have studied prize-winning journalism, however, their inquiries usually exclude the dozens or hundreds of journalists and journalistic works each year that were entered but did not win.

That broader base of prize materials comprise a rich but little-examined vein of primary source documents. Records of the entries are not kept in a traditional archival repository where historians typically go to explore personal paper collections. Rather, they are maintained in the administrative files of the Pulitzer Prize Office, which opens the records occasionally at the request of researchers. In addition to the entry materials, the Pulitzer Office also maintains records of deliberations by groups of jurors who screened entries each year before forwarding their recommendations to the prize judges for final decisions.

Taken together, the entries and jury reports portray a well-established and enduring practice of investigative reporting, from Harold Littledale’s 1917 exposé of prisoner mistreatment in New Jersey for the New York Post to Roland Kenneth Towery’s 1954 revelation of fraud in a land sale program meant to benefit veterans for the Cuero, Texas, Daily Record. As other scholars have noted, investigative reports make up a relatively small proportion of news production overall. But while Towery and Littledale are not likely to become household names in the manner of Woodward and Bernstein, journalists like them are represented in a significant proportion of Pulitzer Prize entries throughout this time period, from newspapers of all sizes and all regions of the country. The prevalence of their investigative reports reflects the ongoing importance ascribed by both journalists and prize administrators to the practice of uncovering social problems, corruption, and misconduct in the four decades examined in this article.

 

Exercise 1 – Thinking Beyond The Usual Primary Sources

Historical research depends on finding and interpreting primary sources. In journalism history, the most common primary sources include historic news texts (newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, and the like) as well as archival resources such as manuscripts and personal paper collections. The article “New Views of Investigative Reporting in the Twentieth Century” offers an example of a history project that relies on a different kind of primary source – administrative records of a private organization. Sometimes those records can be found in archives, but often, researchers must make special requests to get access to them.

Thinking of an area of interest in journalism history, do some preliminary thinking and research to identify similar non-traditional records that could be used to shed light on the subject. You might find helpful references online, but other times this is a creative exercise in imagining the types of records that must have been created by organizations to keep track of things. Name specific document sets rather than broad categories of records. Possibilities to consider include government records maintained by individual agencies, privately-held corporate archives, institutional records of non-profit organizations, and records private companies are required to maintain for public viewing, such as nonprofit tax forms and broadcast licensees’ public files. Once you’ve identified documents of interest, discuss what you might expect to find and any potential concerns surrounding use of the records.

Guiding questions:

  • What private entities intersect with my area of interest? What sorts of documents might they have? Who could I contact to find out what records exist and to request access to them?

Once you identify actual records, they call for the same kind of treatment you would give to other sources. Questions include:

  • Who created the records?
  • What is the purpose of the records – that is, what were they intended to do?
  • Who was meant to see the records?
  • What is included in the records, and what is excluded? Do they mention other records that might be of interest?

Resources

 

Exercise 2 – Using Prize Materials as Historical Evidence

“New Views of Investigative Reporting in the Twentieth Century” relies heavily on administrative prize records for evidence of the prevalence of the particular journalistic practice of investigative reporting. But the article notes an idiosyncrasy about prize entries: that they don’t really reflect a systematic view of journalism as a whole. Rather, they reflect the journalism that newspaper editors thought might appeal to juries and judges and thus win prizes. Bearing that in mind, consider how prize records can be used as a prism for studying journalism more generally. Conduct some of your own research into prizes (national, state or local) and discuss what they reveal about the practice of journalism. You might think about how journalists and others perceive prizes and the prize process. Key primary sources in that regard could include news stories and trade journal articles about prizewinners.

Guiding Questions

  • What kinds of stories get entered in contests? What kinds do not?
  • What does it mean to seek a prize for a journalistic work?
  • Who wins prizes, and for what types of stories? Who doesn’t win?
  • Who decides what is worthy of a prize, and on what basis?
  • What are some similarities and differences between contests (broadcast vs. print, for instance, or national vs. local)?

Resources:

 

Exercise 3 – Continuity vs. Change 

This article argues that investigative reporting is characterized by continuity – the idea that some things remain relatively constant over long periods. But historical inquiry is also concerned with change over time. How might prizes be used as an indicator of how the journalism profession has changed over time?

Guiding Questions

Analyze the following elements for change over time:

  • Contest rules
  • Contest categories
  • Who wins and who doesn’t win
  • The kinds of stories judges deem award-worthy
  • The kinds of stories that aren’t bestowed with prizes

Resources

  • See prize listings in Exercise 2
  • John Hatcher, “Were Those the Days? Revisiting the Pulitzer-winning Efforts of Community Newspapers in the 1970s,” American Journalism 24, no. 1 (2007): 89-118.
  • John Hohenberg, The Pulitzer Prizes: A History of the Awards in Books, Drama, Music, and Journalism, Based on the Private Files over Six Decades (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).
  • Donna Shaw, “The Pulitzer Cartel,” American Journalism Review, October/November 2006, 32-39.
  • Alicia C. Shepard, “Journalism’s Prize Culture,” American Journalism Review, April 2000, 22-31.
  • Douglas Bates, The Pulitzer Prize: The Inside Story of America’s Most Prestigious Award (New York: Carol, 1991).
  • Randal A. Beam, Sharon Dunwoody, and Gerald M. Kosicki, “The Relationship of Prize-winning to Prestige and Job Satisfaction,” Journalism Quarterly 63, no. 4 (1986): 693-699.