overcome these hurdles, the field may
sustain both public-interest reporting
and government accountability.
it and Watchdog Journalism
In the popular view, investigative reporting looks like the movie version
of Watergate: secret meetings with
sources, interviews, leaks, and cloak-and-dagger work. Due in large part to
IT and statistical methods in the news-room, it has long been more mundane
visualiZaitoN by Jer thorp
A half-century ago, photocopying
machines quietly revolutionized ac-
countability journalism. The ability
to copy documents worked in tandem
with new freedom-of-information
laws to make possible more sophisti-
cated investigations. The machines let
whistleblowers share agency records
(such as correspondence and memo-
randa, inspection forms, and audits).
Previously, investigations would often
depend on undercover reporting, an
ethically dicey practice. But the copy
machine turned reporters’ attention
to documents and with them, to a new
level of ethical clarity and accuracy.
In the 1970s, reporters began to deploy the relatively novel methods of
relational databases in their investigations. Using a portable nine-track tape
reader and his newspaper’s mainframe
computer, Elliot Jaspin of the
Providence Journal matched databases he
acquired through government-in-sun-shine laws. He found convicted drug
dealers driving public school buses
and local officials giving themselves
discounts on their property-tax bills.
By the late 1980s, he had shown that
relational database technology and the
Structured Query Language could be
used to cross-reference systems to find
news. He began traveling the U. S. showing reporters how to use these tools
and founded an organization that later
became the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (http://data.
nicar.org/), an arm of the 4,500-mem-
ber association Investigative Reporters
and Editors ( http://www.ire.org/).