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Investigative Windfall? Look outside the big markets for hard-hitting health reporting

Investigative Windfall? Look outside the big markets for hard-hitting health reporting

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Reporters everywhere felt their serotonin levels drop when reading Mary Walton's well-reported and wonderfully written Investigative Shortfall, published last month in American Journalism Review.

The ranks of investigative reporters have thinned in recent years, but Walton documents the clear-cutting of I-teams in, as she puts it, "dead tree media." This fact alone should bring tears to any journalist's eyes:

The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009.

Walton goes on to point out that, "After a vigorous membership drive, this year the number climbed above 4,000." This is still more than 1,000 fewer members than just seven years ago.

I started to sniffle a little as I finished Walton's piece, and then I looked at my list of posts that I plan to write. I have massive backlog of posts about great investigative health stories that have blown me away just in the past nine months. It made me realize that journalism professors and veteran editors from the big market papers – the ones making the gloomiest pronouncements in Walton's story – are blinded a little by what is happening at the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other marquee names. As Walton notes, there is great investigative reporting happening at numerous mid-size and small outlets, including The Seattle Times, The Oregonian, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and – what? – the Bristol Herald Courier:

This year Daniel Gilbert, who covers courts at Media General's Bristol Herald Courier, won the Pulitzer for public service for an eight-part series on how the mismanagement of gas royalties in rural Southwest Virginia has deprived thousands of landowners of millions in royalties. The 30,000-circulation Herald Courier, with a staff of seven news reporters, is housed in a one-story building sandwiched between a fast food restaurant and a welding company on a side street in Bristol, Virginia. Gilbert's award was hailed as proof that any paper, no matter how small, can produce a high caliber investigation. That's the message that Gilbert, 28, is eager to spread. "If the story is big enough, you'll find a way," he says. "That's what newspapers do that no other institution does."

The story could have spent more time with some of the new media outlets breaking important stories. It touches on ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch, the Voice of San Diego, Texas Watchdog, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. To that list, I would add Fair Warning, Investigate West, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, the Voice of OC, and Cold Truth.

This is where the talent is moving, but the audience is much more fragmented, making it harder for any one project to gain widespread attention. And, as far as peer recognition goes, Walton shows how journalism awards, instead of expanding to include the new crop of outlets, have instead started to clump around the remaining big players.

Until about 10 years ago, the honors were spread widely among papers throughout the country. The New York Times or the Washington Post typically appeared only once ― or not at all ― as a winner or finalist for an investigative story each year. However, in the past decade, those two papers plus the Los Angeles Times have eclipsed all others combined, sometimes accounting for more than half of all investigative stories that were honored. Papers that once appeared with some frequency on the list seem now to have lost either the will or the wherewithal to mount major investigations (see "Pulitzer Domination").

Walton also shows how even well-established new media outlets, such as Salon, can be ignored by the old guard.

Arlene Notoro Morgan, an associate dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was working with master's students in 2008 when the Washington Post won a public service Pulitzer for its Walter Reed stories. Morgan's students told her, "Oh, we know this story. It's been on salon.com for two years." But Salon author Mark Benjamin, Morgan notes, "didn't get any notice. No notice in the Pulitzers, nothing. It hit the Washington Post, and boing!"

In response to "Investigative Shortfall," I'm going to start writing a monthly post to help draw attention to the incredible work being done outside of what Walton aptly dubs "legacy outlets."

Here are my first three:

Myron Levin at Fair Warning combined all the techniques that have made him one of the country's most skilled investigative reporters, including some incredible on-camera interviews, for Old Trucks Leave Fiery Legacy, Smoldering Anger.

Hundreds have been killed in fiery crashes of the side-saddle pickups, and many others suffered disfiguring burns. A review by FairWarning found that at least 100 people have perished by fire since federal authorities dropped an investigation that could have led to the trucks' recall. Fifteen years ago, a probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, found the risk of burning to death in side-impact crashes was much higher in the GM trucks than in rival full-size pickups. But under intense pressure from GM and its congressional allies, transportation officials blinked, announcing a settlement in December 1994 that left millions of the trucks on the road. In exchange, GM agreed to pay $51.4 million for safety programs that transportation officials said would save many lives.

By that time, more than 600 people had burned to death in C/K post-collision fires. And the agreement did nothing about the remaining side-saddle pickups, described by consumer advocates and victims' lawyers as the most dangerous vehicles, from a fire risk standpoint, ever produced. GM officials have consistently defended the trucks, saying they have a fine overall safety record and met fuel system safety standards when they were produced."The safety of the trucks was established a number of years ago after extensive investigations and reviews," said GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson. "We don't have anything new to add."

Kate Howard and Paul Pinkham at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville used ride-alongs with police, extensive interviews, videos and a beautiful interactive map to document the exploding painkiller trade in Pipeline of Pain.

The pipeline is long, lucrative and lethal. Stretching from cosmopolitan South Florida to the rural Appalachian foothills, it carries a potent mix of prescription painkillers. Its by-products are rising overdose deaths, record drug busts to the north and an explosion of cash-only pain clinics in Florida, many of which are illegally prescribing tens of millions of pills. And Jacksonville is fast becoming a key supply point.

Since 2007, Florida has been a mecca for Appalachian drug dealers and addicts who stream in by the carload to game the state's lax drug laws and stock up on oxycodone, Xanax and other potent pills. "It's crazy. You walk into a doctor's office down there and there's all these Kentucky license plates," said Nate Craft, a pill addict arrested in Kentucky and charged with driving under the influence of narcotics in July. Craft, 31, said he traveled to Florida because the drugs are cheaper and easier to get.

Alex Richards and Marshall Allen at the Las Vegas Sun used innovative data analysis to provide an examination of a local health care system that is unprecedented for its breadth, transparency and community involvement: Do No Harm.

As part of a two-year investigation, Sun reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards have obtained a record of every Nevada hospital inpatient visit going back a decade - 2.9 million in all. The information, coupled with interviews with more than 150 patients and health care insiders, has yielded a sweeping and detailed portrait of hospital care in Las Vegas. Revealed are the dangers patients have unknowingly encountered as they enter delivery rooms, surgical suites and intensive care units, including thousands of cases of injury, death and deadly infection associated with stays in Las Vegas hospitals.

Helen Haskell, director of the national advocacy group the Empowered Patient Coalition, said the Sun's analysis will allow patients to make better-informed decisions about where to seek care, exerting financial pressure on low-performing health care providers to improve. Because most states have similar databases, the Sun's investigation can be replicated, imposing a new era of transparency within the hospital industry. "This is the Holy Grail," Haskell said. "What every patient wants is provider-specific information about outcomes."

If you recently read (or wrote) an investigative health story that deserves more attention, send me a suggestion: askantidote [at] gmail [dot] com

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