The Careful (and Necessary) Work of Journalism

By Duane Shank 7-23-2010

This week, The Washington Post ran a three-part series on the top secret counterterrorism organizations and activities that have grown out of control since the events of 9/11. Part 1 examined government organizations, part 2 private organizations, and part 3 the clusters of these organizations in the Washington, DC area. A detailed, interactive web site contains all of the data collected in developing the series.

More than 20 people, headed by veteran investigative reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin, worked on the project for two years. According to The Post, these included cartography experts, database reporters, video journalists, researchers, interactive graphic designers, digital designers, graphic designers, and graphics editors. They did not say how much it cost.

This type of investigative journalism is what we are losing as newspapers in the U.S. are slowly dying. It is the lengthy, detailed research, interviews, putting the pieces together that cable talk shows and blogs that increasingly pass as journalism can never duplicate. In a news world dominated by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, producing what is largely entertainment and rumor -- witness this week's firestorm over Shirley Sherrod -- journalism is losing the capacity for this type of careful work.

In the last several years, a dozen metropolitan newspapers have shut down, many more are threatened or have filed for bankruptcy protection, and still others have gone to online-only publishing. Many papers closed or drastically shrunk their Washington bureaus, leaving fewer reporters covering all the growing activities of government. Few papers have the resources to fund the type of research The Post just completed.

What does this mean for us? Finding out what our government is doing, often behind our backs, and with unlimited amounts of our money will become a thing of the past. Scandal and malfeasance will go undetected. And our democracy will be diminished because of it.

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor for Sojourners.

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