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Media and Crisis Management

Investigative Journalism – Don’t attract it

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Investigative Journalism – Don’t attract itCrisis communications

The acclaimed HBO documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” highlighted, among many things, the power of investigative reporting, specifically that of the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal’s Phoebe Zerwick. She helped free the wrongly-convicted Hunt and jail suspect Willard Brown for the murder of Deborah Sykes in that city in the 1980’s. Ms. Zerwick’s 6-month investigation precipitated and accelerated the righting of a great wrong. Thus the power and significance of a free press. Thus too a partial justification for why the rest of us must occasionally endure aggressive journalists.

True investigative reporting involves dedicating a reporter or team of reporters for weeks or months to dig into one story. It is expensive, not always rewarding, and can be a wild-goose chase. But when investigative stories hit big, they can change lives, laws, and culture, and give national recognition to the news operation with attendant awards including Pulitzers, Peabody’s, and, most of all, significance. It is the ultimate reporting validation.

The NY Times’ Pentagon Papers series helped end the Vietnam War, and the Washington Post’s Watergate series, of course, ended a presidency. My generation of journalists wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein or even 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace pillorying some thieving businessman.

Such achievement is the Holy Grail for all serious reporters. And, make no mistake about it, every journalist covering routine news each day wonders if he’ll uncover the mother lode – a career-making “blow open the doors” story that will catapult her or him into professional prominence while performing a powerful public duty.

Investigative reporting is triggered when a journalist suspects that something needs exposing. There’s the thought, “Something is wrong here” or “this organization seems to be hiding something.” Then, once the reporter begins revealing the issue to the public, the next step is to keep the story alive. Since other news operations will often ignore these exclusive stories, the investigative reporter must doggedly pursue the matter until it takes hold in the public consciousness. The reporter wants to shake trees hoping further useful information will fall into the open. When the Darryl Hunt series was on the W-S Journal website there was a host of follow-up stories after the original series ran. One story told of how the mother-in-law of a woman attacked 6 months after Sykes, contacted the newspaper and became part of the process that connected the dots to Willard Brown who confessed to the Sykes murder, said he acted alone, and led to Hunt’s freedom pending final court action.

Darryl Hunt was eventually exonerated of a crime for which he had been twice convicted and imprisoned for almost two decades. Hunt’s attorney and supporters had also been working to try to prove his innocence. Perhaps they would have eventually succeeded without the assistance of a newspaper. Nevertheless, I am certain they welcomed an investigative reporter shining light into dark corners.

So what does investigative journalism mean to business and institutional leaders? A lot. Its accomplishments affect the way reporters thinks. It sometimes makes them more inclined to assume the worst about you and stay on your case when you see no reason for it. Investigative journalism thinking is why stonewalling reporters or say “no comment” it is like throwing meat to a lion. You are pulling the investigative reporting trigger. Baiting the beast. While it may seem internally justified, non-accessible behaviors toward reporters may inadvertently signal that things are amiss at your organization and generate the very attention you are trying to avoid.

Certainly Darryl Hunt is glad Phoebe Zerwick dug into his murder case. I’m equally certain that the rest of us never want to be under such a reporter’s spotlight. We should remember to act accordingly.

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