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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 10/28/13

Investigative Reporting Credibility

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Message Dennie Williams
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The most critical and essential characteristics for an investigative reporter are unbiased and easily understandable writing, as well as the ability to discover and expose corrupt activity in government, business or life in general.
It is thus critical for an investigative reporter not to stray in his or her writing into news analysis, columns, opinions or editorials. Certainly, that particular in depth, expose-seeking writer should not be writing any opinion pieces on the very subject he or she investigates. Why? With news reporters, as well as government and corporate officials they report about, even the appearance of a conflict can detract from the public's confidence in them.
Credibility is crucial for not only writers and public officials, but for everyone. How can anyone communicate properly with others unless they are believable with a capitol B!?
This particular OpEdNews commentary is inspired by the interesting and well written column in Sunday's New York Times, written by the Public Editor Margaret Sullivan about the alleged, potential or apparent conflict faced by Michael Powell who writes the Gotham Column for the Times.
I quote Editor Sullivan's description of Powell's investigation directly:  "It told of how a case accusing law-enforcement officials of misconduct in a small New Jersey town was quashed, reportedly because of political influence. The main target of the indictment, according to the article, was a political ally of the state's governor, Chris Christie, a nationally prominent Republican running for re-election."
She then explained what prompted her own column. "After the article appeared, I received a letter of complaint from Michael Drewniak, the governor's spokesman. His objections are to this specific article, but they raise larger questions that I found worth considering."
What in part created the inspiration for Editor Sullivan was this: "He (Drewniak) gave me many examples of columns in which Mr. Powell criticized Mr. Christie, once calling him "congenitally pugilistic," and, as recently as January, writing that the governor "can be rude and petty and play a mean game of politics." Sullivan continued: "Asked about this, Mr. Powell and Ms. (Carolyn) Ryan, (Politics Editor), noted that the column had also sometimes presented Mr. Christie in a favorable light."
What my particular column is focused upon has nothing to do with the actual accuracy of Mr. Powell's work in writing his investigative story. In fact, assuming that is 100 percent accurate, Mr. Powell's prior work in his news analysis criticizing Gov. Christie could detract from his later investigative work. His prior column criticized Gov. Christie for allegedly being  "congenitally pugilistic>" He later wrote that: " the governor "can be rude and petty and play a mean game of politics."  These are Mr. Powell's characterizations of Gov. Christie that I quote from Editor Sullivan's column.

So you have an investigative reporter, also working as a news columnist, who can write opinions that may later come back to raise questions about his bias about his investigative reporting on the very same person within an earlier column.

That is what any ethics expert would have to say is the appearance of a conflict of interest, meaning it is not an actual conflict, but looks like one. Having been an investigative reporter myself for decades, both for a newspaper and a freelancer, it would be a nightmare for me to give any subject of my investigation the opportunity to say I wrote the story because I was biased. Believe me, that is a common allegation for the subject of an investigative news report to make. And, the reporter doing the writing sure as heck does not want to supply his subject with such ammunition. If the writer does, then the readers can be forced into doubting the credibility of the writer even when the writer was totally accurate.

Now, having written this column, I conclude by saying that my focus is strictly on an investigative reporter being simultaneously a writer of opinions on the very same subject he or she investigates. I am not suggesting that Mr. Powell was inaccurate, simply that he needs to be either an investigator or an opinion writer both not both simultaneously.

Editor Sullivan concludes: " But in the end, the proof is in the story itself. Is it accurate? Is it fair? Does it dig up something worth knowing that we didn't know before? From all I can tell, Mr. Powell's article meets those crucial standards."

She, however, is an editor and partial supervisor of Mr. Powell's, not an outside reader and informal evaluator of his work.
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Thomas D. Williams, a freelance writer, worked at The Hartford Courant for almost 40 years before retiring in November 2005 to become an investigative freelancer on Internet news sites. He has written a unique nature book, The Spirits of Birds, (more...)
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