Roundtable Investigates Investigative Reporting
Reporters in San Diego dug deep into the Sandeno for debacle and sounded the real alarm about whooping cough. What is going on with investigative reporting and our newsrooms today? I Mark Sauer with a special edition that starts now. ________________________________________ Welcome to our discussion of investigative reporting on this special edition of the KPBS Roundtable. Joining me today are Laurie her director and editor of I new source. ________________________________________ It's good to have you back. ________________________________________ Good to see you today. And investigative journalist state -- JW August. ________________________________________ Glad to have you here today. ________________________________________ The new movie spotlight is drawing raves from reviewers and veteran journalists alike. Is a true story of how the Boston Globe expose the white spread sexual abuse by priests and heavily Catholic Bostick. Let's listen to the trailer. ________________________________________ I hope we can keep this between us until we all get on the same page. ________________________________________ Is that why we're here to get on the same page quick ________________________________________ We've got to stories here. A story about the generate clergy and a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. ________________________________________ Which story do you want us to write because we're writing one of them? ________________________________________ We're getting a lot of buzz on that movie. Start by telling us what kind of person is drawn to investigative reporting? What's the makeup of that kind of journalists? ________________________________________ I think the general qualifications are basically a lot of curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism. Investigative journalists are a special breed. They have to be able to be persistent and stand the test of verification, meticulous verification. Not just believe what someone tells them. He must check everything out, document everything, get the data. Really verify everything that they here are fine. There is an old adage which I'm sure you've heard, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. Investigative journalist take that to the nth degree. ________________________________________ We've all done our share of investigations. I had a Q&A where I was asked to participate in following a screening the spotlight. For me as a journalist was what's going on today? Shrinking budgets, shrinking newsrooms, shrinking staff. Was a situation with investigative journalism? Out is a dying? Also that out to the panel. ________________________________________ I think with us the answer is no. Small nonprofits that are partnering and public media newsrooms all across the country. I think that that is going to help save investigative journalism. I can't speak for larger newsrooms are commercial newsrooms as to what's happening, but I think this model is something that we see and is working. It could work. ________________________________________ JW? ________________________________________ On the commercial and of investigative reporting. It comes and goes in popularity and depends on who was a consultant talking to the people. I have been a new stations where it was the next big thing and then I've been there when they try to forget that your there. ________________________________________ I think it's alive and vigorous, it's form has changed. ________________________________________ Speaking from a newspaper standpoint, we're both newspaper people, those staffs have shrunk down. We don't have anywhere near the bodies. ________________________________________ Incredibly smaller than when I arrived. It's probably one fifth the size of the newsroom when I first was hired. That said we do have a committed team doing investigative work now which we did not have when I arrived and that's pretty cool. I think the readers and the feedback, the publishers in the top managers get is that there's a market for investigative journalism. People want to read that. That's what they expect. While the news industry in general but papers in particular are transitioning based on the digital world. I think there's a re-emphasis on investigative work, and that were are contributing to the community by doing it. ________________________________________ But the numbers are so down. ________________________________________ It shouldn't be one or the other. We shouldn't have the small teams who do investigative journalism and wait to see what they find out and then everybody else does what? Journalism by nature should be finding the truth. Sometimes that takes longer. I think the problem is if you are a reporter in a newsroom, the demands that are placed on you, especially in the digital age in terms of all of the content you have to produce, takes away from your ability to do good -- good journalism and deep dive journalism. We delineated this way. There's a little teen that does this kind of journalism and everyone else is a given the time or the tools. ________________________________________ Some journalists are more suited for this work than others. Some journalists are happy being group reporters. And people need that information. I agree with you though, I think the part of the problem today is this rush for 24 seven, everyone wants to be ahead of one another and on top of the latest thing. Investigative journalism takes a lot of time. And as a result it takes a lot of money because the people who do it may produce one or two stories a year. Maybe their gangbusters stories but -- ________________________________________ This concept works for large commercial media because what to do is have a smaller dedicated group of journalists at work on that. They have additional protections from outside forces that tried to change the type or sort -- type of stories you cover. So projects -- project teams, there's a tool for that. ________________________________________ Let's stay back with you Joanne. We want to talk about some specific stories in 2010 California had an epidemic of whooping cough. Stop by what major look into that story. ________________________________________ I was in a morning meeting and the newsroom and a news release came across that said San Diego County is experiencing an epidemic of whooping cough. Two things went off. I'm a mom and familiar with the immunization schedule and new that this is something your immunized against. I also thought that back in the olden days people that got it, and it's not something you get now. I wanted to address what we were just talking about. I was lucky enough back then that I was working on a team where we could pick and choose things we were going to work on and spend time pursuing them. So I decided to look in the whooping cough. So I got on the email list with the county health department and got their news releases that would say four or five people got whooping cough today. At the bottom they would lift their age and then there immunization status. After a few weeks of this, noticing that almost all of them had been immunized, I filled out a couple records act request and as for all the data and added it all out. All the people who got whooping cough that year how many had been immunized? At least two out of three had been. It was just adding the numbers and paying attention. ________________________________________ This vaccine became the big question? ________________________________________ Public officials, and they continue to say this, they say it's because people are not been immunized. Because the question of vaccine is taboo because everyone perceives it as an empty immunization story which it never was. Health officials say we don't want you to report this story, not directly saying that but discouraging it because people would think that you didn't have to vaccinate your kids. Because it was about science and medicine, I had at one time the CDC telling me you're asking stupid questions. ________________________________________ We have a clip from your original report. ________________________________________ In California last year teens between the ages of 14 and six Dean accounted from is one quarter of all whooping cough cases. And I knew source analysis of state data shows the immunized nation status of those teens is known nearly 3/4 had received all of the required doses. ________________________________________ The vaccine does not work as well as we thought it was. Even though we know it's not the best vaccine, it's even less effective than we thought. ________________________________________ That was years later. Right? In 2010 nobody would say that. No one would say the vaccine isn't working. I had to go to the Netherlands to find the science is willing to say that. That was after studies were done. Some of them as a result of our reporting were now doctors and scientists are willing to say we don't think the vaccination works as well as we thought it did. ________________________________________ So that was a successful outcome on that story. ________________________________________ Lori and I were working on this together. You and some other organizations to say do you want this story in they wouldn't believe it. ________________________________________ We were trying to make sure that the story got the biggest audience possible particularly in California because that's where we had done the analysis. I was shopping the story to newspapers up and down the state and television stations and they came up with these reasons of why they didn't want to run it. We were a new organization at the time but I know now that they were afraid of the story. They were questioning big important Pharma and we were questioning some real social issues here. And I don't think they wanted to touch it. And now you can see it had a great effect. ________________________________________ Thank goodness you did that. Let's turn to a more recent investigation. The shutdown in the Seminole free nuclear plant. The cost of the premature closing totaled about $4.7 billion but the deal over who was going to pay that, customers are shareholders changed at the last minute. Investigations revealed the process that was flawed from the beginning. Here's a clip of one of her recent clips on Edison at 703. ________________________________________ And its own inspection found that Edison failed to verify the adequacy of its design. San Diego Laurier Mike Gary said the companies 2006 presentation to the NRC is crowns for a federal investigation. ________________________________________ It is against the law for a company to misrepresent material information to a safety regulator. And yet, you have the situation here where there really was a radiation leak right in our own backyard because our own companies were not being straight. ________________________________________ Now, Jeff, that's a different aspect of this very complicated story. You looked into how this will do came about. What did you learn? What happened? ________________________________________ I'm stupefied by how much I learned about nuclear power. This story has all the same elements that your story and whooping cough did. Big powerful interests that conduct business the way they conduct business. All day long every day, every year for years. When something like this happens, they simply accommodate for it and adjust their rates. What was unusual is that we learned about at this time and we were able to drop attention to it. Now we haven't had any success reversing the rate. What happened is they killed the power plant by accident and they build the rate players through cost of that failure. The ratepayers of course had nothing to do with the plant failure. They cut a deal in secret overseas they being the top regulator in the state of California. And one of the top executives of the company that owns the power plant. And we never would've found out about it if we hadn't packed away impact away. They said it was a rate savings when they announced a deal to the public 1 1/2 years after they hatched a deal in Warsaw Poland. They announced it as a $1.5 billion savings the ratepayers. And we all reported that. In the ensuing weeks and months we started picking apart the cost of this how they actually broke down and the store started to unravel. ________________________________________ So we have the head of the state agency and the cutting the backroom deal with the utility of Southern California Edison. ________________________________________ It's been acknowledged by the utility and its without dispute. There's been no impact because the commission has not yet reverses decision or even considered applications for reversing it. People of been saying for the most of this year this must be reversed and reconsidered and the commission has was to it -- refuse to take any action. ________________________________________ JW did reporting on this is well. What happens when you have this gotcha moment? ________________________________________ I saw Jeff was doing and he did a terrific job. I knew there was more there. If they were that way with the actual granting of the license and also with paying for the cleanup, what else was going on on the plant in the plan property? I decided to focus on the grounds themselves, contaminants and how they handled the radioactive material in that sort of thing and that set me off in another direction. It started when I started talking to a safety engineer within the plan who began to fill me in on what was going on and how the NRC work. And then you just become an expert. I know I can build a new plant. I'm not an expert on the CPUC. [Laughter] I certainly wouldn't spend the money. ________________________________________ Let me know when you do that so I can go back to Detroit. This story is still ongoing. When you broadcast and publish the stories it leads to more, does it not? Folks come out of the woodwork and safety Willie know the half of it. The Mac you don't know what you have. You feel like it's not right. Something needs to change and you learn about it and tell the readers and show them what happened then people start coming out and these stories lasted much longer than I ever expected. They been impervious to change. ________________________________________ One of the things to do, you do great work on Sandeno free but when you talk about building on each other I think investigative fit journalist cackle when with a note -- an agenda. You have to be aware that the data or the documentation are the interviews and the other verification that you get, you've got to be pivoting the story. Review initially thought it was a some gals and maybe even a bigger story than you realize. ________________________________________ And you might have to say well we've got a cut our losses on this. ________________________________________ We knew risk of that time and energy and think you've got something you just have to decide to walk away but San Onofre is going to continue . In the public safety issue is just huge. We have the highest electric rates in the nation except for Hawaii and some Northeast states. ________________________________________ It will continue until the public makes enough of an outrage were the commission feels pressure from the governors office to change the decision. ________________________________________ This was far-flung. You found out about all of this in a secret meeting. It had the intrigue of a little James Bond movie. ________________________________________ Yes, I found out about that looking over the search work returns which is one of the due diligence things we all do. And one of the things investigators took was RSG knows. And what that did was connect the investigation to PG&E which is under investigation up in San Bruno for killing eight people. They connected that corruption investigation to San Onofre. It was much bigger than PG&E. That's how they been doing business for years. Very close knit to the people they regulate. ________________________________________ NRC document set of never been seen by the public. You start reading them and see what they were doing on the property dumping radioactive material around the property with no regard to long-term health effects. And I'm talking about between 5 acres in and around the plant. It was reading the stuff in the ground. ________________________________________ We have a form bills the Governor has vetoed. ________________________________________ How about that? Laughter ________________________________________ It all gets to how the system works and whose brackets buttered by whom. ________________________________________ Let's shift one more time to another story we've looked at locally in San Diego. This is an investigation to a situation where the safety of schoolkids was imperiled. It involved hundreds of fire alarms and the Sweetwater district. What got you investigated in this? ________________________________________ We had a woman that worked in the district who was involved in maintenance and she kept reported to her supervisors that the alarms are working not just the one school but multiple schools. The maintenance people did work all across the district. School after school, the alarms were not working. ________________________________________ A pretty basic thing. ________________________________________ They had passed a huge bond to spend money and the item number two was to improve the safety of fire alarms and everything in all the schools and upgrades for schools across the Sweetwater school district. So the question was, where is the money going and why aren't alarms working? ________________________________________ What happened when he confronted? You would think when they would raise the alarm the officials would of said will get right on this. ________________________________________ They refuse to acknowledge it. Even when the fire department went in there and had people walking the hallways because state law if the alarms are working, they have to walk the halls even when fire officials were walk in the hallways the district would not acknowledge that there was a problem. They just buried their head in the sand. ________________________________________ I love your passion on that. All of us have experienced that. You get to a point in a story where it's outrageous and they could've completely mitigated it and we're going to do the right thing, but when they don't, it gets your dander up. ________________________________________ Every organization experiences problems but what defines the organization is how they respond to those problems. It's unfortunate. If you had come to them and they said while this is terrible we're going to fix it, maybe you do a story and it goes away. Instead they dug end and there were many problems at that district for a long time. ________________________________________ We see that over and over again. Laurie, we talked earlier on. A lot of examples across the country of these privately funded organizations that sometimes team up with a lot of newspapers and broadcast stations etc. Is that the new model? That continue? Can we count on investigative journalism driving there? What is the future? ________________________________________ I think the nonprofits are part of the answer. They have grown out of the downsizing of traditional meeting particularly where they have outsized their investigative teams. So regional teams have taken the place. The problem is it's always about the money. It's about the money when you are investigating things and the money to keep investigative journalism going. The nonprofits survive on foundation funding and philanthropy and memberships like public broadcast. ________________________________________ It's up -- I think they're filling part of the void. But there's always room for more investigative journalism. ________________________________________ I was just going to say if I could that they now have a culture of investigative journalism because of management in New York believes in it. They're willing to spend the box and build the teams and spend the money and sit on the stories and find the attorneys to review the scripts and go through all of that. For somebody that does what I do and has a passion for this business, it's a great opportunity. ________________________________________ The public wants it. I was at an IRA conference a couple years ago, invested -- investigative reporter and editors conference and there was a panel on these studies. The public wants investigative journalism on television, in the newspaper, on the radio. We have to do it. ________________________________________ Our democracy was founded on a strong free and vigorous press. The whole system was set up that way. ________________________________________ Of course now, as we said, were shrugging -- ranking budgets and smaller newsrooms it's tough for all the time. A lot of folks are getting away with stuff. ________________________________________ Pecking away at things and building on things and that in the end, it's taken me a long time but I've realized that tends to be how it works now. You don't write that one giant story or produce that one television story that says everything. You often don't know what you have to begin with. You're just starting out and you put it out there and it builds and builds. And we've worked on a few investigations like that. It's a crazy California tax and we put out a map and it turned out the public told us they were overpaying. They got the wrong tax bill. ________________________________________ So it shakes out that some reader or viewer will see that story and say wow, that's a problem similar to what I'm having and they will contact you because you did a good job on this issue. They will call and tell you about something and you build trust with that person. ________________________________________ I'm sure you Bob would say that you don't lack for story ideas or tips. Is plenty going on that we don't even get to. Your stories build other leads for other stories. ________________________________________ I did want to ask you before we finish up, your teaching a class now and doing investigative training with these young students. What do you tell them? Is there a future in this business? Do you encourage them? ________________________________________ I give them the speech a gave off the top. You have to have special skill sets and you have to really be passionate about it. You have to be willing to pay the price. There is an opportunity for you. The difference is that now there are multiple platforms. Get your stories out to as many different places as you can. ________________________________________ As politicians and the head of utilities and other powerful folks see this ranking budgets and newsrooms they see the numbers down and papers like the UT in that story is repeated across the country. Are they breathing easier these days? ________________________________________ I believe they are. We're way outnumbered when it comes to resources. We had something like for for every reporter in San Diego -- San Diego. So we're really outgunned. They know how that -- to do their jobs well. It's difficult getting basic information at a public officials, institutions. I been pestering the governors office for almost one year regarding San Onofre and they simply don't respond. ________________________________________ I don't mean to us -- insult the public relations people but recently I told the young reporter that it's their job the public information officer to do what they can to make you give up. He was asking for some information that they wouldn't want in the public domain and I think it's persistence and time and you keep going and going until you finally get it. ________________________________________ Thank you all for your persistence and the great work you do. That does wrap up our special edition on investigative reporting. I'd like to thank my guess -- ________________________________________ All the stories we discuss are available on our website. gusts. I Mark Sauer and thanks for joining us today on this special edition of the Roundtable.
The current Hollywood film “Spotlight” is the story of investigative reporting by The Boston Globe that resulted in the exposure of a vast child sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic church. The reporting of the Spotlight team led to local and worldwide change in the Catholic church. The film reveals the daily grind of running down leads, chasing witnesses and running headfirst into determined opposition.
On Roundtable Friday, we look into local investigative reporting. San Diego investigative reporters and editors have been exposing problems, malfeasance, cover-ups and incompetence for years. They continue to work at it in spite of dwindling resources and outlets.
Digging into the San Onofre closure
San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald explores his investigations into the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The closure settlement put the bulk of the $4.7 billion shutdown costs onto consumers, rather than shareholders. McDonald and others, including KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma, dug into the cozy relationship between plant owner Southern California Edison and the California Public Utilities Commission and uncovered how the settlement was reached.
Examining an ineffective vaccine
As an inewsource reporter, Joanne Faryon wondered why there were so many whooping cough cases in Southern California. Then she found that so many of those who were ill had been fully vaccinated. So, what was wrong with the vaccine?
Faryon's investigation took months and involved travel to Los Angeles and the Netherlands, as well as frustrating encounters with the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
Missing fire alarms
At 10News, JW August heard from a whistle blower that the Sweetwater Union High School District was spending funds allocated for repairing and installing school fire alarms on other things, leaving children's safety at risk.
Roundtable asks the panel:
What sparks that first interest in a story?
How does a reporter get the truth while being lied to and misdirected?
How do reporters deal with disappointments or handle success?
And, most importantly, will media outlets continue to have the resources and time to devote to this kind of reporting?