A Host of Investigative Journalism on the Web, Thanks to Non-Profit Sites

April 15, 2010

BY BILL DAWSON

 One of the worries prompted by the plummeting numbers of jobs in the commercial news media is that it will mean a decline in investigative reporting.

One of the hopes prompted by the launching of new non-profit journalism ventures is that it will make up, at least partly, for that decline.

ProPublica, a leading non-profit venture dedicated to investigative reporting, expresses the concern at the heart of its own founding on its Web site: "Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury." ProPublica and other non-profit news outlets have been busy lately producing investigative reports on various subjects in the environmental arena, sometimes in collaboration with other news organizations.

Here's a sampling of some of that recent work.

The raised platforms used at some drill sites in the Wyoming gas fields help to protect the underlying landscape. © Photo by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

New York-based ProPublica started operations in January 2008. The following July, it published the first in what was to become a continuing, occasional series of articles on the environmental dangers posed by a boom in drilling for natural gas.

The reporter, Abrahm Lustgarten, wrote in that first article that New York State was moving ahead with expedited permitting for a "water-intensive, horizontal drilling" method that a joint investigation by ProPublica and WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, found "has caused significant environmental harm in other states and could affect the watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water."

Other ProPublica reporters have also been involved in the investigation. One of them, Sabrina Shankman, wrote one of the organization's latest articles on gas-drilling issues — a Feb. 22 account of the guilty pleas of two men for dumping drilling wastewater in an abandoned oil well. That story was itself an update to an examination of wastewater issues by ProPublica's Joaquin Sapien and Shankman on Dec. 29.

Lustgarten's reporting is being honored with the 2009 George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting, scheduled to be awarded in April. The Polk judges said Lustgarten had "turned hydraulic fracturing [the drilling method under investigation] into a national story and shifted the focus of the coverage from local business issues to safety concerns. " Last October, judges in SEJ's 8th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment gave Lustgarten third-place recognition in the investigative category, noting that his "stories on natural gas drilling started in Upstate New York and followed the 'fracking' trail westward to Colorado and Wyoming, at each stage carefully documenting how little regulators know about the environmental effects of a drilling process that so many energy companies are rushing to utilize.

" In a continuing investigation by one of the oldest non-profit reporting groups, the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity since early last year has been examining lobbying efforts aimed at influencing both federal and multinational policymaking aimed at addressing climate change.

Last year, the Center published two investigative projects on climate lobbying. The first, "The Climate Change Lobby," which started appearing on the organization's Web site in February, examined lobbying related to federal climate legislation. The second project, appropriately titled "The Global Climate Change Lobby," was the product of a collaborative effort by reporters from eight nations under the auspices of the Center's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Center's Kate Willson and Andrew Green also reported from the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

In February, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency's possible regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, the Center's Marianne Lavelle placed the organization's latest lobbying-related findings in the context of its earlier reports on lobbying focused on Capitol Hill. She reported:

"The same onslaught of lobbyists and lawyers that helped dim prospects for climate legislation in this Congress (representing about 1,170 businesses and interest groups by the fourth quarter of 2009 ) is now engaged in an energetic, multi-front offensive to delay or block any attempt by the Obama administration to enact an alternative through regulation … Opponents of federal curbs on fossil fuel emissions are also seeking allies in the states and in other federal agencies, while paving the way for court action to directly challenge EPA's initiative."

A climate investigation of a different sort was published Feb. 4 by The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media — a detailed examination of how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrongly reported in its sweeping 2007 update on the state of climate science that glaciers in the Himalaya Mountains would disappear by 2035, more than 300 years earlier than a projection in a source document.

Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum (and a columnist for SEJournal), said in announcing the article by Yale University graduate students Bidisha Banerjee and George Collins that their research had "unearth(ed) the details of how that mistake originated, how it found its way into the IPCC report, and how media coverage has perpetuated the mistake (as well as contributing to it initially)." The authors of the article saw a cautionary tale in their findings:

"Ultimately, there is a common lesson for both scientists and the media: the need to drill down to original sources. This extra effort is vital in reporting on such complex and critical issues: It could help avoid future runaway quotations — like the claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 — and enable science, the media, and society to focus on real environmental problems, such as glacier melt which continues around the world."

Two new non-profit organizations — one based in California, the other in Washington — published investigative reports recently about companies that have received federal stimulus money.

California Watch, launched in 2009 by the long-established Center for Investigative Reporting, lists "environment" on its Web site as one of the six main subject areas for its investigations. In January, California Watch published "Stimulus funds aiding companies fined for pollution, accused of fraud," by Will Evans.

Evans reported that big companies doing business in California "have reaped tens of millions of dollars in new federal stimulus funds, despite previous pollution violations, criminal probes, and allegations of fraud."

The contracts spotlighted in the article raise concerns for government watchdogs "about the way the massive federal stimulus program is being administered," he wrote. "Although most major companies in America face lawsuits and regulatory action, these government reformers say a contractor's entire history should be considered before doling out more money to the same firms."

Besides the California Watch Web site, the article was published or broadcast by commercial news outlets including the Los Angeles Daily News, San Diego Union- Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and KCBS-AM, which broadcasts to the San Francisco Bay area.

Another recent stimulus-related investigation was published in February by the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a project of the School of Communication at Washington's American University. The article, "Renewable energy money still going abroad, despite criticism from Congress," was reported "in coordination" with ABC's World News Tonight and a non-profit journalism group at San Diego State University, the Watchdog Institute.

The February story, written by Russ Choma, represented a follow-up to an earlier report on the same subject by the Workshop, which started publishing last year. Choma wrote:

"The Workshop was the first to report last October that more than 80 percent of the first $1 billion in grants to wind energy companies went to foreign firms. Since then, the administration has stopped making announcements of new grants to wind, solar and geothermal companies, but has handed out another $1 billion, bringing the total given out to $2.1 billion and the total that went to companies based overseas to more than 79 percent."

Robert McClure, a former reporter for the Seattle Post- Intelligencer and now chief environmental correspondent for InvestigateWest, another new non-profit reporting organization, wrote a piece on new findings about health risks of a common pavement-sealing substance. It was jointly published online in January by that group and MSNBC. (McClure is a member of SEJ's Board of Directors who also chairs the organization's Editorial Board, which oversees publication of SEJournal.)

McClure reported that a federal study in Austin, Texas, had found that toxic chemicals in coal-tar sealant, a substance generated as waste in the manufacture of steel, are present "at alarming levels in dust in homes, prompting concerns about the potential health effects of long-term exposure."

The research findings by the U.S. Geological Survey, "which found high levels of chemicals used in the sealant in house dust, marks the first time researchers have raised alarms about potential health effects for humans — especially young children — from the parking-lot coatings," he wrote.

Along with earlier studies showing harm to small organisms in waterways, "the finding raises serious questions about the advisability of using coal tar as a sealant, the scientists say," McClure added.

(Kevin Carmody, a founder of SEJ who died in 2005, had reported on the subject of pollution from coal-tar sealants for the Austin American-Statesman. SEJ's annual award for investigative reporting is named in Carmody's honor.)

Despite an increasing amount of solid investigative reporting by non-profit organizations, exemplified by the reports noted here, Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab revealed in February that one venture to distribute non-profits' work broadly had not worked out as well as hoped.

Laura McGann reported that it appeared Associated Press members had used "little if any" of the reports by four non-profit organizations that the AP had distributed in a six-month pilot project. The four were ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, center for Investigative Reporting Workshop.

SEJournal assistant editor Bill Dawson worked for the Center for Public Integrity from 2001-03.  He is now a contributor to The Yale Forum.  He can be reached by email at b.dawson@earthlink.net.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue.