by Project for Excellence in Journalism
Probably the best-known type of watchdog reporting, original investigative reporting involves reporters themselves uncovering and documenting activities that have been previously unknown to the public. This is the kind of investigative reporting that often results in official public investigations about the subject or activity exposed, a classic example of the press pushing public institutions on behalf of the public. It may involve tactics similar to police work such as basic shoe-leather reporting, public records searches, use of informants, and even, in special circumstances, undercover work or surreptitious monitoring of activities.
Original investigative reporting would include the work of muck-rakers like Lincoln Steffens, whose Shame of the Cities series in 1904 led to wide-ranging reforms in local government; or Rachel Carson, whose revelations of the effects of pesticide poisoning in her 1962 book Silent Spring launched an international movement to protect the environment.
It would also include the reporting of Jerry Thompson, a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, who in 1980 documented the true nature of the Ku Klux Klan at a time the organization was in resurgence. To do so, Thompson disguised his identity as a reporter for eighteen months and posed as a Klan sympathizer. As Edmund Lambeth noted in Committed Journalism: "[T]he Tennessean openly admitted why it believed it had to use deceptive means to gather and report the story. 'I think you go with full disclosure at the time of publication,' said [John] Seigenthaler [the Tennessean's publisher], 'and see if your credibility can stand the test.'"
In modern original investigative reporting, the power of computer analysis often replaces the personal observation of the reporter. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution's 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning series, The Color of Money, by Bill Dedman, is an early example. It exposed racial discrimination by lending institutions in Atlanta and led to significant reforms in lending policies in banks throughout the country. A book on investigative reporting said of the series, "The most incontrovertible evidence of racially biased mortgage lending in Atlanta was the computer-based analysis of the documents that lenders were required to file with regulators." If properly employed, the computer has the potential to alter the depth of investigative journalism, for the reporting can transcend traditional interviews and anecdotes and amass overwhelming documentary evidence.