by Project for Excellence in Journalism
This form of watchdog reporting is a more recent development and has become increasingly common. The reporting develops from the discovery or leak of information from an official investigation already under way or in preparation by others, usually government agencies. It is a staple of journalism in Washington, a city where the government often talks to itself through the press. But reporting on investigations is found wherever official investigators are at work. Government investigators actively cooperate with reporters in these cases for many reasons: to affect budget appropriations, to influence potential witnesses, or to shape public opinion. Most of the reporting on President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was actually reporting on the investigation of Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's office, augmented by counterinformation leaked by the White House or lawyers for those going before the grand jury.
Another example was the reporting that Richard Jewell had planted the bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was based on anonymous leaks from police and FBI sources and proved to be mistaken. In contrast, most of the work on Watergate, especially in the early critical months, was original investigative work in which the journalists were talking directly with principal sources about what had happened, not with investigators about what they theorized had happened.
Reporting on investigations has proliferated since the 1970s. In part, this is because the number of investigations has grown; in part, it is because after Watergate federal and state governments passed new ethics laws and created special offices to monitor government behavior. But it also has spread because over time journalists have come to depend on unidentified sources to the point where the practice has become a concern both among journalists and a suspicious public.
In an article about the secretive National Security Agency, the primary collector of electronic intelligence for the U.S. government, reporter Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, quoted anonymous intelligence officers about how the deteriorating quality of the NSA's work left it unable to meet the threats of sophisticated terrorist groups and rogue states. Whitfield Diffie, an encryption expert at Sun Microsystems, was quick to seize on the vulnerability of Hersh's anonymous methods: "What bothers me is that you are saying what the agency wants us to believe - [that] they used to be great, but these days they have trouble reading the newspaper, the Internet is too complicated for them, there is too much traffic and they can't find what they want. It may be true, but it is what they have been 'saying' for years. It's convenient for NSA to have its targets believe it is in trouble. That doesn't mean it isn't in trouble, but it is a reason to view what spooky inside informants say with skepticism."
The risks of this reporting, as Diffie points out, is that its value is largely dependent on the rigor and skepticism of the reporter involved. The reporter is granting the interview subject a powerful forum in which to air an allegation or float a suggestion without public account- ability. This does not mean that reporting on investigations is inherently wrong. But it is fraught with usually unacknowledged risks. The reporters here usually are privy to only part of the investigation, rather than in charge of it. The chance of being used by investigatory sources is high. Rather than a watchdog of powerful institutions, the press is vulnerable to being their tool. Reporting on investigations requires enormous due diligence. Paradoxically, news outlets often think just the opposite-that they can more freely report the suspicions or allegations because they are quoting official sources rather than carrying out the investigation themselves.
Tom Patterson, Benjamin C. Bradlee Professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, documented the shifting standards that gave rise to this new category of investigative journalism. "What we see in the studies," he told us at a Committee of Concerned Journalists forum, "is that by the late 1970s we find a substitute for careful, deep investigative reporting-allegations that surface in the news based on claims by sources that are not combined with factual digging on the reporters' part. That tendency increased in the 1980s, increased again in the 1990s, and the mix began to change. The use of unnamed and anonymous sources becomes a larger proportion of the total, and of course that tendency emerged full blown in the Lewinsky story."