Propublica–Samantha Kamras

Posted: February 2, 2011 by Samantha Kamras in #3 Propublica

Who would have thought injustices could still affect you once you’re dead?

Propublica, PBS and NPR recently published an investigative piece, making it clear that it happens more often than you think. They cite shows like “CSI” as being responsible for putting faith in the scientists behind a morgue’s doors. The reality is that most people performing autopsies are unqualified.

 “The Real “CSI”: How America’s Patchwork System of Death Investigations Puts the Living at Risk” explores a 2009 report by the National Academy of Science, and its claim that one in five physicians working in morgues in the US are unqualified. The result is that police brutalities, possible murders and potential contagious diseases are going unnoticed. Ripples from these injustices are then affecting the living.

 In 2008, when news of a van crashing and killing five of the nine students travelling was announced, no one paused to question who the five fatalities were. One of them was believed to be Whitney Cerak. Lauren Van Ryn was cared for in the hospital as her classmates were honoured at a memorial service, and each were buried. It took five weeks for Lauren to communicate that authorities were wrong; she was actually Whitney. The real Lauren Van Ryn was buried as Whitney Cerak. The two girls’ identities were mixed up.

 The case of mistaken identity had a nation’s attention. After having read Propublica’s piece, this case immediately came to mind. What if a proper autopsy had been done? Even family members at the hospital noticed that something was off when they looked at the girl’s teeth; they were not their daughter’s teeth. If Van Ryn’s body was damaged enough that she wasn’t identifiable as herself, shouldn’t an autopsy have been done? And if family members were quick enough to recognize that the dental work was a mismatch, shouldn’t an autopsy have been able to do the same, and more, before the burial?

 The investigative report by Propublica uncovered that one in five physicians who were working in morgues were unqualified to be there. It’s a story about cover-ups and skewed loyalties that has the potential to affect the almost 2.5 million people who die in the US every year, and everyone who is related to those individuals. And a not-for-profit news organization broke the story.

 It’s a story that shows just how important investigative journalism is. The kind of work this news service provides holds people accountable, serves the kind of justice that is often lacking, and has the possibility to create change. Cited even in the text of Propublica’s piece, just by confronting certain physicians who gave false autopsies,–they would file their reports before all the test were in, for example– old cases were re-examined and people have since been held accountable.

 It’s not a field that the average citizen would think to question, especially when “CSI” shows forensic pathologists always solving the crime–and accurately. Apparently, it’s a story that needs to be exposed. It should fall to journalists, who can properly go through the facts and find the pieces, to put together a story that is readily understandable for everyone.

 Unfortunately, as Propublica states, 37 of the top 100 daily newspapers in the US have no full-time investigators. The non-profit organization exists to fill that void.

It’s almost unbelievable that quality journalism is being given away for free. Unfortunately, it seems that Propublica needs major news companies as an outlet for their work. It has yet to get wide readership on its own. But perhaps that’s not what they’re looking for. On their “About Us” page, they have a link to “Steal Our Stories.” The news source is founded for thieves. Their readership comes from other sources, and perhaps that’s just fine.

 The website is set up exactly as any other news-service’s webpage; there is even a link to corrections of their stories. The nature of the stories themselves calls for more than web-styled writing. And because it is not for profit, Propublica will not have to worry about the consequences of, say, putting up a pay-wall or not. There is no worry about subscribers and how to keep them. Instead, the journalists can focus on producing good journalism.

 So what’s missing? Broader borders. As of now, it seems Propublica is focusing on American news. International news is missing. Maybe to create a global operation would test the limits of their funding. There are stories, however, around the world that deserve telling. It seems that websites that give their work away are what’s needed to help ensure that, despite the radical changes media outlets are going through, those stories are shared.


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