Rumors of Long-form’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Posted: February 2, 2011 by Mike Carter in #3 Propublica

It’s like that mosquito that buzzes around the dark room as you try to sleep away a hot summer night. Long-form investigative journalism continues to be the some-what pesky provider of expose in the public interest that is resurgent, just when the comfy dwellers in the bedroom of blunders thought it was gone for good.

To put a negative spin on this would be to sell short what, in the end, is the job of the journalist. The connotations that follow a word like “pesky” (and the subsequent comparison to a mosquito) do not speak accurately to the role that investigative long-form journalists have. Never has this role been more tested than in the era of emerging forms of new media.

The not-so recent challenges to the worth of long-form and the frequent predictions of it’s fade into oblivion (or “fade into bolivian”, as Mike Tyson once said about his boxing career) are rather ironic in the opinion of many, since it has never been easier to access great exploratory pieces.

At least two instances can be found of a renaissance of sorts in this style of “in-depth” journalism. Both happen to turn the rumours of its demise in the current era on their head by using new mediums provided by the internet.

Richard Just writes, announcing The New Republic’s (TNR) introduction of online cover stories, that “the two things that the Internet—and by extension our culture—value most are speed and brevity, the very two things that long-form journalism is not.” By offering these stories online, TNR hopes to reinvigorate a “belief that there is something special, something irreplaceable” about this variety of journalism.

Likewise, ProPublica breathes new life into investigative journalism in the public interest.  Headed by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of The Oregonian, and former investigative editor of The New York Times, and Richard Tofel, the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica’s goal is to shine “a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

The websites latest investigation is a collaborative effort on behalf of ProPublica, NPR and Frontline. Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America, reveals a reality hiding behind the “CSI” depiction of coroners in the United States. This reality is a far cry from the medical professionals highly trained in forensic pathology and with the latest technologies at their disposal that are depicted on the popular television drama.

The article displays the results of a full year’s examination of the 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices in the country. Such a study could only have been conceived of unless given both support and an avenue for distribution, the role filled adequately by news organizations like TNR and ProPublica.

The reports results are shocking. 1 in 5 coroners in the country’s morgues are not certified in forensic pathology. The ramifications for this run deep. Since police agencies attempting to solve homicides rely on the rulings of these so-called professionals, innocent people have been convicted to prison terms for murders they have not committed. In other cases, bodies are cremated before an autopsy can be included in an investigation. The dysfunctional system that coroners work within has been surprisingly successful at burying its mistakes, until now.

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Post script: While investigative journalism’s role should not be exclusively restricted to uncovering wrong doings, this particular non-profit organization does do this in new, innovative and important ways.

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