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Panelists Advocate Investigative Business Reporting

November 19, 2008

The 2008 winners of the Barlett and Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism discussed their work Thursday at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The winners, David Heath, an investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, and Brian Grow, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, told an audience of about 150 how they approach investigative reporting in the 21st century.

The panel also included the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team of Donald Barlett and James Steele, for whom the awards are named. The awards are given annually by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, housed at the Cronkite School.

“The biggest problem is the opacity of the information, the lack of willingness to share data,” Grow said about business reporting. Often it requires extra effort to get the information, he said.

In-depth research played a big role in his three-part series investigating financial firms and doctors who turn unpaid medical bills into debt for consumers. Grow said he spent hours sitting down with low-income debtors, going over their credit reports.

Barlett said that kind of persistence is essential to good reporting. “Don’t walk away with a question,” he told students.

The panel discussion and the presentation of the 2008 Barlett and Steele awards were part of Cronkite Week, celebrating the school’s new home in downtown Phoenix.

The importance of business journalism, by finding truth, exposing wrongdoing and communicating it to the public, is more important than ever in the current financial crisis, said Andrew Leckey, founding director of the Reynolds Center and the new Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the Cronkite School.

Steele acknowledged “a general squeezing” of newsroom staffs and the departure of many senior and mid-level reporters and editors. But, he said, he is encouraged by the many committed young journalists he has met.

Leckey said when he first got into journalism decades ago, he was warned by an editor that the media was in a sorry state and he would have difficulty finding a job.

“It’s always been rough in the media and journalism because if it was so easy to do, everyone would do it,” he said.

Steele said the Internet has made some aspects of reporting easier. “For all the problems that are out there and all the problems about where this is going to go, there is ability to access information that is absolutely breathtaking,” he said.

Reynolds Center Deputy Director Anita Malik, who also was on the panel, said investigative work is perfectly suited for new media because it has many parts and is told in-depth. She said reporters need to use tools like interactive timelines and videos.

“A lot of reporters are comfortable using the Internet as a source,” she said. “Not as many are comfortable yet using it to tell a story.”

Heath, and reporter Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times, did just that, with their four-part series “The Favor Factory,” one of the award-winning pieces. They created an online database of press releases linking earmarks to Congressional campaign contributions.

Before writing any story, Grow said he considers how to tell the story in a multimedia format.

Leckey said the work done by Grow and Heath measures up to the standards set by Barlett and Steele during their many years as investigative reporters. The two started working together 37 years ago and have won two Pulitzer Prizes. They now write investigative pieces for Vanity Fair.

“They are the gold standard against which all other investigative journalism is judged,” Leckey said.