“The Wounds of White Clay” won a prestigious human rights award at a ceremony at the Newseum May 23. It had been entered and won under a college journalism category but by the end of the ceremony it had taken the Grand Prize — that meant that the judges had selected it over other winners of the professional categories. That had never happened before in the 49 years the judges had handed out the award. This was so sensational that National Public Radio focused more than three minutes on the series, the students and the change they affected.
The stories focus on four beer stores across the state border from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and the socio-economic troubles on the reservation that could be traced to alcoholism even though alcohol on the reservation is illegal. The students spent a year reporting about 20 multimedia stories.
For an update to my investigative reporting textbook, I interviewed journalist Lily Casura, the author of a groundbreaking investigation into homeless women veterans. She talked about how that project began while she was in grad school. She designed a survey and put it up on facebook. A researcher advised her that she should have taken it to her university’s institutional review board first. And at first, she balked. Journalists don’t like the idea of having to get approval from a bunch of non-journalists.
What’s an institutional review board?
Most universities have such an entity. An IRB looks at research proposals and makes sure they are done in an appropriate and ethical manner — that you aren’t forcing people to answer questions or unfairly taking advantage of them, for example. After going through the process and getting her IRB’s stamp of approval, Casura now feels that more journalists should do this, particularly students who do investigative projects while in school.
“I think it is absolutely a tool,” Casura said. “My goal had become early on to make a difference on this topic — let’s have the American public at least know these people are out there and have a different narrative.”
The interviews she did with women veterans allowed her to tell compelling stories. But the research she did, which had the stamp of approval from her IRB, got the attention of researchers and the Veteran’s Administration.
“I wanted it to have impact in both worlds,” Casura said. “I wanted journalism to be the method for America to learn about it if they were interested, and then I wanted researchers to be able to find what I found. But by the end of the series, I am pointing out to the VA in the series: You look to the left and yet here is what is lurking over here to the right in the places you weren’t looking and here is what I have found.”
She said she is thinking about incorporating social science research methods and going before an IRB for more of her investigative projects going forward. “It gives your stuff heft,” she said.
The Lens, a non-profit news organization, discovered that the New Orleans district attorney’s office was sending people unenforceable documents labeled subpoenas to scare people into coming in for interviews. The D.A.’s office refused a public records request for copies of the fake subpoenas. So The Lens is taking the D.A. to court.