By Marion Just, Rosalind Levine, and Kathleen Regan
Even in difficult times, most local news stations are still doing investigative reporting, and half of those doing it say they are willing to investigate their sponsors, according to our annual survey of news directors.
Fully 75 percent of newsrooms say they do investigative reporting, the survey of 103 newsrooms from around the country found. The percentage of stations with full-time investigative units is much smaller, just 25 percent.
Yet for all this, only 2 percent of stories in our local news study this year were labeled by stations themselves as investigative. And only half of those, just 1 percent, were original station-initiated investigations.
Noteworthy, too, is that 25 percent of stations acknowledged that they did no investigative work whatsoever.
Over the five years of our study, in fact, the level of original watchdog reporting has steadily declined, amounting this year to less than one of every 150 stories. In 1998, one of every sixty stories was a station-initiated investigation. Serious investigative work takes resources and time, two things news directors increasingly say are in short supply.
Most often, news directors said, their investigative reporting focused on malfeasance or scandal related to government, consumers, or health care.
But the scope of the stories varied greatly. Some newsrooms took on major investigations with national implications, such as a border station that showed it was "easier to enter the U.S. illegally since September 11" than it was before the attack.
Other reports were more local, but nevertheless important: "corruption in sheriff's office," and "downtown redevelopment budget problems."
And about a third of the reports struck researchers as ranging from trivial to merely titillating: "recycling old hard drives" or "Investigation of women illegally injecting silicone at parties."
Nonetheless, the figures suggest that even in the face of economic contraction, many local news stations remained committed to investigative journalism, however they defined it. Fully 75 percent of stations that experienced budget cuts this year still did what they described as "investigative" work. That was the same figure as stations whose budgets were unchanged or increased.
Aside from budget-cutting, pressure in newsrooms also comes from sales departments and sponsors.
We know from last year's survey that pressure from sponsors is omnipresent, though often unacknowledged. The level of sponsor interference that news directors said they experienced this year was pretty much the same as last year – it exists in more than half of all newsrooms.
As one news director put it: "Same – Same as ever. Station sales trying to make a buck."
In all, 17 percent of news directors say that sponsors have discouraged them from pursuing stories (compared to 18 percent last year), and 54 percent have been pressured to cover stories about sponsors, up slightly from 47 percent last year.
Many news directors continue to insist that this pressure from sponsors is ineffective: "Sponsor or advertiser tries to get [stories] killed. Does not happen!"
But news directors also acknowledge that sponsors sometimes do prevail. "Story about lawsuit filed against large advertiser was killed by G.M," one news director unhappily reported. Another said management had "killed investigation into cell phone costs because our #1 advertiser was beaten by rival cell companies on price."
And still other news directors say that even when they have backing from management, sponsor pressure can have a chilling effect on reporters.
As one news director explained: "A sales person went to the reporter and pressured him about the story he was covering. The sales manager and I both spoke to the salesperson and explained that this was unacceptable. The bottom line is even though the reporter covered the story the way he wanted to in the first place, he still felt compromised."
Perhaps the ultimate test of a station's commitment to the watchdog principle is whether it would investigate its own sponsors. Half of the stations in the survey that reported doing investigative work said they had turned their spotlight on advertisers.
"[Our manager's] philosophy is if the story is legitimate we'll take the heat," said one news director.
Half of the sponsor investigations described in the survey involved car dealerships, and about half of those resulted in economic repercussions for the station. One news director wrote that after his station did a story about a case of fraud, "The dealership canceled annual advertising with the station worth $1 million (it took 6 years for them to return)."
On the other hand, half the investigations of car dealerships did not result in sponsors' pulling advertising.
Indeed, news directors reported that their investigations of other kinds of sponsors more often resulted in economic retaliation. One news director compared a car dealer and a furniture store he had investigated. "We worked with car dealer to satisfy his customer," he reported. "Furniture store quit advertising for one year."
Most news directors whose newsrooms did investigative work said their general managers were supportive, even in the face of lawsuits. As one explained: "My G.M. lets me do news. She is reasonable about clients we may anger. All she asks is to be kept informed."
But investigating sponsors can strain relations with management even when the newsroom wins. One news director described the situation as "sensitive." Another reported: "Never interference – but there have been a few moments of angst as the N.D. tells the GM and sales manager about the story we're doing on a client."
In the end, it appears that investigative reporting remains too important a part of a local news station's franchise – and its public obligation – to abandon. As one news director told us: "We are clear on our mission and who we are – we do stories based on that and nothing else." Another had this advice for success: "Cover the news – be aggressive. It isn't brain surgery."
Marion Just is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and a research associate at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard. Rosalind Levine is an attorney in Boston. Kathleen Regan is a student and research assistant at Wellesley.