Diggers: Behind an Effort to Cultivate the Next Generation of Investigative Reporters

 photo: GaudiLab/shutterstock

photo: GaudiLab/shutterstock

News out of Arizona and Maryland earlier this month found yet another funder riding to the rescue of American journalism at a moment when the media, and the truth itself, is under growing attack.

The Scripps-Howard Foundation, the philanthropic arm of media giant E.W Scripps Company, provided $3 million in grants—$1 million per year for three years—to launch investigative reporting centers dubbed "Howard Centers" at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland. 

Christopher Callahan, dean of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, called the gift the largest single investment in investigative journalism at the university level. "I would argue that investigative journalism has always been an incredibly important part of our country and part of our democracy... but it's more important now than ever before," he said.

Scripps-Howard Foundation president and CEO Liz Carter also alluded to the "new normal" across the journalism landscape. The foundation has always been a supporter of journalism, but the rise of data and "misinformation" has added an even greater sense of urgency.

"In today's world, there is a lot more information, there is a lot more data for the public to sift through, and there is a lot more opportunity for misinformation. But there are also more resources for journalists to use and investigate. Journalists today take a leadership role much earlier in their careers." 

And therein lies the challenge. Struggling newsrooms, awash in data, lack the resources to provide the necessary training to help newly hired investigative reporters separate the signal from the noise. The foundation's gift addresses this need by generating a robust pipeline of well-trained journalists from various backgrounds.

I'll take a closer look at how these centers aim to populate this pipeline in a moment. But first, I'd like to revisit Carter's concerns about "misinformation," as his thoughts act as the thematic backdrop for the gift—and, for that matter, most gifts in the journalism space as of late.

A New Problem

ASU's Callahan and Scripps-Howard's Carter aren't alone in sounding the alarm bells regarding the spread of misinformation. It's one thing everyone in the journalism funding ecosystem can agree on. “We’re in the middle of an online information war, and the stakes are a free press, an informed public, and strong democratic institutions,” said tech entrepreneur Craig Newmark this week in announcing his latest journalism gift, $1 million to Mother Jones

One emerging approach finds funders working to boost news literary. While algorithms can identify content based on keywords, they cannot discern what is truthful. And so the Google News Initiative recently announced a new round of funding to boost news literacy among consumers. 

Then there's the News Integrity Initiative. Funded by a consortium of journalism's heaviest hitters including Facebook, the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Knight Foundation, the initiative focuses on tackling issues of trust and manipulation in an effort to nurture a "new kind of news literacy." (In a related development, Facebook recently announced a new—and somewhat opaque—trust rating system to "help identify malicious actors.")

Another strategy coming into shaper focus finds donors joining the Scripps-Howard Foundation in embracing investigative reporting as a bulwark against the spread of misinformation. 

Comedian Seth MacFarlane, incensed by an off-hand comment from Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, announced a $2 million donation to support NPR’s Collaborative Journalism Network, which aims to better connect the outlet's 1,800 journalists with local newsrooms. 

Craig Newmark's gift to Mother Jones will support investigative reporting. Earlier this year, Newmark made a $20 million gift to the City of New York Graduate School of Journalism to enhance the school’s mission of training journalists, diversify the voices in the media, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

"At a time of rapid digital innovation, eroding public trust in news, and increased governmental oversight, it is imperative that we build a sustainable future for journalism," Newmark said. "In this time when trustworthy news is under attack, somebody has to stand up."

Anachronistic Models

Perhaps the most distressing fact about the rise of fake news is that it has shaken long-held beliefs involving consumer behavior, reason, incentives, objectivity and—with apologies to Rudy Giuliani—the essence of "truth" itself.

The disconcerting evidence keeps piling up.

A few weeks back, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently came under fire for saying that some people who deny the Holocaust aren't doing it intentionally. An MIT study looking at social media's role in amplifying fake news found that Twitter users seem to prefer sharing falsehoods. 

And a recent Time article tells us that in some ways, humans are genetically hardwired to believe fake news. In an online news ecosystem populated with infinite information, we're instinctively drawn to what is "good" and "safe," even if it's not necessarily "true." Psychologists call this study of cognitive shortcuts the "familiarity heuristic."

Donors, of course, didn't sign up to be armchair psychologists. How are they supposed to respond?

Some have concluded that at the very least, established models and modes of thinking need to be revisited, if not discarded outright. Consider, if you will, how investigative journalists are trained.

Historically, journalists received instruction at the university level, landed a position in a newsroom, and learned on the job. (Bob Woodward provides a nice, although somewhat extreme, case study. He applied for a job as a reporter for The Washington Post while taking graduate courses in Shakespeare and international relations at George Washington University.)

Needless to say, times have changed, according to Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Dalglish told USA Today that newsrooms no longer have the time or luxury to teach new reporters how to become effective investigative reporters. Instead, graduates are expected to leave college "fully prepared to do this on their own." That's a tall order for colleges, and the proliferation of fake news makes it even more challenging, given what Scripps-Howard's Carter called the ever-present "opportunity for misinformation." 

Therefore, the foundation's approach here is to leverage assets of the university system to cultivate a "whole new generation of great investigative journalists (while) at the same time producing great investigative journalism for the whole nation," according to ASU's Callahan.

ASU will offer a new, first-of-its-kind master's degree in investigative journalism and recruit students from other majors and young adults from other industries to broaden the scope of investigative reporting. "We want them to look for great students who can be great investigators," Scripps-Howard's Carter said. 

The program will work as a "teaching hospital" where students will be a part of a working newsroom and produce investigative journalism with national impact. The foundation envisions the new Howard Centers will collaborate with local and national newsrooms that have an idea for an investigative project but lack the resources.

This teaching hospital model may sound familiar. The Knight Foundation has been promoting it for years. The Scripps-Howard Foundation clearly agrees with the idea that journalism needs to become more collaborative. Traditional newsrooms have a lot to learn from technologists and "citizen hackers," while conversely, students—including the occasional Shakespeare scholar—need to learn the principles of effective investigative journalism.

It's an apt metaphor. After all, medical students leave teaching hospitals equipped to treat patients. Meanwhile, graduates from each Howard Center will be prepared to supply beleaguered newsrooms with robust investigative reporting in an era of proliferating misinformation.

"Today's newsrooms need help," said the University of Maryland's Dalglish. "They need this kind of assistance and this will also provide them with the next generation of investigative reporters."

The Howard Centers at both schools will begin offering courses to students in 2019.