Magazine article Nieman Reports

21st Century Muckrakers: Investigating Medical and Health Issues

Magazine article Nieman Reports

21st Century Muckrakers: Investigating Medical and Health Issues

Article excerpt

If data talked, oh, the stories they could tell. Today, enterprising reporters are "listening" to what data can tell them. By harnessing technology's tools, they dig with increasing speed and thoroughness through stacks of numbers and reams of documents, and what they find forms the foundation for their investigative efforts. Once absorbed, the data create a trail to the men and women (and companies) whose motivations and actions bring to storytelling life what numbers can only sketch. When reluctance to cooperate is encountered, data step in again to refresh memories and prod the story forward.

For centuries, those seeking to expose malfeasance have followed much this same data-driven course, albeit with less precision and more effort. In this collection of stories, journalists describe contemporary watchdog methods. With their coverage they've informed people's medical judgment and protected their health, whether jeopardized by misleading pharmaceutical campaigns or by the lack of mandated oversight by government officials and agencies.

All of this requires time, human capital and resources, all of which are endangered by newsroom cuts and pressures to produce more with less. When data mining can't begin because public documents are withheld, costly legal action may be needed to pry them loose. Or copying costs might be prohibitive for reporters who are working on their own. Absent support from a news organization, secrecy can triumph. As Joe Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote in "The Morgue: A reporter's elegy for his dying paper" in The New Republic, "With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking. …

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