An investigative reporting project is to a journalist what an overhang – a slope angled at more than 90 degrees — is to a rock climber. Gravity, physical endurance and time are all going against you. But when you nail it, there’s no feeling that compares.
A New York Times series, Toxic Waters, has just earned the coveted IRE Medal, the signal award of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a global organization of investigative journalists. Lead reporter Charles Duhigg and his colleagues richly deserve this honor, and more.
The Times team filed more than 500 freedom-of-information requests to a dozen federal agencies. It documented hundreds of thousands of cases of polluters regularly violating the federal Clean Water Act with impunity.
One part of the series, a story headlined, That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy, was based in part on nationwide water testing data from Environmental Working Group’s National Tap Water Database. EWG has collected more than 20 million tap water quality tests conducted since 2004 by local utilities and state labs and entered them into an interactive data base so that people can search for their own community water assessment. EWG shared its data with the Times.
Duhigg and his team conducted their own exhaustive analysis of failures to regulate pollution in drinking water. They reported that more than a fifth of U.S. drinking water systems violated federal law in the past five years, exposing nearly 50 million Americans to illegal concentrations of chemicals.
An interactive map the Times published online enables readers to locate coal-fired power plants near their homes and determine whether those plants have run afoul of water pollution laws.
The New York Times deserves a great deal of credit for supporting this effort over many months. Freeing up teams of reporters, photographers, graphic artists, programmers and others to form an investigative team wasn’t easy in the flushest of times. Now that newspaper budgets are squeezed dry as last year’s leaves, it takes courage and foresight for publishers and editors to invest in investigative reporting, even if the results benefits millions of people – as the Toxic Waters series surely has.
As climbers say — when in doubt, go higher.