Examples of Online Investigative Journalism

    by Mark Glaser
    April 25, 2008

    i-9972d3603be98210e028e23139b2f04f-TPM muckraker logo.jpg
    This weekend I’ll be attending “The Crisis in News: Is There a Future for Investigative Journalism?” hosted at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. There will be a lot of old school journalism types who have been plying the trade of investigative work for decades. Most of these folks work at big news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, PBS Frontline and ABC News. But very few of them are digital natives.

    I am going to be a “questioner” on a panel titled, “Investigative Reporting on the Web?” (Funny that every panel’s title and even the conference’s own title has a question mark in it, as if there are more questions than answers.) My gut feeling is that this will be a room full of skeptics when it comes to doing investigative journalism online. “Is anyone really doing that, and how can they support it?” they will grumble and harumph.

    My panel will include: Paul Grabowicz (UC Berkeley and Idea Lab), Jonathan Landman (NY Times), Sharon Tiller (Frontline/World), Jeff Leen (Washington Post), and David Washburn (Voice of San Diego). If you have a burning question you think I should ask them, please leave it in the comments or drop it in the Feedback form and I’ll try to ask them at the conference tomorrow. I’ll report on how they answered you, too.


    In response to the expected question — “so who’s doing investigative journalism on the web?” — I’ve decided to put together a big honking list of all the investigative reports that have happened online. I will include mainstream media reports, as long as they started online or are completely contained on the Net, as well as citizen journalism or ad hoc crowdsourcing efforts. I invite you to help me update this list with anything I’ve left out — again, use the comments below or the Feedback form.

    Examples of Online Investigative Journalism

    > Murray Waas did a five-part investigative series in Salon in 1998 called False Witness, about how indendent counsel Kenneth Starr was misled by corrupt witness David Hale in his Whitewater investigation.


    > Typesetting expert Joseph Newcomer, along with various conservative bloggers including Powerline, debunked documents used by “60 Minutes” in a report about President Bush’s National Guard service.

    > The Center for Public Integrity has done numerous online-only reports on the influence of money in politics, and won a Polk Award for its series, The Windfalls of War, about the influence that contractors have had on military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    > The Center for Public Integrity just recently released a five-part series, Stealth Campaigns, about the influence of independent committees such as 527 groups on the presidential campaign.

    > The Smoking Gun followed the paper trail to find out that author James Frey had made up most of his best-selling work of “non-fiction” titled “A Million Little Pieces.”

    > NewWest dug into the seemy underworld of meth and prostitution in Montana in a six-part series called Sex, Money and Meth Addiction that won an Online Journalism Award.

    > TalkingPointsMemo helped expose the scandal of various U.S. attorneys being fired, leading to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a Polk Award for TPM for its investigative work (a first for a blog). And TPM had its audience help sift through documents at one point, a great example of crowdsourcing. (Hat tip to Jay Rosen for providing the link in the comments.)

    > ABCNews.com’s The Blotter blog ran a story about a teenaged congressional page receiving inappropriate text messages from Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), eventually leading to his resignation.

    > The DallasFood.org blog ran a 10-part report on the high cost of Noka Chocolates, finding that they mark up the price 1,300% without good reason.

    > Entrepreneur Mark Cuban launched Sharesleuth, a blog dedicated to investigative reports about fraudulent companies. The site has only done a few reports so far, including one on the corporate malfeasance at energy company, Xethanol. Cuban actually shorts the stock of companies covered on the site in order to fund the work.

    > Matt Foremski, along with various bloggers and the L.A. Times, helped track down the real identity of videoblogger Lonelygirl15 as actress Jessica Rose.

    > ePluribusMedia, a citizen collective, ran a four-part series about the politics of post-traumatic stress disorder called “Blaming the Veteran.”

    > An ad hoc coalition of bloggers created Porkbusters to try to eliminate wasteful spending in Congress. The group joined with the Sunlight Foundation and TPM to find out who was putting a secret hold on the Coburn-Obama bill to create an online database of earmarks. The bill eventually was signed into law.

    > Wikileaks.org has been an anonymous database of sensitive documents, and now includes 150 censored photos and videos from the recent Tibetan uprising in China. The site has secret documents from Guantanamo Bay, Scientology and from banks that provide safe havens for tax evaders.

    > Newsweek.com produced a special six-part series called Voices of the Fallen, telling the story of the Iraq war through the voices of soldiers who had died. The multimedia online includes slideshows of their pictures as well as their voices.

    > At the prompting of skeptical bloggers, Stinky Journalism investigated whether a Reuters photo during the Southern California fires was staged in a home, with the photographer possibly entering the house without permission.

    Two from Paul Grabowicz:

    > There was the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press investigation of the huge bills homeowners got for new utility lines, in which citizens drove most of the story. Here’s a Wired story on this.

    > The infamous Kaycee Nicole hoax (a girl who supposedly died of leukemia) back in 2001, which was exposed by the work of online communities and bloggers. Here’s a Guardian story summarizing what happened.

    From Kyle in comments:

    > Justin McLachlan (also a contributor to the last Sharesleuth piece) does investigative work at Where Doubt Remains looking at wrongful convictions.

    From Jay Rosen in comments:

    > The Smoking Gun recently did a report refuting documents in an L.A. Times story about the shooting of Tupac Shakur. The Times ended up retracting the story. As Jay says: “Of course, the Smoking Gun guys would say they are merely doing document-based investigative journalism of the old fashioned kind, and that there is nothing new media or bloggy about it.”

    From Ellen Miller at Sunlight Foundation:

    > Is Congress a Family Business, in which Sunlight Foundation tracked down which Congressional spouses are on their payroll and why. They found that 19 spouses were on payrolls, making more than $600,000.

    > Sunlight Foundation also did an investigation of the content of Congressional websites. With help from citizen journalists, Sunlight found that “372 congressional websites failed to provide basic information on what the member does in Washington, from providing the name or names of committees served on to the bills they sponsor.

    > Sunlight also did “Where are they Now” http://wherearetheynow.sunlightprojects.org/ to find out if former Congressional staffers were now working in the lobbying industry.

    Also, a big hat tip to NYU’s Jay Rosen for pointing out many of these reports in his great piece in the L.A. Times about bloggers doing journalism.

    Any others? Please share in the comments, and be sure to check back over the weekend for my live reports from the conference.

    Tagged: conferences investigative reporting journalism skills
    • Since I saw this post because of a link you tweeted on Twitter, I’d like you to ask them how/if Twitter plays a role in their work these days.

    • Justin McLachlan (also a contributor to the last Sharesleuth piece) does investigative work at http://wheredoubtremains.com that’s about wrongful convictions.

    • Mark: This example from TPM is an important one for obvious reasons:


      You might also mention The Smoking Gun’s investigation of the Los Angeles Times investigation involving Sean Combs and the death of Tupak Shakur:


      Of course, the Smoking Gun guys would say they are merely doing document-based investigative journalism of the old fashioned kind, and that there is nothing new media or bloggy about it.

    • Dang it, I left out the TPM link. This is the right one:


    • Roy Spivey

      Technorati says there are 112 million blogs. And you manage to pull up 25 investigative stories going back a decade? (Counting MSM contributions from ABC, Newsweek and the LA Times???).

      That’s not a record. That’s an embarrassment.

      The fact is, investigative journalism takes time, money and patience — qualities blogs lack. With rare exceptions, blogging will not ever come close to replicating what MSM does. The 1,400 or so daily papers, not to mention local and national MSM outlets, easily match the bloggers record of 25 investigative stories every day.

      My point here is that bloggers need to start boosting MSM–creatively if not also financially, rather than believing they can replace main stream “old guys.” Otherwise, they contribute to the destruction of investigative journalism.

    • Willie Mays

      Anything from City Limits, an online and print news magazine out of New York City


    • Roy,
      I think you’re missing the point of this list. First of all, it’s not a *complete* list of all investigative work done online. I’m sure there are many more just from Salon alone. Second, I never said that online-only investigative journalism matched the amount done in newspapers and TV. I have no way of comparing the output of them and that wasn’t my intent. What I was trying to counter was the thought by many traditional media types that “there is no investigative work being done online” which isn’t true.

      Most bloggers would not say that they are trying to replace MSM — that’s an old argument that few cling to these days. ABC is on this list and there are many big media organizations that are trying to do more online. In fact, many Pulitzers this year included online elements.

    • Geeze, Roy Spivey seems grumpy. Mark, I thought you were clear…and you restated your position well.

      I think M. Spivey should remember, Little Green Footballs and their fauxtography investigations of AP and Reuters? The CEO of Reuters eventually credited LGF.

      I don’t know about anyone else but I have at least 25 investigations in the pipeline progressing at various stages (frequently,there are years added due to FOIA delays).

      What exactly does Mr. Spivey mean by “bloggers need to start boosting MSM–creatively if not also financially” ?

      I’d love to share my research with MsM. The problem is the media “grey line of silence” (similar to the blue line of silence in the police world) prevents them from being interested. Thank God for the Internet where truth can be known even if the MsM refuses to report it.

      My experience: Media outlet loathe to investigate or even report blogger’s investigations of other MsM’s bad journalism. For this reason, investigations of media wrong doing, is clearly the area where, sadly, blogger’s rule.

      SPJ ethics code: “Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”

      Bloggers are willing to do MsM’s dirty work (media investigations) that the press , from my repeated experience, are very unwilling to do.

    • john burton

      I have a newsbreaking story tip for you if you could give me an email adress I will forward it to you with some attachments.You will not be dissapointed.Thank you.

    • angelina

      Why hasn’t media done more investigative journalism regarding the epidemic of misdiagnosing children with autism and aspergers? Autism Spectrum Disorder is a total joke, it lumps all levels of autism together in one big happy family…it’s absurd and unethical and well, just plain stupid. American Psychiatric Association should be ashamed of themselves for being so obtuse regarding what autism is and what it is not..do these clowns realize that thousands of kids with ADHD, Bi-Polar, OCD,ODD, MPD and things like Fragile X and Hyperlexia are often being mislabeled “autistic” in these children? This had gone wayyyyyyy tooooo far people Government wants to label all these kids autistic…WHY? You tube has a video titled: autism spectrum seems out of control where a mom talks about this from her standpoint of being a mom with a severly autstic kid

    • Donna Hickman

      Family Court Corruption involving collusion among counselors, guardian ad litems and lawyers needs to be investigated as well as judges making unlawful rulings that give kids to the abusive parent. Kids are sold to the highest bidder in family court more often than we would like to think.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media