Investigative Reporting as a Public Health Research Method

Last week, the Center for Public Integrity, the  nonprofit investigative news organization, reported that  in 2012 the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc. helped fund several of the nation’s most politically active — and secretive — nonprofit organizations.  Based on its review of company documents, Center for Public Integrity reported that Reynolds American’s contributions include $175,000 to Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and $50,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy outfit heavily backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The story provided a rare insight into how some of the most powerful politically active 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofits are bankrolled.


This and similar stories by a handful of other investigative journalism outfits provide hope that despite the gloomy state of the mainstream media, dozens of reporters around the country continue to investigate  corporate wrong doing .  For public health researchers and activists, investigative journalists can help to fill in the gaps about our understanding of how corporations’ business and political practices can undermine health, the environment and democracy. For that reason, these investigative media outlets have become as important a source of information on corporations and health as the scientific journals that publish reports on the impact of a specific practice or exposure on a specific health outcome.  This post provides an overview of several investigative journalism sites and lists some links to add to your Bookmarks.  


The Center for Public Integrity proclaims that is mission is “to enhance democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.”  As one of the country’s oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations, the Washington-based Center has produced series on the global tobacco industry, the high costs of corporate dentistrytoxic chemical pollution, and the occupational health of agricultural workers .  Unlike daily mainstream media, CPI often sticks with a story for months or years. In partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, for example, the Center produced a multi-year investigation of the tobacco industry, in which country-based reporters worked with an international team of editors to uncover how companies like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco distorted science and subverted democratic processes in Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and Uruguay. 


Source: ProPublica
Source: ProPublica


ProPublica is another independent, non-profit newsroom.  Based in New York City, its mission is to shine “a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them”.  In the last few years, it has run investigations on guns, gun policy and the gun industry  and on  pharmaceutical company payments to doctors who prescribe their products.  Like the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica often partners with other media including Frontline, the New York Times and National Public Radio to produce reports that run simultaneously in several media.  ProPublica’s MuckReads provides readers with ongoing updates on investigative stories in other media, offering an efficient way to scan the investigative landscape. 


The Center for Media and Democracy, another non-profit investigative reporting group, published news stories and analysis that exposes corporate spin and government propaganda. The Center publishes PRWatch, SourceWatch, FoodRightsNetwork and BanksterUSA.  PR Watch “exposes the hidden activities of secretive, little-known mega-firms such as Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller and Ketchum PR — the ‘invisible men’ who control our political debates and public opinion, twisting reality and protecting the powerful from scrutiny.”


Investigative Journalism and Public Health

For public health faculty, students and researchers, investigative journalism provides another window on the world.  Its practitioners use a variety of methods— analyzing public data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act; “crowd-sourcing” to enlist a broad section of people who have experienced a problem to help understand its causes and consequences;  and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. For public health students, these methods could significantly expand their research repertoires.  New partnerships between schools of public health and schools of journalism could help to produce a new generation of public health journalists, investigators who can combine methods from both disciplines to expose wrong doing that harms the well-being of populations. 


By teaching these research approaches, assigning public health students to read investigative journalistic accounts of public health problems, and asking them to compare the frames and methods used in, for example, an epidemiological, sociologic and investigative journalistic account of the same public health issue, faculty can help students understand the value and limits of each approach. 


More resources describing investigative journalism and its methods can be found here