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Training Whistle-Blowers and Watchdogs

COM, Boston media collaborate on the New England Center for Investigative Reporting

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Joe Bergantino (below) is one of several local veteran reporters heading up a new center for investigative journalism at BU.

The world of journalism is changing rapidly, and hard-nosed investigative journalism is becoming one of its casualties. In an effort to keep the tradition alive and to fill a growing hole in local and regional news coverage, the College of Communication has launched a one-of-a-kind news center, where students and veteran local reporters will produce original, in-depth reports for area media.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) will be a key component of COM’s journalism program, acting as an incubator for the next generation of reporters specializing in long-form journalism. The nonpartisan center is funded jointly by BU and leading Boston media outlets, which are contributing cash, staff, and news resources totaling $250,000, as well as private contributions and foundation grants, including $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Shrinking news budgets have meant fewer reporters are shining a light on the powerful and the exploited, says NECIR director Joe Bergantino, a COM adjunct faculty member and an Emmy Award–winning broadcast journalist, who headed WBZ’s investigative I-Team for 17 years.

“Our core belief is that investigative reporting is one of democracy’s most important tools for providing citizens with the information they need to hold the powerful accountable and to make informed decisions,” says Bergantino (right). “What our founding fathers intended when they came up with the First Amendment was to make sure there was an institution in place that would be a watchdog, and when you take investigative reporting out of the mix, that role disappears.”

Around Boston and across New England, news outlets are reducing their editorial staff through layoffs and buyouts, dismantling investigative teams, shuttering Washington bureaus, and scaling back their coverage of state government. Many view in-depth investigative reporting as a luxury, Bergantino says, because it requires substantial time and resources, as well as pursuing leads that might not result in stories.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is the first nonprofit, university-based, multimedia investigative reporting entity in the nation to focus exclusively on local and regional issues.

Among the center’s goals: to produce high-quality, high-impact investigative reports that will be published and aired by multiple media partners, such as the Boston Globe, boston.com, New England Cable News, and WBUR, Boston University’s National Public Radio affiliate, and to train the next crop of investigative reporters, including students at Boston University and Boston’s inner-city high schools. As important, Bergantino says, NECIR will be a place to experiment with delivering long-form investigative content to an audience that’s becoming more accustomed to getting its news in snippets — and on the Web.

“If we’re going to ensure the survival of investigative reporting,” he says, “we need to figure out new ways to reach the audiences that get their news online, on their telephone, from all kinds of different places.”

Taking theories out of the classroom and into the street will be a core principle of NECIR, says Tom Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM. “Just as medical schools serve the dual purpose of training physicians while serving the health needs of patients, NECIR will train reporters while serving the community’s civic health with its in-depth investigative reporting.”

Fiedler, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former executive editor of the Miami Herald, says establishing the center at a university like BU could, if replicated across the country, represent a critical development in the future of journalism. “We may be creating a new model by which investigative journalism survives and thrives even if the business models that used to sustain it no longer work,” he says.

To this end, NECIR reporters and journalism students and interns will scrutinize the actions and motives of government officials, corporations, and civic and community leaders in an effort to expose abuses of the public trust and to stimulate meaningful legislative and policy reforms. Students at NECIR are already at work on stories, according to Bergantino. The center will adhere to the strictest standards of ethics, fairness, transparency, and impartiality, he says, and has established an advisory board of local business, journalism, and civic leaders.

NECIR also plans to work closely with ethnic media, both in training its reporters and in probing stories in those communities. “Ethnic media is the fastest growing sector of media in the country,” he says, adding that involving inner-city high school students also recognizes the country’s growing diversity.

Bergantino and NECIR cofounder and associate director Maggie Mulvihill, a COM adjunct faculty member, award-winning investigative journalist and former media attorney, will operate the center in collaboration with Dick Lehr and Mitch Zuckoff, both COM journalism professors, who spent years on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. Fiedler and Lou Ureneck, chair of the COM journalism department and former editor of the Portland Press Herald, will provide oversight and editorial guidance.

The center today launched an interactive Web site, where the public, the BU community, and BU alumni can supply feedback and suggest project ideas.

“We are very lucky to be at a university,” Bergantino says. “It provides a perfect environment for us to experiment with how best to deliver long-form content. We have thousands of students and lots of media experts. We can put our heads together, have our students be focus groups in some ways, to figure that answer out.”

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests in the vitality of communities in the United States, where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. The foundation supports ideas and projects that can lead to transformational change.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Training Whistle-Blowers and Watchdogs

  • Taryn Vian on 01.15.2009 at 9:00 am

    A great opportunity

    The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen good governance through accountability and transparency in the health sector, a place where public spending –and, unfortunately, opportunities for graft and corruption–are significant. I hope that the Center and COM will be open to collaboration with the School of Public Health. For example, I teach a course on Fighting Corruption in Health Programs through Transparency and Accountability (IH757). It would be great to introduce public health students to the role of investigative journalism in helping to expose problems and create impetus for change.

  • Portland Dentist on 01.18.2009 at 4:10 am

    wonderful

    It is great to know the plans of the New England Center for Invertigative Reporting. The website is a good way to reach every their audience also. May this lead to more changes in the near future.

  • Anonymous on 04.02.2009 at 7:50 am

    Great!

    The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is the first nonprofit, university-based, multimedia investigative reporting entity in the nation to focus exclusively on local and regional issues

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