A look at the best investigative journalists throughout history.
In our 24-hour news cycle, it can sometimes feel as though a new earth-shattering revelation about political wrongdoings is uncovered at least three times a week. Yet we boldly march on, with our political pundits and our hashtags, continuing to watch or scroll, waiting for the next eye-roll-inducing “breaking news” alert.
But this passivity was not always the default setting. Investigative journalists have exemplified the vigilance we have since lost, uncovering corruption and injustice for as long as there have been printing presses and tenaciously sticking their noses where they were told they didn’t belong. The following five writers exemplify the genre at its best, having used the power of the press to expose what society would rather bury.
- Ida B. Wells
A pioneer of American investigative journalism, Wells was born into slavery in 1862 and grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi during the Reconstruction Era. After much of the progress of the Reconstruction Era was undone by Jim Crow Laws, Wells made it her personal mission to expose the prevalence of lynchings across the country, working to destroy the myth that lynchings were carried out to defend innocent white women from men labeled simply as “black rapists.” By meticulously investigating her sources, Wells discovered that in two-thirds of mob lynchings, rape was not the main accusation. Instead, many lynchings were the result of an uncovered sexual relationship. In spite of blatant sexism and racism, Ida B. Wells ran her own newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech and Highlight, and later helped found the NAACP.
- Nellie Bly and the Muckrakers
Born Elizabeth Cochran, Nellie Bly followed the example of other female journalists of her era, adopting a pen name upon beginning her career as a journalist in 1885 with the Pittsburgh Dispatch. As a woman in an inherently misogynistic industry, she resisted her editors’ attempts to confine her to fashion and entertainment coverage. Eventually she was hired by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where she completed her magnum opus in investigative journalism: Ten Days in A Madhouse. Posing as intellectually disabled, Bly was committed to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City, where she was forced to eat rancid food, and take baths in ice water, and where she witnessed doctors abusing their patients. Her work spurred a formal investigation of asylums nationwide and led to meaningful reform in the care of the mentally ill. Over the course of her three decades in the field, she traveled around the world in 72 days, infiltrated sweatshops to expose labor conditions, and covered the women’s suffrage movement.
Bly’s work inspired a number of other muckrakers, who sought to bring social justice through writing during the Progressive Era. Within the three decades following the start of Bly’s career,, Ida Tarbell exposed corruption within Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair’s exposé on the meatpacking industry led directly to the creation of the Food and Drug Act, and Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis worked to educate the public on the truth of child labor and tenement housing, respectively.
- Seymour Hersh
Not all investigative journalists have the support of mainstream publications. That was the case with freelance journalist Seymour Hersh, who in 1969, after extensive research, discovered that American troops had massacred 504 unarmed civilians in My Lai, South Vietnam a year early, covering up the incident as a misunderstood search-and-destroy mission. Moreover, when 30 people were found to have knowledge of the atrocity, only 14 were charged, and all but one were acquitted. Hersh’s story contained graphic descriptions of the war, and he did not hesitate to paint negative pictures of American troops at a time when unflinching patriotism was expected of the press. Although the Vietnam War had been controversial from its start, the exposure of the My Lai Massacre largely turned American public opinion against the conflict for good.
- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
No list of significant journalism would be complete without the story that brought down a presidency. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were relatively young reporters at The Washington Post when they were tasked with covering a break-in at the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Through painstaking months of investigation, the pair connected the break-in back to the Richard Nixon campaign, eventually exposing the extensive, illegal wiretapping the president had ordered within the White House. Despite regular attacks on The Post from the Nixon Administration, Bernstein and Woodward were dedicated to preserving the anonymity of their sources, gaining the trust of those they interviewed. Their detective work made it possible for them to expose the entire conspiracy without having a single interview with Nixon himself. The president resigned in 1974, two months after the release of Woodward and Bernstein’s book All The President’s Men.
- Glenn Greenwald
In May 2013, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian was approached by an anonymous source —
later revealed to be former NSA Analyst Edward Snowden—that claimed to have access to secret government documents revealing that the American public did not live as privately as it believed. The National Security Association PRISM Program, deemed constitutional under the Protect America Act, gave the government the right to access any private citizen’s Internet search history and emails in order to address foreign threats. Greenwald’s story broke at the same time as Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman’s, earning both newspapers the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. By this time, the social internet had become an integral part of many people’s lives, and the revelations were shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter, opening the floodgates for debates and perspectives from people across the country.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We live now in the digital age of investigative journalism. Almost everyone in America now has access to the largest information archive known to man, and it’s small enough to fit in our pockets. But in spite of this vast network, we have seen a decline in the type of worldview-shaking investigations that grace this list, largely because the culture of newsrooms have evolved with social media.
A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that 43% of U.S. adults get their news from social media or news websites. Often stories are glanced over in the rabbit hole of our feeds, and eye-popping headlines are utilized to try to encourage clicks. The result is our current climate of discourse, in which outrageous revelations precipitate day after day, disappearing into space with little thought. Furthermore, a story does not need to be complete to be memorable, and many news corporations have found themselves apologizing to their viewers for misinformation in hastily published stories.
We don’t yet have the perspective to process the effects of this new reporting, but the investigative journalists of the past may have had a few suggestions for improvement. All of these examples share one common trait: these writers believed in meticulous research and in-depth personal interviews, and refrained from publishing until the entire story could be eloquently told. They valued the integrity of their subjects first and the popularity of their corporations second, and saw themselves as protectors of the oppressed. It has been some time since a news story had the power to stop us in our tracks the way the NSA leaks did, or radically reshape history to the extent of Watergate or the My Lai Cover-Up. Perhaps the new generation of reporters rising through the ranks will harken back to the roots of a fading genre begging to make a comeback.
Rachael Powles is a first-year Theatre Studies and Culture and Communications major who hopes to be on this list someday.