Three Accountability Pieces To Learn From

By: JIE JENNY ZOU | Published: March 26, 2014

The following three projects and pieces won’t come as a surprise to those of you who regularly follow investigative projects and have probably already heard about/read, but I think they’re all great examples of the kind of journalism worth striving for.

#1 “Innocents Lost” The Miami Herald
This series documents the tragic fallout of a state agency tasked with protecting child welfare that resulted in hundreds of children who died of abuse and neglect.

What I found most heartbreaking, but also incredibly powerful, was a searchable database detailing 477 specific cases that contain photos, summaries, and linked documents. There are also videos and several stories exploring a myriad of angles including the role that Florida’s pill mills played in creating unstable and dangerous home environments for children.

Most importantly, the main bar is bolstered with an array of detailed charts and graphs that support the reporters’ findings that the deaths stemmed from a cutback in services by the agency. Often times, investigative reporters can be hard-pressed to find a handful or even a dozen real-life examples that illustrate the point of the story they’re pursuing. In this series, there were several hundred. Amazing.

Something that makes this particular series different–aside from its scope–is a townhall the paper will be hosting in April to discuss the series and “explore solutions.” I think it’s an interesting idea seeing as how a lot of traditional news journos tend to shy away from advocating specific problem-solving measures.


Nevertheless, I think it’s definitely a more engaging follow-up to an impactful series than simply having readers leaves voicemails on reporters’ desk phones or pen anonymous letters to the editor.

#2 “Toxic Trail” The Center for Investigative Reporting
There were several reasons why I was so stoked to read this series that looked at the waste trail for EPA-funded cleanup sites:

1. Because the world of journalism could use a dose of proactive, investigative, environmental journalism that ISN’T spurred by some catalysmic environmental disaster.

2. Because the world of journalism in Silicon Valley is long overdue for investigative journalism of any kind, and generally, any journalistic pieces that don’t contain the phrases “IPO” or “social media.”

3. Any investigative pieces about Superfund tend to be ‘Superfun’ to read as a former environmental science student.

4. Anyone who’s ever studied the principles of environmental remediation knows that a series like this was just absolutely RIPE since remediation often involves a long custody chain of hazardous wastes and byproducts that just get uprooted and deposited elsewhere. The threat of contamination lives on forever once an area has been contaminated, as one of my optimistic professors enjoyed saying.

5. BONUS: This guy named Toxic Jo, and a prodigy named Matt Drange.

#3 “County’s own 2010 report called slide area dangerous” The Seattle Times
Ok, so this isn’t a series and it’s only a couple of hundred words and there are no graphics or fancy bells and/or whistles. So why is this investigative look at a 2010 report extolling the potential dangers of the current mudslide disaster area in Snohomish, Washington, a must-read? I resort to a sub-list once more:

1. Often times, as is the case with most tragic events and disasters, local news media spend the immediate days of the event covering day-to-day progress and the 5Ws. The search for survivors in the Saturday mudslide is still ongoing–with 16 deaths confirmed thus far, but more missing and unaccounted for–but Times reporters have already started pursuing accountability pieces on deadline that directly engage with authorities’ claims the area was safe. It hasn’t even been a week yet, and here is another level of context provided by the local paper for readers trying to make sense of how this happened.

2. Also, unlike the other two, no fancy new-age skills were employed here–just good old fashioned document digging, shoeleather reporting, and a good example of not taking authorities on their word and checking the clips (in this case, previous years’ records).

3. Another example of the versatility and fabulousness that is Michael J. Berens, who has also written investigative pieces about methadone overdoses (which won a Pulitzer with Ken Armstrong) and elephants held captive in zoos.

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