The Center for Investigative Reporting: Muckraking’s Robust Pioneer
by Mick O’Leary
Like many people (I suppose), I thought that redlining was a historical artifact, a legacy of segregation that was swept away by civil rights legislation in the 1960s. My misunderstanding was abruptly corrected when I came across Kept Out, a major investigation recently carried out by the Center for Investigative Reporting (revealnews.org).
The Center for Investigative Reporting
The Center for Investigative Reporting is one of the world’s leading investigative journalism organizations. With a large network of partners, it conducts an extensive, energetic, and widely heralded program to reveal incompetence and corruption in public and private institutions, primarily in the U.S.
Redlining refers to the practice of financial institutions denying mortgage loans in certain areas to people of color: On a local map, lenders would draw a red line around areas where mortgages were not available to nonwhites. Redlining was (supposedly) outlawed by the Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but Kept Out firmly demonstrates that redlining is still widely practiced in the U.S.
Kept Out (revealnews.org/topic/kept-out) is a massive, year-long investigation that studied 31 million mortgage lending records from 2015 to 2016. The dataset includes information such as the ethnicity and income of mortgage applicants. Lending patterns were rigorously analyzed and fact-checked by the Associated Press, a regular Center for Investigative Reporting partner. Released in 2018, Kept Out shows substantial and widespread discrimination against people of color, even when controlling for income, loan amount, and location. African Americans experienced the highest level of discrimination, but Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans were also victimized.
The Kept Out findings were published on Reveal, the center’s website, in several formats. The database itself can be downloaded or studied with an interactive map. Several textual reports were posted initially, with follow-ups as the story unfolded. Some of these reports analyze the data, while others recount firsthand stories of loan applicants. Podcasts and videos were also produced.
Kept Out has been widely studied, publicized, and discussed. It received several prominent journalism awards, and, more importantly, it has spurred several state investigations and proposed federal legislation.
Kept Out is just all in a day’s work for the Center for Investigative Reporting, one of the country’s most venerable and highly respected practitioners of investigative journalism. It was founded in 1977 as the nation’s first nonprofit investigative journalism organization. Its 67 employees produce dozens of reports annually. This energetic program is supported by 30 foundations as well as individual donations.
The great scope of the center’s investigations defies easy description. On the Reveal site, they are arranged into the following three broad categories:
- “Accountability” tackles incompetence, neglect, corruption, and crime by institutions both public and private.
- “Inequality” deals with the economic, political, and social exploitation of vulnerable populations and regions.
- “Sustainability” examines environmental degradation from climate change, pollution, resource extraction, and other trauma.
Each of these broad categories is divided into a dozen or so subtopics. A subtopic may contain additional groupings for story arcs, where a specific theme or event is followed in a related set of reports. There is a simple keyword search.
Reveal houses more than 3,200 reports, starting from 2002, with much smaller numbers of podcasts (almost 200) and videos (almost 100). Generally, the center’s work focuses on the U.S., at national, state, and local levels, although foreign entanglements inevitably occur and are covered.
Big investigations on the scale of Kept Out are just one type of research carried out by the center and published on Reveal. Many of its investigations are smaller, more-conventional reporting projects that are based on analysis of secondary sources. Reveal also publishes noteworthy reports from other investigative journalism organizations, including ProPublica, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the Center for Public Integrity. With this external content, Reveal is a sort of Reader’s Digest of the best work in investigative journalism.
The center’s reports are painstakingly and skillfully crafted. They combine exacting research and investigative zeal, knit together into compelling expositions and narratives. Articles are heavily linked to source documents and related content. Podcasts and videos are artfully designed and produced.
Investigative journalists are diligent at partnering, and many of the center’s projects are collaborations. Reveal lists 57 partners. Some are other large, prominent investigative journalism organizations; others are publications—such as The Washington Post and Mother Jones—that still carry out big investigations. Many partners are state and local newspapers and broadcast media, as well as smaller news and research organizations. These provide local connections or subject expertise and in turn can benefit from the center’s resources and expertise. Many of its investigations deal with matters at state and municipal levels.
The center has recently taken up the newest form of collaborative investigation: crowdsourcing or citizen science. Its #CitizenSleuth is a joint project with the Center for Public Integrity to investigate conflicts of interest and other chicanery in the current presidential administration. The two organizations have assembled a database of 400-plus administration appointees, along with their positions and their original public financial disclosure reports. Citizen sleuths can conduct their own independent research and add data on conflicts of interest, dubious employment and financial relations, and other swamp-like connections.
The center was founded in one of the golden ages of investigative journalism (don’t forget the muckrakers of the Progressive Era). Heroic efforts such as The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, The New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, and Seymour Hersh’s My Lai massacre disclosures spurred the resignation of a president, undermined trust in public institutions, and energized the watchdog role of investigative journalism.
Today, the conventional journalism infrastructure—newspapers and broadcast media at all levels—continues to contract and suffer as web properties take its readers, and thus its circulation and ad revenues. And yet, investigative journalism may be in another golden age, powered by innovation in its own business model. Newer investigative journalism properties—ProPublica, The Intercept, and The Marshall Project, to name just a few—now rely on deep-pocketed individuals, foundations, and individual donors for support. And their work meets the standards of their predecessors.
These new muckrakers are in debt to the Center for Investigative Reporting. As the first standalone, nonprofit investigative journalism project, it has been a pioneer and a role model for today’s vibrant era of investigative journalism.