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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles about finance, health and food from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations. The publication's bi-monthly circulation is approximately 10,000. To support JPR and receive your copy in the mail every other month become a Member today!CURRENT ISSUE

Investing In Investigative Journalism

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Wanyu Zhang/NPR
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NPR's Cheryl W. Thompson will lead the Station Investigations Team.

One of the tenets of public radio is to create news stories with substance and depth – stories that get to the heart of the issues we cover.

Central to that effort is the work of trained journalists telling stories rooted in facts and data. While every news story we produce is built on this foundation, some stories require a greater level of data analysis, research and investigation based on their complexity. Telling these stories requires sustained inquiries conducted over longer periods of time than is common for typical news stories. In journalism circles, this work is referred to as investigative journalism.

Story-Based Inquiry, an investigative journalism handbook published by UNESCO, defines investigative journalism as reporting that “involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed–either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding.”

For me, when I think of investigative journalism, I think of the long-running CBS television program 60 Minutes. While the program has changed over the years, when it was launched in 1968 it pioneered a unique style of reporter-centered investigations that popularized investigative journalism. I can still hear that stopwatch ticking throughout the show.

We’ll work with NPR to analyze public records data and expand on April’s original reporting to produce a national story about problems FEMA has exhibited in getting aid to fire victims throughout the West.

As you might imagine, investigative journalism is very resource intensive – requiring a time-consuming systematic approach that relies heavily on primary sources, scrupulous fact-checking and rigorous testing of hypotheses. It has, therefore, been the domain mostly of national and large market news organizations. Until now.

In February, NPR announced the formation of the Station Investigations Team, a newly established unit at NPR specifically designed to collaborate with member stations to report on ambitious investigative projects. The team is led by Cheryl W. Thompson, an award-winning investigative reporter and 22-year veteran of The Washington Post who joined NPR in 2019. The team also includes a producer and a data editor who will advise station reporters and provide technical help with data collection, analysis and freedom of information requests. The goal of the unit is to have station reporters, who are closer to the issues in their communities, take the lead on investigations with the support and expertise of the NPR team.

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April Ehrlich

One of the first projects the NPR Station Investigations Team will take on is working with JPR reporter April Ehrlich to explore why as much as 85% of the more than 24,000 Oregonians who applied to FEMA for federal disaster assistance after the catastrophic 2020 wildfires were denied. We’ll work with NPR to analyze public records data and expand on April’s original reporting to produce a national story about problems FEMA has exhibited in getting aid to fire victims throughout the West. We expect that reporting to lead to several other follow-up stories on the issue. Look for the results of this reporting on JPR and at ijpr.org over the next few months.

The NPR Station Investigations Team is the latest component of the Collaborative Journalism Network being developed by NPR and member stations to create stronger local journalism across the country. The other main elements of the initiative include the creation of several regional news hubs in which NPR and station reporters routinely coordinate coverage of top regional issues, and implementation of topic teams that bring together station journalists and NPR journalists to cover pressing topics including health policy, education, state governance, energy/environment, military/veterans affairs, and criminal justice.

Here at JPR, we’ve worked hard, in partnership with listeners who support our mission, to build and sustain the organizational capacity of our newsroom to take on deeper, more sophisticated reporting projects like the one we’re taking on in collaboration with NPR. I hope you hear the result of those efforts every day you listen.

Paul Westhelle oversees management of JPR's service to the community.  He came to JPR in 1990 as Associate Director of Broadcasting for Marketing and Development after holding jobs in non-profit management and fundraising for a national health agency. He's a graduate of San Jose State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.