February 19, 2014

PUBLIC EDITOR | A Call to Increase Investigative Journalism

Print More

By NICHOLAS KAASIK

While the editors and reporters of The Sun continue their never-ending work seeking to better the quality of the newspaper, going forward, their efforts should focus on improving The Sun’s capacity for in-depth reporting. As my column previously called for in 2012, The Sun should focus more on going beyond talking points and press releases: It should continue developing its capacity for investigative journalism.

The Sun should give more meaning to this proclaimed independence by developing a greater capacity for conducting investigative reporting. It doesn’t really matter if The Sun is independent if its reporting is limited to faithfully regurgitating University press releases.

The pride and purpose of independent media organizations is to offer, when appropriate, a dissenting view: They may ask difficult questions and serve their essential role as watchdogs on behalf of their readership. The Sun’s masthead prominently displays the phrase “Independent Since 1880.” The Sun should give more meaning to this proclaimed independence by developing a greater capacity for conducting investigative reporting. It doesn’t really matter if The Sun is independent if its reporting is limited to faithfully regurgitating University press releases. It would be a shame if this is where the newspaper’s reporting ended.

Independence is a powerful, central characteristic of a great newspaper. The freedom to serve as a voice for the student body, not as an agent of the University, is one of the defining differences between The Sun and publications like the Cornell Chronicle. This distinction loses much of its significance, however, if The Sun’s coverage is limited to the reiteration of information issued by the Cornell Division of University Communications.

It is easy for me, as the Public Editor of The Sun, to call for investigative journalism from the sidelines. The much more difficult task is, of course, developing a capacity for and actually conducting such in-depth reporting. Quality investigative journalism may feel like (and may be) a high demand for a student newspaper staffed and run by volunteers. However, implementing more investigative journalism is a task important enough to The Sun’s readership to warrant pursuing. Watchdog journalism is a powerful tool that can improve our communities by holding those in power accountable to their actions, and there is no reason that this student paper shouldn’t provide this crucial service to the Cornell community.

The Sun should begin expanding its in-depth reporting by asking “why” more often. Asking “why” should become a central part of the paper’s news coverage. Often, the answer will be simple, uncontroversial and unworthy of further investigation or reporting. Still, failing to ask “why” may result in dire consequences, leaving The Sun ignorant to key opportunities for investigation or, when appropriate, muckraking. In short, “why” is the most important question an independent media organization could ever ask.

The editorial board of The Sun should also consider establishing an investigative reporting series, perhaps in a similar vein to The Ithaca Journal’s “Spotlight” exclusive reports that focus on in-depth reporting. A regular series dedicated to investigative pieces would encourage The Sun to appropriately attend to its role and responsibility as an independent media organization. Even when the news is lighter, as it is with some of the “Spotlight” reports, The Sun would still stand to gain from training that investigative muscle, preparing itself for future stories with greater potential for in-depth exploration.

Whether or not The Sun creates an investigative reporting series, it is important that the paper continues to ask “why.” Asking difficult questions and following up until adequate answers are received, or reporting on why the paper was unable to obtain a satisfactory answer, is a major way in which The Sun must differentiate itself from the Cornell Chronicle and other all-campus email announcements from University officials. Improving The Sun’s in-depth reporting will not only create a lasting positive legacy for the editorial board and the newspaper, but it will also benefit the entire Cornell community by ensuring that The Sun serves as a watchdog for all of us. I implore the editorial board to make this one of their prime contributions to our fair alma mater.

Nicholas Kaasik is a third year in the Cornell Law School and The Sun’s Public Editor. He may be reached at nek43@cornell.edu. The Public Editor’s column appears periodically this semester.