Investigative Journalism

  • Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

    Sarah Brasse
    Sarah Brasse

    In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

    In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

    CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

    Her name was Sarah Brasse.

    It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

    In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

    And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

    But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.

  • San Antonio lawyer Alberto Acevedo says he bribed judge, got favorable treatment

    Express-News Reporter Guillermo Contreras, who covers the federal-courts beat, has been writing scoop after scoop about an FBI investigation at the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The latest bombshell is a story about this plea deal for local defense lawyer Alberto “Al” Acevedo Jr., who lays out in excruciating detail how he bribed Bexar County District Judge Angus McGinty by giving him cash, paying for car repairs and selling the judge’s Mercedes for him:

    “In exchange for these bribes, Judge McGinty provided favorable judicial rulings which benefited me and my clients,” Acevedo says in the court document. “Judge McGinty provided these favorable judicial rulings as requested, and as opportunities arose. These favorable rulings included leniency at sentencing and less restrictive conditions of release.”

    San Antonio lawyer AcevedoThe clients included a man who was convicted of DWI and sentenced by McGinty to three years imprisonment. In court, McGinty had said the defendant had committed so many offenses it didn’t make any sense to put him on probation. Yet after Acevedo asked him to reduce the sentence, the judge did just that and sentenced him to four years community supervision:

    On Sept. 10, Gabriel A. Lopez stood before then-state District Judge Angus McGinty and received three years in prison and a $1,500 fine for his no-contest plea to drunken driving.

    He admitted his blood alcohol level was 0.21 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit. It was his third driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

    “There comes a time when someone has committed so many offenses that it doesn’t make sense to put them on probation,” McGinty told Lopez, 35, who appeared with attorney Leandro Renaud.

    The judge noted Lopez had 11 prior criminal cases and had received probation four times, while three of those were revoked.

    “That’s unacceptable, Mr. Lopez,” McGinty admonished. “I do not think probation is appropriate.”

    But just three days later, on Sept. 13, Lopez stood before McGinty again, this time with lawyer Al Acevedo Jr. And this time, he walked out a happier man after the judge changed Lopez’s sentence to four years of probation.

    “Mr. Lopez, when you were here last, and I sentenced you, it’s because I thought you had earned the right to go to” prison, McGinty said. “Your attorney has done a good job of pointing out some facts that I didn’t adequately consider before.”

    In reality, the FBI has alleged, Acevedo had the good graces of the judge because he had served as McGinty’s personal car service — paying for repairs on the jurist’s two luxury cars with the expectation that the scales of justice would tilt heavily in favor of Acevedo’s clients.

    Later, Acevedo’s law partner congratulated Acevedo. “I guess it does make a difference givin’, givin’ people money, right?”

    Acevedo laughed. “Sure does,” he replied.

    Other clients that benefited from the judge’s leniency included an alleged bank robber and a man charged with aggravated robbery.

    McGinty resigned after word of the federal investigation spread but hasn’t yet been charged.

  • Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

    IRE Conference 2013

    Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.

  • Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

    IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

    I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

    This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.

  • The declining state of investigative journalism

    American Journalism Review delved into the declining state of investigative journalism last week with articles and videos that quantified what’s been lost — and what might be gained:


  • Investigative shortfall: “Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether.”
  • The nonprofit explosion: Investigative nonprofit news organizations are sprouting up across the country. But there are pitfalls: “Whether carried out by a CEO or a development pro, fundraising is a consuming and never-ending quest at journalism nonprofits, as much a part of their business as advertising sales are to a publisher in the traditional media world. With the task come issues that are foreign to newsgatherers. Precisely what money to take under what conditions requires often thorny ethical decisions. Just because money comes from civic-minded foundations or deep-pocketed do-gooders does not mean it is free of strings or baggage.”
  • Living the Dream: A profile of the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism: “These are not suits who ran newsrooms. Most of these people starting these are rank-and-file reporters. It’s like reporters and editors taking over the profession.”
  • Watchdog blog roundup for 5-24-10

    Hand Press

    What others are saying about watchdog journalism:

  • JimmyCsays: How the Kansas City Star is relying on in-depth stories: “The plan hinges on developing a lineup of reporters who can consistently deliver front-page, “enterprise” stories — articles that spring primarily from recent news developments. Where breaking news is the engine of a paper, enterprise stories — in combination with graphics, photos and packaging — flesh out the machine and make it whole.”
  • Philadelphia Inquirer: Why Brian Tierney loved the news business: “No disrespect to TastyKake, but we aren’t delivering krimpets. We are delivering investigative journalism. We are giving voice to the little guy getting picked on. That is the part that is exhilarating.”
  • Media Matters: Conservative think tanks and free-market groups, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, are hiring investigative reporters.
  • ‘A need to investigate the bastards’

    Revenue for nonprofit news organizations
    Budgets of nonprofit news organizations
    Columbia Journalism review posted an interesting feature story about nonprofit investigative news organizations, and how they take different approaches to funding and sharing their content. The CJR story opens with a telling anecdote about a meeting at California Watch. At the meeting, the editors agree that one of their reporters, after months of digging, has uncovered a big story:

    But then the conversation veered in a direction unfamiliar to traditional newsrooms. Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners. California Watch’s donors—at this point, a handful of high-powered foundations—expect it to publish high-impact investigative journalism about California as widely as possible.

    My favorite line: How journalists are a persistent bunch and continue to push for ways to do watchdog journalism. “I do have a need to investigate the bastards,” said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity.

    My only quibble with this story is that it has a Texas-sized hole: There’s no mention of the Texas Tribune or Texas Watchdog. Wuh?

  • Watchdog blog roundup for 4-21-10

    What others are saying about watchdog journalism:

  • Jane Podesta: Lou Grant-style editor J. Todd Foster didn’t cut back on investigative journalism at his small newspaper, which won a Pulitzer Prize.
  • Close-up of a centuries-old handpress

  • Nieman Journalism Lab: High-quality investigative journalism can’t rely on just one or two sources of cash. Texas Tribune Founder John Thornton says news ventures must rely on “revenue promiscuity.”
  • David Eaves: Debunking five myths about old and new media.
  • Bronstein at Large: Phil Bronstein interviews Bill Gates about social media, the future of investigative journalism, and how he likes the iPad.
  • Video: How a journalist uncovered fraud in a $350 million child-care program

    Video of investigative reporter Raquel Rutledge

    Rosland Gammon had an interesting Q&A with investigative reporter Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who uncovered rampant fraud in a $350 million, taxpayer-subsidized child-care program. Her series of stories, Cashing in on Kids, led to criminal charges against the scammers.

    A video profiling Rutledge offers a glimpse at the tedious grunt work required to get the story. Rutledge relied on insiders with access to key documents, and she staked out people who were abusing the system.

    After months of work, here was the lede for her first story:

    On paper Angela Hale is a child-care provider.

    She reported taking care of the same five kids seven days a week while their mom supposedly worked at a lawn-care service, even in the winter months.

    The government paid Hale more than $30,000 last year for her child-care business.

    It appears the government got duped. Hale didn’t care for the kids at times she said she did, nor did the mom legitimately work, the Journal Sentinel found.

    The newspaper spent four months investigating the $340 million taxpayer-financed child-care system known as Wisconsin Shares and uncovered a trail of phony companies, fake reports and shoddy oversight.

    Maybe investigative journalists — whether they work in newspapers, broadcast, or online — need to produce more of these “How We Did It” videos. They might help bridge the disconnect between the public perception of what reporters do, and the reality of what they do. “Investigative reporting requires a lot of shoe leather work — knocking on doors, tracking people down, and a lot of research,” Rutledge said in the video.

    That kind of work takes time — and money.

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