American Culture

What journalists can do: The AP's water story

You probably haven’t heard of Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard. But because of them, you may be thinking twice about the water you drink — especially if you live in Philadelphia.

Mr. Donn, Ms. Mendoza, and Mr. Pritchard wrote and reported the story that reveals “[a] vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.” (Elsewhere at S&R, my colleague Martin discusses what this all means.)

The three reporters did extensive work on this story:

Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation’s 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states.

Journalists broke this story. Not a government agency. Not a corporation. Not a whistleblower. Not a blogger. Well-trained, experienced journalists did — with the backing of a news organization willing to dedicate resources to do for the public what governments and corporations can’t, won’t or don’t.

Mr. Pritchard is “news editor in the Los Angeles bureau of The Associated Press. He won a 2004 Polk Award for his series examining the disproportionate on-the-job death rates among Mexican-born workers in the United States. He completed the award-winning ‘Dying to Work’ series [while] an AP reporter in San Francisco.”

Ms. Mendoza is an AP national correspondent based in San Jose, Calif. She has written about the dangers of birth control patches; the sad struggle of a bitterly divided family over the remains of a soldier killed in Iraq; and how “government red tape has hampered many who ache to help Katrina’s victims.”

Mr. Donn is a northeast regional reporter based in Boston. His reporting includes stories about the similar but inadequate health care most Americans receive; chipped thermal tiles in the shuttle Discovery; medical studies concerning drug and radiation treatment for breast cancer and side effects of the drug Plavix; and the search for an explanation of declining lobster catches off the Atlantic coast.

The AP has 1,700 member newspapers. Not all newspapers would run this story, but most of the dailies would likely do so because this topic impacts so many readers. That means up to 50 million newspaper were printed today containing this story. That gives the work of Mr. Pritchard, Mr. Donn, and Ms. Mendoza broad reach. Millions will read it; millions will react to it. Many of those millions will demand action by government at all levels.

What these three reporters have done, with the support of their employer, is hold government accountable in a manner a blog such as S&R cannot do through dint of far fewer resources.

This story is an example of what the authors of the First Amendment intended: The press is protected from interference by government. The press, in turn, is expected to protect the citizens from the government. That’s precisely what the Associated Press and these three reporters have done.

This story represents what news organizations ought to be “branding” and “selling”: a better product, such as this well-researched look at the water 41 million people drink.

S&R writers and many others have argued that the current business model for journalism, focused on short-term profits for investors, has diluted the quantity of quality journalism by reducing the resources necessary to produce it.

Stories like this cost money. The AP invested heavily in it, detailing three reporters’ time over five months and the financial burden of testing water supplies. If the trend toward diminution of resources in news organizations continues, fewer stories such as as this will be placed in front of fewer readers as newspaper circulations continue to decline.

That will a loss for the public, because governments and corporations will receive far less searching examination by the very people trained to do so — journalists.

Even in this era of corporate-controlled journalism companies, reporters can often do important work that no one else can. Consider that as you fill your glass from your kitchen tap.

7 replies »

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  2. Nice article, Doc. In keeping with points I’ve made before (and I’m sure you’re tired of hearing), I think it’s significant that the AP makes its money on surfacing content. In other words, their journalists make money for them instead of being considered a cost of doing business. A good story gets picked up in more places and generates more money for the AP.

    The part of the media that depends mostly on advertising for revenue is the part that’s sucking wind, assuming that ad revenues are down (as they are for newspapers).

    To badly belabor a point, newspapers need to find a way to make money on content, and that probably requires a change in law.

  3. We often carp about what journalism has become and complain that it could be, SHOULD be, doing better.

    How wonderful to have the point so well illustrated.

  4. Kudos for giving praise where it’s due. We can often be too quick with the stick and not generous enough with the carrot.

  5. I’m writing a speech for a college class and will be refering to the AP probe. What I’m wondering is: What prompted the probe? When my mother died of cancer, a friend of mine asked a scientist at the place where she works, Why is there such a high rate of cancer in Arkansas? He was quick to answer, Because of the medical waste disposal plant at Texarkana. That was 8 years ago, but nobody seems to have done anything about it. Does no one care that our ground water is killing us?

  6. This is the kind of journalism that I’d love to do, but can’t. No media outlet would ever pay me what I need to make to cover my various debts and maintain my standard of living, and deep investigative reporting like this takes a huge amount of time. The times I’ve tried it took a solid a month of my free time (part time, of course – the day job takes precedence) to do what I felt was a decent job.

    The world, not just the U.S., needs more reporting like this, not less. Alas, that’s not the trend today, and people like me, working for free or even a dollar or two a word, can’t make ends meet doing journalism like this. The only “journalism” that seems to pay any more is the kind that chases down Brittney and Paris. And that’s just not real journalism.