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The impact of investigative news coverage

The news gathering business is not what it used to be. That is especially true in local communities where there is a lack of investigative reporting to hold the powerful accountable, to record history, to celebrate and to inform. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, tells us that journalism “is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

Unfortunately, newspapers in particular have been on a downward spiral for more than 40 years. Meanwhile, digital news sources are on the upswing, as people are using their mobile devices to stay informed of breaking news alerts. The breaking news alerts have value, but they don’t replace the in-depth investigative reporting that provides the type of coverage needed to keep the general population informed.

Fortunately in North Carolina a handful of online investigative news sources, such as The Assembly, Carolina Public Press and Asheville Watchdog, are working to fill the void.

It’s no secret that technology and lifestyle changes contributed to the consistent decline of traditional newspapers, a decline that impacts democracy in the United States and North Carolina. News organizations such as the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and national cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC continue to provide in-depth national and international coverage. However, they are not providing the in-depth coverage needed at state houses, including the North Carolina Legislature.

An initiative called Press Forward, coordinated by the MacArthur Foundation in cooperation with 20 nonprofit organizations plans to invest $500 million over the next five years in local media organizations. That is a significant infusion of dollars to address the predicament of local news. The initiative will invest in nonpartisan efforts to provide access to news that is important to residents and voters.

It is crucial that news organizations hold elected officials accountable for their policymaking. A case in point is House Bill 259, the appropriations bill that funds state agencies, departments and institutions, that became law in October 2023. The Republican-controlled legislature inserted language into the bill that gives them the authority to appoint special Superior Court Judges to eight-year terms without oversight and exempts them from the state public records law, allowing them withhold their documents from public view.

They also inserted language that empowers the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, or GovOps, to investigate state and local government agencies, as well as private companies and charities that received taxpayer funding. Public employees contacted by investigators would be required to keep those communications and requests for information confidential. One Democratic lawmaker compared the new powers to setting up a new government “Gestapo,” a comparison to Nazi Germany. There will be severe penalties for not cooperating with an investigation, which could cost jobs and result in criminal charges.

The role of newspapers and other media is to shed light on this type of legislation by keeping the public informed. While some state news organizations covered these add-ons to the budget bill, local news outlets don’t have the staff or resources to provide their readers with adequate coverage of the legislature and how the laws they pass affect them.

The decline of newspaper readership gives legislators and government officials the freedom to enact legislation that is often not in the best interest of the public. Rather it is in the best interest of the politicians and their desire to remain in power and control the state for their political party. This has been clear with gerrymandering, a strategy that disenfranchises voters, and with the attack on public education, with the push for more charter and private schools.

Voters have to do their own due diligence to find out the potential impact of laws passed by state lawmakers . Unfortunately, they cannot count on newspapers, as times have changed forever. The investment by the MacArthur Foundation and other foundations is an important step in reshaping the news and information landscape.

Here are other strategies voters can utilize:

1. Follow reliable online news sources: While traditional newspapers may be declining, there are still many reliable online news sources available. Readers can follow reputable news websites.

2. Check the legislature's website: The North Carolina General Assembly's website provides access to bills, committee meetings, and other information related to the legislative process. Readers can check the website to find out what is happening in the legislature.

3. Follow legislators' social media: Legislators often post updates and information on their social media accounts. By following their accounts, readers can stay informed about their actions and positions.

4. Attend public hearings: The legislature holds public hearings on bills, and attending these hearings provides an opportunity to learn more about proposed legislation and provide input. Readers can find information on hearings by checking the legislature's website or contacting their representatives.

5. Engage with advocacy groups: There are many advocacy groups working to hold legislators accountable and promote transparency in government. Readers can engage with these groups to stay informed and get involved in advocacy efforts.

Stay informed to make sure legislators serve their constituents’ interest, not their own. If not, use the power of the ballot box to replace them.

Virgil L. Smith formerly served as president and publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Vice President for Human Resources for the Gannett Company. He is the principal for the Smith Edwards Group and the author of "The Keys to Effective Leadership.” He is the founder and a writer for Carolina Commentary.

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