Friday, November 20, 2009

beginning, middle and, um, end?

ProPublica columnist Stephen Engelberg muses on why some stories take on lives of their own -- and others die a slow death on the bottom of page 18. Back in June a joint ProPublica-Washington Post story revealed that the Obama administration was "strongly considering criminal charges in federal court for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and three other detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.’’

No notice whatsoever. Either in Congress or the blogosphere.

But this week, the story erupted anew -- and caught fire:

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Mohammed and four others would be tried in New York federal court, the journalistic and political worlds exploded. Republicans and some Democrats condemned the idea as misguided, naïve and downright dangerous. Families of the 9/11 victims were outraged.

The question of why and when a particular development ignites broader passions is one of journalism’s enduring mysteries. Reporters and editors are notoriously poor at forecasting when a story will erupt. We’re steeped in our material and can lose the sense of how our work might be perceived by the wider public.

The problem of not being able to predict what will catch and what won't, engelberg writes, might be one reason why low-on-resources news orgs may be backing away from investigative reporting. That lack of predictability may be due to one of the truths of journalism. We never know the ending:

But we have also been too early – or too late – and watched seemingly compelling stories get lost in the clamor of viral videos, cheating starlets, mendacious beauty queens. Investigative reporters are the wildcat oil prospectors of journalism. We sink a lot of wells, and it’s sometimes a surprise when we hit a gusher. This uncertainty is an essential aspect of investigative reporting. And it’s why cash-strapped news organizations are backing away from it. No one can say how a story will end. And no one can really predict what it will accomplish. It makes the field alluring and sometimes maddening.

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