Power of investigative journalism is celebrated in new book and Raleigh event

Pat Stith, former investigative reporter for The News & Observer and winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Pat Stith, former investigative reporter for The News & Observer and winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Courtesy of James T. Hamilton

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Pat Stith said the best source of his long career was someone you might not expect – a housewife from Wilson whose name he still keeps secret decades later.

She was well connected to state officials and federal agents, and had an intolerance for people who “colored outside the lines,” Stith said. “She would drop a dime on ’em.”

Because even people you maybe wouldn’t expect value the truth – and the truth is the currency of journalists around the world.

Stith talked about the value of investigative journalism Thursday night at the N.C. Museum of History.

James T. Hamilton, Hearst professor of communication and director of the journalism program at Stanford University, joined Stith, former News & Observer investigative reporter and winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, to discuss the value of investigative journalism. Stith, 74, of Knightdale, worked at the N&O from 1971 to 2008, and is now retired.

Hamilton’s book, “Democracy Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism” outlines the real-world effects of investigative journalism. In the book, he uses an in-depth case study of Stith’s work – more than 150 investigations that led to the passage of dozens of state laws.

When Stith wrote about a payroll error at the N.C. Department of Transportation, more than 12,000 state employees repaid the state $2.4 million.

When Stith reported that Gov. Jim Hunt used state-owned aircraft for campaigning, Hunt’s Senate campaign reimbursed the state $415,000.

When Stith showed that three nursing homes in Eastern North Carolina had been overpaid by the state, the operator was ordered to repay $300,000.

Hamilton said the direct financial impact of 26 of Stith’s stories prompted $4.7 million in repayment, reimbursement, fines or other transfers of funds. Hamilton adjusted all of the dollar amounts to their 2013 value.

Much of the public is either hostile or indifferent to us, and I’m not sure which is worse.

John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer

Stith’s work led to resignations, firings, demotions, investigations and reform. In more than 10 percent of Stith’s investigations, he caused a law to be passed, Hamilton said.

But these are perilous times for American journalists and journalism, N&O executive editor John Drescher told the crowd of about 300 people Thursday night.

“The president of the United States has declared us an enemy of the people,” Drescher said. “Much of the public is either hostile or indifferent to us, and I’m not sure which is worse.”

So Hamilton and Stith told their stories – how Stith earned the trust of sources to reveal corruption and injustice and how Hamilton used Stith and other journalists to determine the value of their work.

“In the past, we’ve been reluctant to talk about ourselves because it seemed immodest and self-congratulatory,” Drescher said. “But we must remind the American people of the crucial role that journalists play in our democracy.”

Investigative journalism is expensive, Hamilton said. And the papers that produce it often don’t see a financial benefit. A 2008 N&O investigation into the state’s probation system cost the paper more than $200,000 over six months to produce but resulted in a net benefit to society of about $62 million, Hamilton said. The investigation uncovered that those on probation often received little or no supervision and more than 550 offenders had been convicted of killing someone since 2000 while on probation.

I enjoyed newspaper work so much that I thought I might die at my desk.

Pat Stith, retired News & Observer investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner

“You’ve got original work that’s costly, the benefits flow to many people but not necessarily the people who created it, that’s positive spillovers,” Hamilton said. “And then somebody wants to keep it secret – that’s the government.”

Investigative journalism can be dangerous. Stith said he was threatened, and one time, had to take the numbers off his mailbox when covering the mafia’s involvement in cigarette smuggling out of North Carolina.

“It got me into warm water with a new neighbor,” Stith joked. “He didn’t want anybody mistaking his house for mine.”

But Hamilton and Stith are hopeful about the future of investigative journalism.

Technology has made it easier to mine data, Hamilton said, as journalists learn to write code to sort through thousands of documents. And the Internet is a powerful tool that journalists 50 years ago couldn’t dream of, Stith said. Hamilton said his journalism program is drawing more applicants now than ever before.

“One way you can help journalists is subscribe or donate because there are still stories that have a fixed cost that are really tough,” Hamilton said.

“I enjoyed newspaper work so much that I thought I might die at my desk,” Stith said. “It was especially good at The News & Observer because if we could find it and prove it and it was interesting, The News & Observer would publish it. Nobody and no thing was off limits and that was true then and it’s still true today.”

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett