John Drescher

Lessons from a book and a trial: The N&O will keep digging

After the student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill was killed in March 2008 by two men on probation, The News & Observer reported deeply on North Carolina’s probation system.

In 10 stories published over three days in late 2008, we found that those on probation often received little or no supervision. Probation officers couldn’t find 13,000 offenders. More than 550 offenders had been convicted of killing someone since 2000 while on probation.

The state responded with changes. Probation officers were given new powers to search offenders and more access to juvenile records. The state also developed a deeper database that allows officers to see whether a person they encountered was wanted for avoiding supervision. And the state added probation officers.

In a new book published by Harvard University Press, “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism,” former Duke economist James T. Hamilton puts a dollar figure on the value of those changes. Hamilton, who was educated at Harvard and now teaches at Stanford, estimates that improvements made by the state led to at least eight fewer homicides in North Carolina in 2010.

Using federal figures on the statistical value of a life (based on wage studies), Hamilton says the eight deaths averted by the policy changes were worth $73 million. The state spent $11 million to improve the probation system for a net benefit of about $62 million. Hamilton acknowledges this is a rough calculation but says the benefits to North Carolina of an improved probation system are real.

“Yet if these reforms had the desired impact, those who would not be murdered because of the new policies arising from the paper’s accountability journalism would not know to thank the newspaper,” Hamilton writes.

The N&O spent about $200,000 to produce the series but reaped little financial benefit. This kind of reporting doesn’t sell newspapers; big sports victories, such as an NCAA men’s basketball championship or a Stanley Cup win by the Carolina Hurricanes, sell papers. Digital readership also generates revenue for us, but we’d get more digital traffic during the course of a year if a reporter published a story every day and not just a few investigative stories a year.

Sometimes our investigative reporting is unpopular with a segment of the public, as with our coverage of the athletic and academic scandals at UNC-Chapel Hill during the past six years. When our reporting is widely praised, it can help The N&O’s reputation, or “brand,” but that is difficult to measure, Hamilton writes.

“The benefits of public policy changes ... are widely dispersed across readers and nonreaders, and the paper cannot capture a fraction of the value produced,” he writes.

Libel trial

The N&O’s reporting plays a prominent role in Hamilton’s book. Our investigative reporting has been in the news recently but not in a way we wanted. A Wake County jury found that we libeled a state employee in our 2010 series about the SBI, “Agents’ Secrets.” Much of that series, including the two stories that were the subject of the trial, focused on the state crime lab, which then was part of the State Bureau of Investigation.

After the series was published, more than a dozen changes were made, including making all lab reports and bench notes available to prosecutors and defense lawyers; requiring all forensic scientists to be certified; eliminating the unit that did bloodstain pattern analysis; and requiring cameras to be used in the firearms section.

The fourth day of the series raised questions about the lab work and court testimony of a firearms analyst in the crime lab. That analyst sued us, and the jury said she should receive about $9 million from The N&O.

Her lawyer said during the recent trial that The N&O treated his client like “collateral damage in a war.” Collateral damage is when a bystander is injured during combat. The firearms analyst was not a bystander; she was a key player in two related murder trials. Questions were raised about her work and testimony, and we reported on those questions. We believe we reported accurately, but the jury found otherwise. We will appeal the verdict and large financial awards.

Keep digging

As Hamilton points out in his book, The N&O hasn’t shied away from reporting on difficult issues. We’re not going to shy away now.

In recent years, North Carolina governors and others have made it more difficult to get public records. When that happens, we sometimes take legal action, as we did against Govs. Mike Easley and Pat McCrory. That’s a cost we’d rather not incur but if we have to, we will.

As for the recent trial, we will learn from the scrutiny and get better. As Hamilton shows in his book, the benefits of investigative reporting to North Carolina are substantial.

We’re a business but we’re a different kind of business. We have a strong bent toward public service. Reporting on difficult issues is a vital part of our mission. We will keep reporting. We will keep digging.