Ryan Gabrielson (left) chats with pre-journalism student Akram Kateregga at a March 28 reception in the School of Journalism. (Photo by Eric Swedlund)
Investigative reporting doesn’t need the biggest newsrooms or the biggest budgets to have a major impact.
Ryan Gabrielson, a University of Arizona journalism alumnus, won a Pulitzer Prize working at a suburban newspaper, toiling through massive amounts of law enforcement data until a troubling conclusion became clear. Gabrielson knew the story was there and chased it relentlessly, as he told a crowd of journalism students March 27 as part of the visit sponsored by the UA chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Any newsroom anywhere can produce powerful journalism,” Gabrielson said.
Gabrielson told of getting his start as an intern at the Northwest Explorer. He was hired so the paper’s senior writer could concentrate on investigating stories about nightclub violence and police corruption. Gabrielson says he was “rapt” watching the work unfold over 18 months into an air-tight series of deeply researched, fact-based stories that cost the Marana police chief his job.
“Great investigative reporters are typically more tenacious than brilliant,” Gabrielson said during his presentation “The News is dead, long live the News: Why journalism’s future rests on digging, storytelling and the death of gimmickry.”
Those gimmicks – like “charticles” and non-news slideshows of kittens and bikinis – aren’t luring sufficient readers or revenues. Solid reporting that falls into two camps – community curators and watchdogs – is the only real value that news organizations can bring to their communities.
“Right now is the time for all of us to dig deeper and do better,” says Gabrielson, who took the lessons he learned from his UA journalism classes and experience on the Daily Wildcat and the Northwest Explorer to The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and then the East Valley Tribune. At the Tribune, Gabrielson and fellow UA journalism alumnus Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for stories showing how Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s focus on immigration enforcement disrupted the agency, undermined investigations and emergency response.
Now a public safety reporter at California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, Gabrielson recently won his second George Polk Award for Investigative Reporting for his stories on police failures to protect developmentally disabled adults in the state’s care.
Long-form investigative journalism is time-consuming, difficult and even risky, but reporters who keep pushing to find information, keep at their sources, and keep refusing to take no for an answer will find a way to the truth, Gabrielson said.
“Investigative projects never go in a straight line,” Gabrielson said. “Investigative reporting relies on momentum.”
The sustainability of the non-profit model – like California Watch – is just as shaky as the for-profit model and the biggest unknown for the future is just where the money will come from for long-term, dedicated investigations. But local beat reporting, where Gabrielson said most of the best investigative ideas come from, is suffering as well.
The series of stories that earned Gabrielson his latest Polk award started by accident, he said, with a tip about alleged overtime fraud in a police force he’d never heard of. Along the way, Gabrielson discovered a report the California Attorney General commissioned that found the police officers at the Office of Protective Services didn’t know how to collect physical evidence.
Gabrielson wrote the overtime fraud story, but the deeper investigation uncovered systemic failures and abuse at the Office of Protective Services, the state agency responsible for policing California’s developmental centers for the disabled.
“When you find out police aren’t doing their job and people with cerebral palsy are being abused, how do you not to that story,” he said.
When his first public records request only yielded hundreds of pages of blacked out documents, Gabrielson worked at building sources. He constructed “document family trees,” learning what goes into the documents and everyone who touches them along the way. By working around the bureaucracy, he didn’t end up needing the documents the state was attempting to hide.
“I never just wait. I’m a big believer of simultaneously going in multiple directions,” Gabrielson said.
Gabrielson answered audience questions about facing pushback for his work (which he welcomes, knowing his stories are backed up by the facts), getting ideas for investigative stories (through tips, sometimes, but the best ones usually come out of beat reporting) and what challenges he faces during an investigation.
“The hardest part of investigative reporting is how long it takes. You have to fight that feeling that you’re running in cement and you’re fighting against powers that you feel are way beyond you,” he said. “Most investigative reporters doubt themselves, so I report like crazy to make sure the tip I get checks out.”
— Eric Swedlund
Eric Swedlund is a freelance journalist and 2002 graduate of the UA journalism program.