My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On the Art of Investigative Journalism and Living

Investigative journalists should aspire to
shed light in the darkness.

I had a dinosaur moment two days ago, when the way I learned and lived my chosen profession of 20-plus years was described as nearly extinct -- or, at least, on the endangered species list. 

Jennifer Lahl, Producer of the award-winning documentary Eggsploitation was describing on Relevant Radio (950 AM WNTD, Chicago) her research into the practice of targeting female college students for egg harvesting. 

On college campuses across our nation, ads promise young women thousands of dollars for contributing their eggs to fertility clinics. Women with high SAT scores and the "right" color skin are a hot ticket item for this industry.

Lahl, President of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, suspected a scam. Some ads offer upwards of $100,000 for egg harvesting. There had to be a catch. 

Thankfully, Lahl wouldn't let the matter rest, and did some good, old-fashioned investigative journalism. She found female donors had suffered horrific side effects after undergoing ovarian hyperstimulation procedures used in egg harvesting. Many of these young women, sacrificing their bodies for profit (often to earn funds for repaying student loans), became permanently infertile. Others suffered strokes, comas and even death. Lahl publicized her findings in a documentary awarded "Best Documentary" this year at the 13th Annual California Independent Film Festival.

Relevant Radio asked Lahl how such abuses could persist and why this story wasn't covered by media.

This is where references to journalism came to the fore, and I perked up my ears even further. In the old days, reasoned Lahl, more investigative journalists dug deeply for stories. She described our modern era of pared down staffs and budgets. Desk journalism prevails, where stories for broadcast and print media are churned out at a frenetic pace. Imagine the scenario: some helter skelter browsing on the internet, a few phone calls, and voila, another deadline met.

With such an approach, many stories begging to be told are slipping through cracks. If the public remains ignorant of certain inhumane conditions and injustices, won't more  injustices flourish? On the flip side, many an inspiring development will go unreported, if no one is taking time to glean the details. 

Nothing beats getting out there in the world to chase down stories first-hand and in-depth. Every time I've ever left my desk for this purpose, I've returned with renewed passion and greater insights about the topic, and enough material to generate several articles. The whole, unadulterated truth is always so much richer than initial perception. 

Thank heavens, good investigative journalism conducted out "in the field" is not yet extinct, even if it is, in some ways, tottering on weakened limbs. Foreign and war correspondents, and those heading into disaster areas, are still active and unfathomably brave. Both secular and religious journalists still venture into the unknown, and are kidnapped, harassed, beaten and killed, all in the line of duty. 
"An investigative journalist is a man or woman whose profession it is to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it..." (De Burgh, Wikipedia) 
These people are heroes, providing a vital service at a time when synthetic pursuits of reality abound. At their best, when they are anchored in truth and fleeing fabrication, journalists help us never lose sight of "The Real." They stir us to stay informed and get involved in everything from charitable causes and a deeper faith pursuit to politics and community life.

In my own life as a writer, I've had to learn to be flexible to survive and produce. Digging out stories has taken me into every possible setting: from the cardinal's mansion in Chicago to interview the late Cardinal Bernardin and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to grasp the hand of Blessed John Paul II (I did not interview him, but was in a special audience), to an abandoned shell of a building in the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where I viewed remains of a dog sacrificed in a satanic ritual. 

The pursuit of a good story has taken me to awards dinners and Indian powwows, Cajun shrimp fleet blessings and soup kitchens. It's been a real life of, well, living! Being blessed to have these experiences and share them with others through the written word has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

The media has "an enormous positive potential for promoting sound human and family values, and thus contributing to the renewal of society." 
-- Blessed John Paul II, on The Media and the Family: A Risk and a Richness, written for 2004 World Communications Day, January 24, 2004

Heaven knows, journalists don't go into the profession for money. They feel commissioned. And the world needs dedicated, ethical, talented, investigative journalists. Thanks to Lahl's investigations, the egg-harvesting industry must be shivering a bit in its boots. Her documentary is showing on law school campuses such as Harvard, Fordham and Yale, in other community venues across the nation, and even overseas. Informed women are being spared the horrific consequences of having their bodies invaded and their fertility destroyed. 

What other darkness is out there, waiting to be brought to light?

As readers and viewers of media, we should not be content with hastily written blogs and tweets. We deserve and should demand meaty, fully-researched stories. And every one of us needs to become investigators and pursuers of Truth in all its fullness, no matter our professions.

I heard something amusing two nights ago at the library. A father was chatting with his two young children about too much screen time. 

"For every one minute you spend watching Phineus and Ferb on television," he said, "you get ten minutes dumber!"

Humorous approach, with underlying truth. Thank heavens for the internet and its vast resources. I wouldn't want to do without it. However, journalists should do their initial research, then be free to leave the comfort of their cubbyholes and screens to venture forth and do some vigorous, face-to-face, investigative digging. 

But people of every age and profession must also push those screens aside and get out into the world. We should remember each day to investigate. Explore. And return to loved ones to report.

How incredibly valuable to go on location, into whatever wide variety of settings Providence calls us, to dig for the Truth of it all.