Newspapers need to better explain the ‘Why’ in investigative reporting

There was a great piece of investigative reporting the other day by Dena Pauling in the Centre Daily Times, my hometown newspaper and former employer. It revealed mold problems in a local high school, and how the school’s administration failed to notify the public about it. It also prints the outright denials by school officials — which strangely changed once the reporter presented evidence and made them talk about it on the record.

It’s a perfect example of why journalists are here: To hold public leaders accountable, to encourage public disclosure, to bring significant untold stories to light. It’s why the fourth estate exists, and why it’s so important for newspapers to survive.

So why is the public’s response in the Web site’s comments section so overwhelmingly negative?

It’s a problem I see in nearly every investigative report I see, whether in my own newspaper or in the New York Times (coughMcCaincough).

Newspapers rarely tell their readers WHY these stories are important. We typically hope readers will connect the dots in the way that we’ve connected the dots, but quite often that doesn’t happen.

We shouldn’t be explaining why investigative stories are important in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge way we usually do. I’m talking a breakout box that spells it out exactly.

It would say this: You need to know that a possible health problem was covered up by your administration, because it calls into question what else they’re keeping quiet about.

You rarely see anything that direct, but every significant story needs it. Don’t hope that the facts will lead readers to that conclusion, because they often don’t get there. When we don’t explain why the story is important, it’s too easy for readers to assume sensationalism and the always-popular “selling papers.”

It was disheartening to see that response from the readers, because this is the kind of story that they ought to be thanking her for. And a public that sees no value in this kind of reporting surely doesn’t see any value in keeping newspapers around.

(UPDATE: Same goes for the series in the Ann Arbor News about academics and athletics at the University of Michigan. Great series that has left a lot of fans focused on the writer, not the content.)