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On June 26, a joint ProPublica-Washington Poststory included what turned out to be startling news. The Obama administration, we reported, was "strongly considering criminal charges in federal court for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and three other detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.’’
This line, in a page-one story in one of America’s leading newspapers, provoked hardly a ripple. There were no impassioned speeches on the floor of Congress. All was quiet in the blogosphere.
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Mohammed and four others would be tried in New York federal court, the journalistic and political worlds exploded. Republicans and some Democrats condemned the idea as misguided, naïve and downright dangerous. Families of the 9/11 victims were outraged.
The question of why and when a particular development ignites broader passions is one of journalism’s enduring mysteries. Reporters and editors are notoriously poor at forecasting when a story will erupt. We’re steeped in our material and can lose the sense of how our work might be perceived by the wider public.
Presentation makes a difference. Our mention of a possible Mohammed trial came in the middle of a story that focused on the legal challenges posed by Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay. If it had been the opening paragraph or headline, it might have attracted more attention. Our story was also sourced to unnamed officials; last week’s official decision was unveiled at a well-attended press conference.
Timing also matters. Holder revealed his decision just a few weeks after the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Then there are the details. Holder’s announcement included a poignant fact that deepened the story’s emotional punch: The trial will take place at a courthouse just a few blocks from ground zero.
Here at ProPublica, we spend a fair amount of time thinking about how stories will be received. Our goal is to do journalism that spurs change and halts abuses of power. As we choose what to investigate, we try to pick topics on which we can have the greatest impact.
Sometimes, we guess right. Our reporting on the lax regulation of nurses in California prompted sweeping changes within days. Our writing on Guantanamo prisoners has been consistently ahead of the pack, defining key issues. And our ongoing work on natural gas drilling has slowly but surely changed the national debate on a subject that just 18 months ago was understood by only a few scientists and industry insiders.
But we have also been too early – or too late – and watched seemingly compelling stories get lost in the clamor of viral videos, cheating starlets, mendacious beauty queens. Investigative reporters are the wildcat oil prospectors of journalism. We sink a lot of wells, and it’s sometimes a surprise when we hit a gusher. This uncertainty is an essential aspect of investigative reporting. And it’s why cash-strapped news organizations are backing away from it. No one can say how a story will end. And no one can really predict what it will accomplish. It makes the field alluring and sometimes maddening.