Jason Grotto, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the Chicago Tribune, believes journalists must fight to get to the bottom of an issue because “if you’re complacent and just take things at face value, you’re going to miss the truth.” In the ninth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Grotto talked with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I actually stumbled into journalism. Originally, I wanted to be a high school history teacher. After graduating from school and bouncing around doing a bunch of jobs, I ended up getting an internship at a nonprofit magazine called Catalyst, which covers public education in Chicago, because I was interested in writing. I started working for them and, in doing so, caught the journalism bug. I’d always been very interested and passionate about social justice issues.
I grew up in Chicago and was a bit of a problem child. I went to public schools and did not do well. My mother was remarried, and I ended up moving to the suburbs and got a lot more attention. I used to ditch a lot of school, and I couldn’t do that in the suburbs because they had systems in place. I personally had an experience where I was able to see firsthand the contrast — and I went to a good public school in Chicago. It always made me realize some of the notions that we have about living in a meritocracy are suspect. It just raised a lot of questions for me. That’s kind of been a driving force behind my journalism.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a journalist?
Whenever you see impact from your work, it’s really rewarding. When I was at the Miami Herald, I did a series of stories on a poverty program that funded a massive redevelopment project in a poor neighborhood. The developer was from Boston. What this developer was going to do was supposedly build a pharmaceutical park there. One of the things that he said he would do was build a clinic. It turns out there was nobody coming. He was just taking the money and living large. After our stories ran, the developer ended up going to prison. Years later, I got a call from the director of the State Department of Health. She thanked me and said, “We want to let you know that we’re building a clinic on that spot, and your story is what drove us to do that.” That’s the kind of thing you live for.
What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?
I’m very interested in issues of equity, financial issues in particular. For the past five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of stories on municipal finance. The last couple of years, I’ve focused on property taxation. I think taxation, in general, is very important. I’m interested in ferreting out financial issues that impact poor people in a disparate way.
Who are some of your role models in the field?
My biggest role model is this pair of journalists who started at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Donald Barlett and James Steele. They wrote a lot about taxation and financial issues. Ever since, I’ve been reading investigations the way you would read a novel. I’ve always looked at those two as models for what I wanted to do. They took very complex issues like income tax and boiled them down and expressed them in a way your average reader can not just understand but also viscerally react to. That’s a huge feat and something I’ve always tried to do with my journalism. I like to think that what we’ve been able to do is write those stories and convey the information in a way that makes people sit up in the chair or spit up their Cheerios.
What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?
I think some of the forces behind the demographic shifts are among the biggest stories. You’ll see stories headlined, “African-American population is down ‘x’ percent,” but there’s not a lot behind those stories. What I think is important is to try to get behind some of the public policy forces that may be driving some of that. I think that’s one big underreported story here. What we often look at as investigative journalists are ironies. Why something is presented one way but really when you peel back the onion, it’s something else. There’s a lot of that in Chicago, in Cook County and in the state of Illinois.
What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
The biggest lesson journalism has taught me is that often you have to fight and work hard to get to the truth. That things that appear a certain way on the surface are not always that way. If you’re complacent and just take things at face value, you’re going to miss the truth. Our job is to get as close to that truth as we can and, in doing so, you have to fight and you have to work really hard because there are some people and some institutions that don’t want you to get there.