Connecting the Dots

Posted June 07, 2009, at 6:13 p.m.

When anyone with a laptop and a cell phone camera can call himself or herself a “citizen journalist,” the important work that newspapers and professional journalists do can be devalued. The story of a recent winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism should remind a cynical and fickle public of the worth of this medium, which, by the way, is the only profession enshrined in the First Amendment.

Alexandra Berzon, 29, a reporter with the Las Vegas Sun, was assigned stories about the high death rate in the construction business in the city. By reviewing the reports of construction accident deaths, Ms. Berzon perceived a pattern. Often, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administra-tion would meet with construction firms after a fatal accident and essentially negotiate an agreement. Increasingly, the reporter found, construction firms did not face the fines and corrective actions one might expect when basic safety code violations were found to have contributed to the deaths.

The individual deaths in the city of 600,000 might have been reported as a three-paragraph brief in the newspaper, Ms. Berzon said. But by painstakingly reviewing documents, asking questions of workers and construction managers, the story emerged.

The Pulitzer judges cited Ms. Berzon for her “courageous reporting” in pursuit of information, despite “closed doors and intimidation,” the newspaper reported in April. Her stories, along with accompanying editorials, led to congressional hearings and worker safety reforms.

Not bad for a young woman in her first reporter job.

Unlike so-called citizen journalists, a reporter such as Ms. Berzon had to run her stories by quizzical, skeptical and probably nervous editors. Since construction is a major industry in the city, business owners probably tried to pull strings at the newspaper and elsewhere to kill the stories. And like many newspapers suffering through declining revenues in a receding economy and evolving industry, the Sun’s management may have wondered if the stories were akin to biting the hands that fed it.

But this is what newspapers do. Journalists tackle tough stories, not necessarily to “afflict the comfortable,” as the early 20th century “muckraker” Finley Peter Dunne famously put it, but to shine a light in places that powerful institutions sometimes prefer remain dark. Responsible journalists do not have an agenda, beyond accurately telling a story they believe needs to be told.

Ms. Berzon’s editor presented her with the fact that nine construction workers had died in 16 months. “We want to know what’s going on,” he told her. And that’s what she did. Her stories involved diligence, as she carefully connected the dots to reveal a larger pattern that the public needed to per-ceive. This is the newspaper business at its best.

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