Charles Lewis speaks at the Shorenstein Center

Investigative journalist Charles Lewis: Media-university partnerships needed to boost journalism — and civic integrity

October 14, 2014 — Charles Lewis, a pioneering journalist who founded the Center for Public Integrity and who now serves as a faculty member at American University, said part of the future of investigative news involves  new “hybrid” models that pair universities and media outlets. “These worlds are merging, and we need to acknowledge it and we need to tap it,” he told a Shorenstein Center audience, calling for the creation of a new discipline that he labeled “accountability studies.”

A former ABC News investigative reporter and CBS News 60 Minutes producer, Lewis noted that there are now about 100 nonprofit journalism outlets in the United States, 18 of which are affiliated with universities. Lewis is currently executive editor of the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, which has done 60 investigative news projects, partnering with the likes of Frontline, the New York Times and The New Yorker.  “My whole mission is to enlarge the public space for this work,” he said.

Lewis also discussed his new book, “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity,” which examines how information vital to democracy has been suppressed or distorted, and how journalism subsequently helped correct and expose the facts on a given issue — from the relationship between cancer and smoking, to the Vietnam War and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. But in many of these cases, Lewis pointed out, the media was able to surface the truth only after great damage had been done.

Lewis said one of his book’s influences is an idea articulated by former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in a 1991 Theodore H. White Lecture at the Shorenstein Center. (“It seems to me that lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture, and among our institutions in recent years, that we’ve all become immunized to it,” Bradlee said.)

Lewis said his book and nonprofit journalism ventures have come out of a growing personal realization, beginning in the mid-2000s, that problems in the news and information space were getting even worse. The debate over the Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction crystallized this. “If people don’t care about information anymore, what the hell am I doing as a journalist? Why does it matter?” he recounted thinking.

The future of truth is even more unclear, Lewis contended, as the U.S. now has four or five times as many public relations professionals as journalists. “You have to wear hip waders to get through the day,” he said.

Lewis spent a semester in 2006 as a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center writing about the future of nonprofit news, more than 15 years after he founded the Center for Public Integrity.

Article by John Wihbey and photo by Nancy Palmer of the Shorenstein Center.