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Investigative Journalism Today: New Mexico’s Scott Armstrong

Image via Searchlight New Mexico

“Rather than going for the stories that are most easily obtained, which are also often the ones people want to leak, you ask yourself what is going to be permanent.”

Scott Armstrong has a career in journalism that spans more than 40 years. Much of his career has surrounded achieving public access to secret government information. As a reporter at The Washington Post, Mr. Armstrong found himself on the Senate’s Watergate Committee. In 1985, he founded the National Security Archive as a database for government information gathered through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Nowadays, Armstrong follows local news through Searchlight New Mexico, an independent, non-profit news organization dedicated to investigative and data-driven journalism. On June 15th, he spoke with Merion West to discuss the difference between national and local reporting, current government relationships with journalists, and the state of investigative journalism.

At the beginning of your career, you reported for The Washington Post, a national publication, and now you follow local news through Searchlight New Mexico. What is the difference in your experience between local and national investigative reporting?

On a local basis, you are not faced with the same issues of secrecy, particularly national security material. What you’re looking for are things affecting the largest segment of your population. There are parallels, but you have to get an investigative reporting frame of mind. What are the empirical questions that are not otherwise being addressed by the daily press—or anomalies and mysteries that you need an answer for? It’s the same process, but you’re doing it on a much more finite level.

But do you find on the local level that change is more likely to occur as a result of reporting?

Well, I did not believe reporting was as ineffective prior to the Trump administration. The Trump administration has made it that way. I think one of the problems now is that national reporting is not asking the basic questions. The Trump administration is so filled with scandals. The effect this has on reporting, particularly at The Post and The Times, is there is now more of a focus on “leak” journalism. Both could fill up their papers by noon based on things that are leaking, but those aren’t necessarily based on the right priorities. In both local and national cases, you need to go out and knock on doors late at night to answer what you believe are the important questions to help understand what is going on.

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So then going off of that idea, what strategy should a journalist take to formulate those questions that speak to the so-called big picture?

I think you begin by looking at the priorities of your government, and how it affects most people. Rather than going for the stories that are most easily obtained, which are also often the ones people want to leak, you ask yourself what is going to be permanent. Instead of looking at the more scandalous side, or the aberrations of a personality like Trump and individual corruptions of the people around him, you’re looking for basic policy changes that will have long-term effects on America.

More importantly than that, I think it’s a question of looking for the issues where decisions are being made, for whatever reason—whether they’re rational or irrational. [The ones] that are going to have the longer-term implications. For example, I think the shift in policy towards the Sunni Muslim world and joining it in a war against Shia Islam, for me, seems to be a long-term, more significant thing than the individual scandals that occur in the administration. Also, in the EPA case, it’s not so much the foibles of Scott Pruitt as it is the changes in policy that lead to the reverse for clean drinking water and clean air. It’s a question of priorities and long-term focus.

The Obama Administration was notoriously hard on leakers, and now we have a president that openly attacks the press. How did the government’s relationship with the press get to this point?

To some extent, Trump’s hostility towards the media is actually seen as a contrast to Obama’s rather smooth dealing with the media. The fact of the matter is, the Obama administration was a pretty tightly run ship, and there were many important secrets kept secret. Obama did a better job of maintaining secrecy and going after reporters and journalists than Trump has until recently when the Justice Department went after the records of reporters to figure out who was leaking from the Congressional committee.

In some cases, investigative journalism can rest, in large part, on the use of anonymous sources? What are the proper procedures for handling anonymous sources?

Anonymous sources are a standard aspect of national security reporting. The goal is not to avoid anonymous sources, but to use them in a way that you can get the most accurate and complete information. As you tell the reader about what you’ve discovered, you want to do the maximum you can to identify for the reader why they should believe this is important and accurate information. You identify why the person knows this information and what is important about their point of view, along with giving as detailed an account as you can as to why they know what they know.

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It’s also not a question of the number of sources. You could have 20 low-level sources, but two perfectly placed sources are much more authoritative and important. Part of the—or why it’s not even known by people in the government. Often, that’s an intrinsic part of the story.

What does funding look like for an organization such as Searchlight New Mexico, an independent platform for investigative journalism?

There are about 200 organizations [like Searchlight’s] around the country, and 25 of them are pretty well-wired for their funding. Then, there’s another 25 that are on the cusp of being self-sufficient. The difficulty is that as major foundations have grown, they’re more concerned about duplication. They want to make as safe a bet as they can, so they often combine into coalitions and after a couple of years of funding, get tired and move on to the next new thing.

As a result, you get a situation where you’re looking for funding from people that want to fund because of the type of reporting you’re doing. So, environmentalists will fund you for one thing, and other organizations of [another] particular focus will fund you for another. You begin to shape your stories based on where the funding is, rather than what is the most important issues that should concern every citizen.

In New Mexico, we have a pretty deep bench of issues because [our state] is 50th in many categories. So almost anywhere you look, you’re going to find something. What you want to really look for are things you can only get if you penetrate them with investigative reporting. You look at the mechanisms of how governments run, and if they’re not being run in an accountable way, you push those buttons first.

Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Armstrong.

Good talking to you, Nigel.