Gerber: We do it because no one else will

Gerber: We do it because no one else will

August 12th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Judy Walton's byline hasn't appeared in the paper very often in recent months.

You're about to see a lot of it for the next six days.

Walton, a 25-year veteran of the paper - she started at the Chattanooga Times in 1987 - is an editor and reporter. For the past seven months, she's been knee-deep in the reporting process for a single series of stories. Her six-day, investigative series about the 10th Judicial District starts today on the front page.

Walton spent much of 2012 crisscrossing the counties of the judicial district - Bradley, Monroe, McMinn and Polk. She's sat through court hearings. Read stacks of courts records, emails, receipts, audits, depositions. She's interviewed dozens of people, many of them multiple times.

This isn't glamorous work. It's not sexy. Sometimes, it's frustrating. But it's the true face of journalism - feet on the ground, ear on the phone, eyes on the documents.

A series this deep and this complex takes months. When you're working on an investigative piece this broad, you have to make sure you understand all the nuances of the story to be accurate.

You have to put up with the monotony, do a lot of digging, run down a lot of dead ends and have some false starts.

You have to be willing to comb through details over and over again and interview and re-interview. And then listen to the interview recordings over and over.

Here's why a project is worth seven months of one reporter's time:

• The 10th District attorney general literally has the power of life and death in his hands. He swears to uphold the law and do justice - any question about whether he is failing to live up to the vow deserves investigation.

• A whistleblower may have a great story, but it's a long slog to prove or disprove it.

• Most criminals caught and brought to justice will swear the cops were crooked and the DA corrupt. The line between proper justice and abuse of power can be faint and hard to trace.

• Much of the reporting in the series examines separate incidents. But Walton dug up, dusted off and assembled the individual bits and pieces. And taken as a whole, they show the larger pattern of how the 10th Judicial District operates.

• And, finally, we do this work because nobody else will do it. Many of the financial and professional allegations raised in the series have been around for years but apparently were never questioned.

This is the type of work that sets newspapers apart. Sadly, too many newspapers simply don't have the resources to do this kind of work anymore.

But we believe it's a newspaper's role to pull back the curtain and scrutinize what public officials do with public money, and to report it if they don't act in the interest of the public. It's our job to keep an eye on those entrusted to watch over us and protect our interests, including government and law enforcement.

It's our job to be a watchdog.

We take this type of reporting seriously and intend to do more of it in the future.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@times freepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfreepress.com.