ABC’s Ross On The Purpose And The Future Of Investigative Journalism

By Alissa Krinsky 

5 Questions For…Brian Ross

Alissa Krinsky
TVNewser Contributor

Brian Ross is ABC News’ Chief Investigative Correspondent. He joined the network in 1994 after 20 years at NBC News. Earlier, Ross worked at Miami’s WCKT-TV (now WSVN), Cleveland’s WKYC-TV, and KWWL-TV in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a University of Iowa graduate.

Ross’ investigative unit has made headlines this month, with Ross responding to “vital questions” about the team’s 2001 anthrax reporting. Then, days later, the unit broke news on the Sen. John EdwardsRielle Hunter affair.

Up next for Ross and company: a new round of Money Trail reports on the intersection of money and politics at the Democratic and Republican Conventions. Ross first started reporting on the subject in 1996.

1. TVNewser: Why convention-related investigative reporting remains of particular interest:
Ross: It was Peter Jennings and then-ABC News executive Paul Friedman who first asked us, in 1996, to take a hard look at the intersection of money and power at the conventions.

Rivals and competitors initially belittled the reporting because ‘there’s nothing illegal about it.’ That’s the point, however. Under a system endorsed and kept alive by both parties, lobbyists and corporate executives and union officials have been able to buy access to powerful American politicians in ways they don’t want the outside world to see.

We started our reporting when now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff was still a king in Washington and despite ‘reforms,’ the abuse continues in a variety of forms. It is most prominently on display every four years at the conventions which remain a kind of ‘ethics-free zone.’

2. TVNewser: With news organizations slashing budgets — and a tough legal environment for investigative journalists (threat of lawsuits, lack of federal shield law) — I see the future of investigative television journalism…
Ross: The future of investigative journalism remains very bright. In many ways, the growth of the Internet makes for huge opportunity. ABC News and some other news organizations remain committed to robust investigative units because it is the right thing to do, the viewers recognize its value, and it helps to distinguish us from our competitors.

(answer continues after the jump)

The various non-profit organizations [that specialize in investigative journalism] are certainly well-intentioned, but I don’t think American journalism is yet at the point that it has to rely on charity to do its job. I am interested in working with any one or any group that has found a good story. In the end, however, we need to retain editorial control of both the story selection and story reporting if we are to fulfill our obligation to our audience.

3. TVNewser: How my team balances the pressure to break news (online and on-air) with the often slow, painstaking nature of investigative journalism:
Ross: We are fortunate to have a staff with the skills to juggle many stories at the same time, and also a depth that allows a serious long-term commitment to research and reporting. At any one time, we may have twenty or thirty stories in some stage of reporting. Some are for next week, some for next month and some for next year. The trick is to maintain a presence for the investigative unit, which allows us the luxury to spend time and money on long-term projects.

4. TVNewser: How the Blotter has impacted the way my team and I do our work:
Ross: With our investigative page at, the Blotter, we have been able to expand our profile, add to our staff, and develop many stories and sources that would not have existed otherwise.

Just last week, for instance, we broke the story about former Sen. John Edwards on the Blotter prior to reporting on any of our broadcasts. Our coverage of the story online has generated more than 5 million page views.

There is also room on the Blotter for stories not big enough to merit our front page — World News or Good Morning America, for instance — often times leading to important tips and leads (as happened in the case of Congressman Mark Foley and his emails to Congressional pages.)

And, in a way, the Blotter has become another program, another platform for our work that is available 24 hours a day. People interested in our investigative work can find it even if they are not home by 6:30pm or out of the house before Good Morning America.

5. TVNewser: Of all the stories I’ve done, the one that had the greatest impact…
Ross: It’s hard to judge which story had the greatest impact, and I don’t think that is the best way to measure the strength of investigative reporting. It should stand on its own terms and be judged on whether it communicated to the audience something they did not know before, whether it worked as a piece of journalism, a piece of television.

There is danger to investigative journalists who strive only for impact. Our job is to shine a light, a bright light. Political agendas are for others. I know that stories I have reported have sent people to prison and also set people free. We have caused investigations and, I hope, made things better in our country. But I don’t want to be so wed to seeking some impact that I am blind to contradictory information. The story should fit the facts, not the other way around.

I found out early on, when I reported on corrupt bosses in the Teamsters Union, that often times very little changes despite hard, tough, award-winning stories. Every time I exposed former Ohio Teamster boss Jackie Presser, he seemed to rise in the ranks of the then mob-controlled union until he finally became President of the entire union. Lousy impact, but great stories that, in the end, exposed important truths.