Opinion: Journalists uncover the untold stories — and love doing it

What kind of person would spend a few hours every morning for months surfing the website of obscure regulatory agencies and reading allegations of wrongdoing?

What kind of person would repeatedly knock on doors of places where they know they are not welcome and are likely to get at least some doors slammed in their face?

What kind of person would read hundreds of pages just to confirm a single fact?

What kind of person would sit through hours of government meetings? If you go to one, you will probably never go back.

It’s an odd personality who would embrace these seemingly unpleasant tasks — and our newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is full of them.

This work is the routine of journalism — the kind of work reporters, editors, photographers and other journalists do every day. And believe it or not, they are honored to do it. They are honored to be able to dig deeply into the news and shed light on stories that readers otherwise would not know.

I never fail to appreciate this aspect of my chosen profession, but I’ve been reminded recently how precious and powerful it is.

Consider the investigative project that begins on today’s front page, about the role of physicians in America’s opioid crisis. It came about because of a lot of deep digging and tough reporting by reporters Carrie Teegardin and Shelia Poole and editor Lois Norder.

Norder and Teegardin wanted to cover the opioid crisis in Georgia and elsewhere. It’s a story that’s been covered extensively by many newspapers, including ours. When our investigative team tackles a story, our goal is never to rehash what has already been written. We want to do original work, work that is especially surprising or revealing. Because Teegardin and Norder were involved in our “Doctors and Sex Abuse” investigation last year, they were particularly interested in the role of doctors and of medical regulators in the opioid crisis.

So Norder began those early morning sessions I mentioned above, reading through the sites of medical regulators across the country. She was looking for cases where doctors were suspected of recklessly prescribing powerful narcotics, either getting patients addicted or serving existing addictions.

Teegardin became interested in law enforcement’s role after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was going to put more resources into federal prosecution. So she and Norder researched cases that had been prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

Only after weeks of this difficult research did a story line begin to emerge about why it’s so hard to stop doctors from overprescribing.

More recently, reporter Shelia Poole joined the project. Her goal was to profile one family or one opioid addict who could humanize the facts that Norder and Teegardin were digging up, to illuminate the terrible damage of the drug crisis. And so she began contacting sources, looking for a family or an individual who had suffered from opioid addiction.

It’s another of those difficult tasks that is a regular routine of journalism: Convincing a stranger to talk “on the record” about painful, personal experiences.

“It is hard for people to just totally open up and share their lives,” Poole said, “especially when things are not all wrapped up nicely.”

Still, Poole said, for those who agree to be featured in news articles, it’s often a way of making a bad situation better. “This is a way they can help other people, by sharing their stories.”

Poole noted that it’s not pleasant to ask people to relive their worst moments. “When I have to do these kinds of stories, I cry a little inside and hope the words can lead to healing.”

It probably sounds crazy to say, given the difficult tasks I’ve listed, but nearly everyone I know in journalism loves their job. They feel a powerful sense of mission, a commitment that keeps them going through the difficult tasks. In more than three decades in the business, I’ve never wanted to do anything else, and I know so many reporters and editors who feel the same way.

Norder is motivated by bringing unknown things to light.

“I set out to try to be the kind of journalist who can bring to people information that they may not be able to get otherwise because powerful interests block it from them,” Norder said. “That’s been kind of my mission, to say I speak for people who don’t have the ability to get information for themselves, for the people who don’t wield power in our society.”

Norder notes she doesn’t just mean the poor or vulnerable. “Any taxpayer who goes up against a bureaucratic government feels that the deck is stacked against them, that they don’t have any way to really change how government works,” she said. Information about how government serves their interests — and fails them — gives them power.

Universally, what motivates journalists is having an impact on our community. Ask any journalist and they will tell you that.

“Real journalism is something that makes a difference,” said Teegardin. “It makes a difference either by informing people, or by making change because it puts pressure on powerful institutions and powerful people.

“It gives voice to the voiceless. Almost every time when you do something that you feel is really remarkable journalism, that’s an element of it. That you’ve given a voice and a platform to a problem or person who wasn’t able to express that without your help.”

That’s the honor and the privilege of our jobs. To bring you stories that matter and that otherwise would go untold.

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