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It’s an age-old debate among journalists: which approach to covering the news is superior—the American, with its striving after objectivity and balance, or the European, with its frank embrace of slant and party? Should news organizations seek out all sides of an issue, or should they present the news with an unabashed tilt? By now, it seems clear that the Americans (at their best) have the edge. Newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, for all their shortcomings, offer a rich daily diet of news, from distant wars to local schools; analysis of events and trends; coverage of arts and culture; and opinion from both in-house columnists and outside contributors. Another top paper, the Financial Times, though based in London, follows an American-style approach. The European model has its own impressive exemplars, notably The Guardian, but overall the American way has, I think, shown its superiority.
Yet in the American quest for balance, something critical has been lost: the crusader instinct. I don’t mean crusades of the lurid “Remember the Maine” type waged by the yellow rags of yore (or, sometimes, the screaming tabloids of today). Rather, I’m referring to the sustained coverage of key issues with a passion and tenacity that can help mobilize the masses and bring about lasting change.
Today, most investigative projects at American news organizations are limited in scope, episodic in nature and aimed at specific rather than systemic abuses. A good example is “Invisible Child,” the December 2013 New York Times series describing a year in the life of Dasani, a homeless girl in Brooklyn. Totaling more than 28,000 words and appearing over five consecutive days, the series was the largest investigative project ever run by the paper at one time. The reporter, Andrea Elliott, eloquently captured the travails of Dasani’s daily life and the terrible conditions that she and her family had to endure at the decrepit shelter in which they lived. The series landed with a bang: it set loose a flood of comments, a flow of contributions to the family, and squawks from City Hall that its policies were being misrepresented. The City Council held hearings on the quality of services for New York’s homeless, and eventually more than 400 children were removed from two substandard shelters.