Deconstructing complex societal problems, explaining their real-world, human impact, helping the public understand why they should care and equipping them to take action. It’s what the best investigative reporting does, and what has motivated Jennifer LaFleur in a career that has included stints at some of the nation’s most prominent nonprofit investigative news organizations.
LaFleur joined the Center for Public Integrity as a senior editor in May 2021.
Previously, she was an editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, where she worked with Chuck Lewis, who founded Public Integrity in 1989. She helped guide a team to build The Accountability Project. Previously, LaFleur worked as a senior editor at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, where she contributed to or edited dozens of major projects, including one that was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist. She also worked as the director of data journalism at ProPublica and held similar roles at the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers.
A graduate of Benedictine College and the Missouri School of Journalism, LaFleur also teaches at American University. A former training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, she has trained journalists around the world in using data and other investigative techniques. She currently serves on IRE’s board and is on the advisory board of the National Center for Disability and Journalism.
We asked about her career path in journalism and her work over the past year at Public Integrity:
What led you to Public Integrity?
I’ve spent most of my career working on investigations that show how institutions and systems fail to treat people equally. Public Integrity’s focus on covering inequality was a perfect match.
What are the key ingredients of a strong investigation?
I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing colleagues and editors over the years and have learned from them all. I hope I put what I learned into practice. The Center for Investigative Reporting used a series of questions to evaluate potential investigations:
- Can the problem be quantified?
- Can you hold anyone accountable?
- Can you humanize the problem?
- Are you exposing something with enough outrage that anyone will care?
For Public Integrity, we also seek investigations that reveal inequality. In the end, investigations that result in change are the most important.
Personally, I value investigations that help readers/listeners/viewers understand complex problems. We’re not here to show how smart we are, we’re here to lay out problems. One example I often point to is a ProPublica investigation about the hedge fund. (It also included a song.) It was the first thing I read that helped me understand how such companies worked.
Are there past projects that you found particularly rewarding?
I’ve had the honor to work on many important projects over the years, from racial bias in presidential pardons and jury selection to exposing abuses in juvenile prisons, but the one that likely made the biggest difference for real people was a series of stories I did with Lorraine Kee at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many years ago, about how the area’s transit system failed to serve disabled riders.
The project prompted a federal investigation of the transit system and today people can ride buses and light rail because of our work. (By the way, that’s a story that should be done around the country.) Another was a passion project that I wanted to do for years about the members of the military who were part of the U.S. atomic testing program. I had been chipping away at it for years and finally published it at Reveal.
Why is investigative reporting such an important tool in confronting inequality?
Investigative reporting gets at the root causes of problems, whether it be people, institutions or systems. Getting at that is often difficult and requires digging into documents or data to uncover how problems came to be. I think that’s why investigations based on data are so powerful. Plus, you can look at things no one has examined before.
Data can point you to where to go next and provide the foundation for an investigation, but it rarely is enough. Our stories on jury selection at The Dallas Morning News or Reveal’s work on discrimination in lending are good examples because just looking at the overall numbers shows that Black people do not have the same outcomes. Anecdotally, officials would chalk it up to those people not qualifying. Data analysis lets you dig in and counter those arguments by taking those factors into consideration.
Our initial analysis of jury selection in Dallas, which showed Black people getting struck from juries at much higher rates than white people was initially based on demographic information from jury cards. When we presented our findings to the district attorney, he said it was because of how potential jurors answered questions during voir dire, not demographics. So we took the next step and coded the transcripts into our model and found a similar pattern.
You’ve invested a great deal of your free time in helping build and run organizations such as Investigative Reporters & Editors and the National Center for Disability and Journalism. What does the industry at large need more of? Less?
To answer the first part, I’ve served as both a staffer, volunteer trainer, mentor and board member for IRE because I owe my career to the organization. So many members were generous with their time over the years, it was an opportunity for me to give back. IRE also is pushing for greater diversity in investigative reporting, which will expand the stories that are being told and improve how they are told.
When NCDJ was founded, very few people were covering disability issues. I think the organization has helped change that. The level of work submitted to and that has won the NCDJ contest over the years has been pretty amazing.
What does the industry need more of? I could list hundreds of things. But the most important thing is investment. Journalism, especially investigative journalism, is time-consuming and costly. Without that investment, I worry about what will happen to our country and to democracy.
A few other suggestions because I can’t just stop at one: humor, creativity and humility.
How does Public Integrity differ from the other nonprofit news organizations you’ve been a part of? What’s your pitch for why people reading this should support Public Integrity’s work?
I have had the honor to complete the trifecta of national nonprofits by joining Public Integrity. (I’m hoping some sort of badge comes with that.) I was part of the original team at ProPublica and at Reveal when the radio show was born. Public Integrity is, in many ways, like a startup as it has pivoted to focusing on inequality. While inequality is in all aspects of society, doing investigations through that lens will allow us to uncover stories that other organizations might not do. Anyone who thinks uncovering inequality is important should support Public Integrity’s work.
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Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.