Exposing Corruption in the Executive Branch as an Investigative Reporter

Sarah Beth Costello
March 9, 2009

Some of the most advantage privileges we enjoy as American citizens can be found in the First Amendment. America is truly unique because we are the only nation that not only encourages, but also recommends freedom of expression.

Our founding fathers realized that America would never be free until the confines of censorship and tyranny were finally broken. They knew from personal experience that ultimate power could eventually lead to ultimate corruption. Therefore, a series of checks and balances were installed in the government and Americans were free to print and speak the truth.

Anyone who works in media (especially reporters) has a duty to their audience to print the truth and expose corruption within the executive branch. The media are watchdogs that not only exist to provide readers with information and entertainment, but more importantly, to keep power-holders from becoming too powerful and engaging in unethical behavior.

‘Muckrakers’ – Those Brave Reporters Unafraid of Consequences in the Pursuit of Accuracy and Fairness

President Theodore Roosevelt created the term “muckrakers” in reference to reporters who literally dig through the muck to find the truth. There are dozens of examples of reporters who risked their reputations and very lives for the purpose of reporting the truth.

Ida B. Wells is a perfect example of a woman who risked everything to expose lynching in the south. Wells was an African American woman who worked as a reporter for most of her life, as well as authoring several books including: “On Lynching: Southern Horrors.” Though her views were widely unpopular, especially as an African American, her muckraking and reporting made huge differences in the early civil rights cause.


Ida B. Wells is a famous investigative reporter who risked much to exploit the shameless practice of southern lynching.


Upton Single wrote the book, "The Jungle," after investigating the horrible conditions of meat factories and the poor treatment of immigrants.

Another example of an old fashioned muckraker is Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle.” Sinclair was highly against capitalism and wrote “The Jungle” in an effort to criticize the treatment of immigrant works and the dangerous conditions of the workplace.

Investigating the Head Honchos

Brant Houston, author of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” devotes several chapters to the investigation of the executive branch. As a reporter, there are dozens of resources available to aid you in your search for the truth.

When beginning an investigation it is important to be familiar with government agencies and how they operate. Reporters can discover the mission statements of an agency. Though it can be tedious, gathering “basic information” is important and will not only help you to understand the agency better, but may also provide you with a lead or story idea. Houston recommends using the Federal Register as a tool for “monitoring the executive branch.”

Investigating government actions can prove to be a time consuming endeavor. Much research is often required before the information you are searching for is exposed. Houston says that budgets are great documents for uncovering information about government corruption.

Budgets keep track of government spending and detail the revenue and expenditures. There is always the possibility that the informationtentips_034 on the budget is incorrect. Budgets can be falsified and misleading, and there is always the possibility that spending and revenues have been left out of the budget.

Investing the “top executives” can be difficult but not impossible. One good way to gain access is beginning with people on a lower level like secretaries, custodians and other seemingly unimportant yet relevant individuals. Remember the importance of investigating the currents and formers.

An executive official may have just hired a new secretary but the old one might have more helpful information to yield – she may even provide another angle you never expected. Hopefully contacting the “lower level” sources will enable you to make connections with those higher up the chain. Some other sources may include liaisons to the legislature, staff members and others in close contact with the top executive.

One aspect to look into that might not be as obvious is investigating the hiring and firing processes in an agency to look for potential corruption. Look at the benefits and salaries offered to employees and compare them to other agencies. What incentives does the agency offer to better performance? How does the agency address employee corruption? Do they look the other way or do they immediately take action?

Public affairs personnel are some other recommended contact sources. The National Association of Government Communicators is the headquarters that produce news releases that can prove to be very helpful. Reporters can discover lobbyists among agencies, legislative liaison employees through the public affairs staff.

There are so many sources to contact and available documents to refer to as an investigative reporter. There are plenty of opportunities to investigate people who are in authoritative positions including the governor, state and local employees,

As a journalist living in a democracy, it is your right to not only report the truth but to also act as a watch dog to those in power. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are classic examples of reporters that followed leads that led to a series of articles and eventually exposed President Nixon’s unethical actions.

1 comment
  1. andersj said:

    It’s nice to see the photos of Wells and Sinclair, and once again you are setting a great standard for excellence in attention to detail in written and visual content. It is a joy to click on the link to your work and see what you have in store!

    This reading had a lot of good advice: Follow the money. Listen for the silences and seek the blank spots and find out what they mean. Pull on a little thread and you sometimes unravel a massive blanket that had been covering the truth.

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