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On the art of investigative journalism and living

Marianna Bartholomew

I had a dinosaur moment recently, when the way I learned and lived my profession of 20-plus years was described as nearly extinct -- or, at least, on the endangered species list.

Jennifer Lahl, Producer of the documentary “Eggsploitation” was featured on Relevant Radio, 950 AM WNTD Chicago, on May 3, 2011, revealing how female college students are targeted for egg harvesting. Scrubbing kitchen counters, I felt increasingly sickened, as Lahl described ads promising young women upwards of $100,000 for donating eggs to fertility clinics. Attractive females with high SAT scores are hotly pursued.

But horrific side effects can accompany ovarian hyperstimulation procedures, found Lahl, President of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Doing some good, old-fashioned investigative journalism, she interviewed students who had sacrificed their bodies through misguided idealism or for profit (often earning funds to repay student loans). Some became infertile after egg harvesting. Others suffered strokes, comas and even death. Lahl publicized her findings in the "Best Documentary" this year at the 13th Annual California Independent Film Festival.

Relevant Radio’s Wendy Wiese asked how such abuses could persist and be ignored by media. In our modern era of pared down staffs and budgets, replied Lahl, desk journalism prevails. Imagine the scenario: some helter skelter browsing on the internet, a few phone calls, and voilá, another deadline met.

Stories are slipping through cracks. If the public remains ignorant of inhumane conditions and injustices, won't these injustices proliferate? On the flip side, many inspiring developments will go unreported, if no one is gleaning details.

Nothing beats chasing down facts first-hand. Every time I've left my desk for this purpose, I've returned with greater passion and insights about the topic, and enough material for several articles. The whole, unadulterated truth is always so much richer than initial perception.

Good investigative journalism is not yet extinct, even if it is tottering on weakened limbs. Foreign and war correspondents, and those penetrating disaster areas, are still active and unfathomably brave. Secular and religious journalists continue venturing into the unknown, and risk being kidnapped, harassed, beaten or murdered. A total of 861 journalists have been killed since 1992, 16 of these in 2011, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

At their best, anchored in Truth and fleeing fabrication, journalists help us never lose sight of The Real. They stir us to stay informed and involved in everything from charitable causes and a deeper faith pursuit to politics and community life.

In my own life as a writer, I've had to be flexible. Digging out stories has taken me into every possible setting: from the cardinal's mansion in Chicago to interview the late Cardinal Bernardin and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to grasp the hand of Blessed John Paul II, to an abandoned building in the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where I viewed remains of a dog sacrificed in a satanic ritual.

I’ve haunted awards dinners and Indian powwows, Cajun shrimp fleet blessings and soup kitchens. When I stepped down as Managing Editor of EXTENSION Magazine in 1994 to focus on my wonderful husband and children, journalism became a family affair. We’ve explored destinations across North America, and discussed story ideas together. My husband and my children offer great editorial advice!

The media has "enormous positive potential for promoting sound human and family values…contributing to the renewal of society," wrote Blessed John Paul II, in “The Media and the Family: A Risk and a Richness,” released for 2004 World Communications Day.

Thanks to Lahl's efforts, the egg-harvesting industry must be shivering a bit in its boots. Her documentary is showing on law school campuses such as Harvard and Yale, in other community venues, and even overseas. Informed women are being spared horrific consequences of having bodies invaded and fertility destroyed.

What other darkness lurks, waiting to be exposed?

As readers and viewers of media, we should not rest at the level of hasty texts and tweets. We also deserve and should demand meaty, fully-researched stories. Every one of us needs to become investigators and pursuers of Truth in all its fullness, no matter our professions.

At the library, a father chatted with his children about too much screen time.

"For every one minute spent watching 'Phineus and Ferb' on television," he asserted, "you get ten minutes dumber!"
 
Screen time can be a blessing. I especially appreciate the internet and its vast resources, that help me locate and connect with primary sources. However, journalists also must venture forth from the comfort of cubicles for vigorous, face-to-face, investigative digging – pursued with prudence and an enlightened conscience, of course. Balance is crucial.

People of every age and profession must also push screens aside and launch into the world. We should remember each day to investigate. Explore. And return to loved ones to report.

How valuable to go on location, into whatever wide variety of settings Providence calls us, to dig for the Truth of it all.

© 2011  Marianna Bartholomew

Topics: Workplace

Marianna Bartholomew is winner of six national Catholic Press Association Journalism Awards and Chicago’s 1993 Cardinal’s Communications Award for Professional Excellence. Her articles have appeared in EXTENSION Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic Digest and in Chicago’s Catholic New World and other diocesan newspapers across the nation. Former Managing Editor of Catholic home mission EXTENSION Magazine, Bartholomew has traveled to and reported on conditions in the poorest, most isolated pockets of our nation, from Louisiana’s Cajun communities and Appalachia’s hollows to Montana’s remote Indian missions. Blessed to be a wife and homeschooling mother of three, she now teaches in a homeschool cooperative, freelance writes from her Chicago area home, and is completing her first novel for young adults. She blogs at finerfields.blogspot.com.

View all articles by Marianna Bartholomew

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