The paper's watchdog role

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2011 - 8:45 PM

The Star Tribune is beefing up its focus on 'accountability journalism.'

Tacked above my desk is a list editors drew up about a year ago noting the coverage areas we believe demanded more accountability reporting from our staff. I keep it there as a reminder to keep an eye on whether we are making enough progress in this critical area.

By "accountability reporting," I am referring to coverage that goes beyond the day-to-day breaking news, which every news organization must provide, to reporting that explores whether state and local leaders and governments are delivering on their mission to serve the state of Minnesota and its people well.

We want to be able to tell readers: Are elected officials or governing bodies spending tax dollars as was intended? Are they delivering the services they are supposed to deliver, fairly and effectively? Are elected and appointed officials governing their respective areas in a way that benefits people instead of special interests?

Our list included broad swaths of government and quasi-government agencies: the Minnesota Department of Transportation; the Metropolitan Council; the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and state departments overseeing finance and revenue, health and human services, corrections and public safety, higher education, and so on.

Some of these areas we have covered for years, but more in a breaking-news way than in terms of true accountability reporting.

Over the last year, we have slowly but steadily shifted resources and changed reporting strategies, and you are starting to see the results of those changes in the paper.

Reporter Pat Doyle, for example, moved from the statehouse to a beat that covers MnDOT, the Metropolitan Council and the Metropolitan Airports Commission. I've long been interested in the Met Council because it has governing authority over such significant areas as transportation planning, although its members are appointed, not elected.

A legislative auditors' report in January suggested that the region lacks a cohesive plan for transportation and laid blame for that at the feet of the council, which it said lacked accountability.

Paul McEnroe joined our special-topics team as an investigative reporter focusing on state public safety and corrections, an area that has been undercovered over the years. His reporting these last few months has raised troubling questions about how well the state governs sex offenders and dangerously ill mental health patients, stories that he broke ahead of any other reporter in the state.

Maura Lerner, a health care reporter, delved into Medicaid issues to question why Minnesota taxpayers have been subsidizing expensive autism treatments for well-to-do families while turning poor families away.

Today's front page takes a sharp look at the financial straitjacket the University of Minnesota's medical school finds itself in after engaging in an enormously expensive effort to spend its way to higher national rankings, an effort it ultimately could not afford.

This story is the result of asking another investigative reporter, Tony Kennedy, to join our topics team to focus on accountability reporting in higher education, as well as other areas.

All of these moves are part of a broader effort to build a culture of accountability reporting at the Star Tribune, so that we can better inform our readers about how well local, regional and state governments and leaders are serving them.

We believe this type of reporting is at the core of our mission to serve our readers and our community. We have more work to do, but I hope readers will agree that we are making progress.

Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.

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