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San Jose State U. Visiting Speakers Preach News' Role In Democracy

This story was written by Joey Akeley, Spartan Daily

Before working toward a journalism degree at San Jose State University, Mark Katches wanted to become a sports writer.

Katches, now an assistant managing editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said he eventually chose a more rewarding route: investigative reporting.

"When somebody powerful is trying to keep something secret or keep it from you, and you can expose that and hold them accountable and make a difference, that's what true investigative reporting is," Katches said.

A crowd of about 40 students and faculty listened to Katches and three other investigative reporters Tuesday at a panel discussion called "Can Investigative Reporting Save Democracy?" in the University Room.

Each panelist provided examples of how his work has prompted changes in the actions of governments and authorities.

Bert Robinson, who worked on the 2006 San Jose Mercury News series "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice," talked about his reporting on juvenile dependency courts.

Before his story was published, there were multiple flaws in juvenile dependency courts, which included children's absence in the court and a lack of communication between attorneys and their clients, Robinson said.

"As a result, families who want and deserve a second chance don't ever get it," Robinson said.

Changes were made after the series was published.

"Since we published the series, kids in this county are in court regularly," he said. "In this county, a new courthouse is being built for dependency cases.

"We stood for some of the most vulnerable kids in this county. I think we made their lives better."

SJSU alumnus David Willman talked about his investigative report on the construction of small subway tunnels in Los Angeles.

"The subways that were supposed to be at minimum 12 inches of thickness in concrete due to earthquake engineering concerns in Southern California were down to as low as four-and-three-quarter inches."

After these findings, the tunnels were retrofitted at the expense of the contractors, Willman said.

"There is no greater gratification that you can have than going to subway tunnels that are supposed to be closed between midnight and five in the morning, and they got full crews retrofitting these tunnels, and you know none of it would have ever happened without what you brought out in the newspaper," Willman said.

Lance Williams' most crowning achievement was his book "Game of Shadows," which he co-wrote with Mark Fainaru-Wada. The book gave evidence about the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds' use of steroids.

When the book was released, Williams was almost sent to prison for refusing to reveal his sources.

Despite this, Williams never gave up his sources, and encouraged fellow reporters to never give in when governments pressure them to leak their sources.

"We need to make it tough on these guys who want to break the First Amendment," Williams said.

Junior journalism major Alex Spicer said he was surprised at the magnitude of the work each reporter has done.

"I didn't know these guys were working on cases like BALCO, which was interesting," Spicer said. "It was also interesting to see their responses to the fate of reporting today in light of all the cutbacks today."

A question that was brought up by the panelists was whether investigative reporting would survive past the recent decline of newspaper journalism.

Although the entire panel agreed that investigative reporting was not at risk, junior broadcast journalism major Haley Harms said she was skeptical of th future of newspapers.

"I thought that it made me not want to become a reporter and go more into web design," Harms said. "The future is more online, so it made me want to learn more about multimedia."