Published — September 30, 1999 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Commentary: Citizen muckraking

How to investigate and right wrongs in your community


With 6 billion people on the planet and 270 million living in the United States, who can blame anyone for thinking that one person can’t make a difference? But don’t believe it for a second.

In two decades as an investigative journalist, uncovering impropriety around the nation and abroad, countless times I have seen individuals persistently ask unpopular but entirely reasonable questions about matters affecting their daily lives: the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they buy and eat, the schools their children attend. And frequently their curiosity and perseverance have brought about change that improves the quality of those same lives.

The goal of the Citizen Muckraking project is to outline some basic techniques of investigative reporting that you—or any other citizen—can use to obtain information about the toxic-waste dump in your neighborhood; the city-council zoning decision that seems to benefit one of the council members personally; the reason your utility rates have been going up; why some property-tax assessments increase yearly but others don’t; etc. Information truly is power, and we will show you precisely how to get the facts.

In addition to posting this information here, the Center has produced a “how-to” manual for community activists (we’ll keep you posted in the coming weeks on when and how you can obtain it). Citizen Muckraking contains inspiring stories about ordinary people who start asking basic questions about things in their communities that somehow just don’t seem right. They write letters, attend hearings, obtain government documents, ask direct questions of public officials—all things that full-time, professional investigative reporters do day in and day out—and their questions actually bring about change.

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