Kick-starting investigative journalism

Seymour Hersh was a young and little-known journalist when he approached the newly-created Fund for Investigative Journalism in 1969 for help. He wanted assistance to investigate reports of a civilian massacre perpetrated by US soldiers in Vietnam. He was awarded a $250 grant. A subsequent grant of $2,000 allowed him to finish reporting the story. Hersh’s My Lai expose became one of the seminal examples of investigative journalism in the Vietnam era.

Since then, the fund has given away more than $1.5 million in grants to freelance reporters, writers and small publications. That has leveraged the publication of more than 700 stories and about 50 books. 

The fund was started by Philip M. Stern, a philanthropist with a sense of social justice. According to the fund’s website, “Stern was convinced small amounts of money invested in the work of determined journalists would yield enormous results in the fight against racism, poverty, corporate greed and governmental corruption.” Stern was understandably proud of his initial contribution to Hersh’s groundbreaking work. “Think of it,” he wrote, “a mere $2,250 in fund grants enabled Seymour Hersh to leverage a whiff into a colossal stink and contribute mightily to the change in how Americans viewed the war in Vietnam.”

In its latest disbursement, the fund gave $57,000 to 15 journalists. In keeping with its practice, it didn’t name the recipients or explain exactly what their projects were. But in general, it said they concerned “government wrongdoing, improper medical experimentation, the economics of immigration, environmental conservation efforts, education and past U.S. activities in Vietnam and in the development of the atomic bomb.”  In addition to stories in the US, the recipients will be investigating stories in Cambodia, India, Uganda, Mexico, Afghanistan, Jordan and Kenya.

While Canada has its Atkinson and Michener-Deacon fellowships, there is no exact parallel to the US-based investigative fund. The Centre for Investigative Journalism (later renamed the Canadian Association of Journalists) began a similar program when it was founded in the late 1970s, but it didn’t last long.

A sampling of stories that were kick-started by the Fund for Investigative Journalism is available on the fund’s website.