Inside the News Room
 

Lens’ exposé of astroturfing campaign spurs city inquiry and gains national attention

The Lens’ exposé of an astroturfing campaign for a new power plant in New Orleans has been cited by news outlets around the country and has spurred an investigation by the New Orleans City Council. It’s now the most-read story in our nearly nine-year history.

The story detailed how actors were recruited and paid to show up and speak on behalf of Entergy’s power plant in eastern New Orleans. It was based on interviews with people who said they were paid and a review of Facebook messages that detailed the campaign.

Within days, the New Orleans City Council vowed to look into the matter. The council formally approved an investigation this week. Entergy, which didn’t respond to our requests for comment before we published the story, quickly disavowed the use of paid actors and released the results of an internal investigation blaming a public-relations contractor.

The City Council is now planning to require people to disclose whether they received any compensation, including cash, transportation or food, in exchange for speaking at a public meeting.

The story was cited by NPR, Newsweek, Techdirt, Grist, Axios, “Le Show,” the Associated Press, local media, and other news sites including those covering energy issues and the utility industry.

Michael Stein, the freelancer who reported the story, appeared on local and national radio programs and local TV to discuss his findings, including WWNO-FM, WBOK-AM, “Here and Now” and WYES’ “Informed Sources.”

Stein and WWNO’s Tegan Wendland worked together on a feature about the astroturfing that aired nationally on NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered.”

In a Poynter Online story, Al Tompkins, one of the leading journalism educators in the country, wrote that our story should spur journalists to ask questions about coordinated efforts to support or oppose an action at a public meeting. He wrote:

When people show up to a meeting wearing bright T-shirts and carrying signs but refuse to talk to a reporter who wants to hear their concerns, there is probably a reason. Gather names, get contact information and keep asking questions.  …

And, importantly, go to the meetings. As newsrooms shrink, in-person reporting gives way to social media videos of meetings standing in as our witness. This story unraveled because journalists spotted the unfolding story with their own eyes.

Investigative stories like this are our way of helping to foster a functional, accountable government in New Orleans. This work is supported by readers like you. If you’re not a member, consider joining today: support.thelensnola.org.

Read the stories:

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About Steve Myers

Steve Myers is editor of The Lens. Before joining the staff in 2012, Myers was managing editor of Poynter Online, the preeminent source of news and training about the journalism industry. At Poynter, he wrote about emerging media practices such as citizen journalism, nonprofit news sites, real-time reporting via social media, data-oriented news apps, iPhoneography, and the fact-checking movement. Six of his 10 years in newspapers were spent as a local government reporter in Mobile, Ala., where he focused on local government accountability, from jail management to hurricane preparation and response. He can be reached at (504) 298-9750.