How Frontline Investigations Make an Impact: 40 Years of Journalism

Christina Knight | January 17, 2023

With 100 Emmys, two Oscar nominations, a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody awards to its credit, Frontline celebrates an impressive 40 years of investigative broadcast journalism this week.

An oft-cited and unattributed quote about its debut in 1983 speaks more to the dismal state of documentaries at that time: a TV critic called Frontline “the last best hope for broadcast documentaries.” What was the subject of this Hail Mary broadcast on January 17, 1983? It wasn’t about the Iran hostage crisis that had ended two years earlier, or about the disastrous Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalk collapse in Kansas City, Missouri, which killed 114 people and injured 216 in July 1981. The very first Frontline broadcast on PBS was sports-related. The Unauthorized History of the NFL investigated “the underbelly of the National Football League, the secret connections between professional football and the world of sports gambling and organized crime,” and was hosted by then NBC Nightly News anchor Jessica Savitch.

Tragically, Savitch died in a car accident that same year, and Frontline continued between 1984 and 1990 as the weekly Frontline with Judy Woodruff, delivering on its promise of “journalism that questions, explains and changes our world.”

Subscribers to Frontline‘s newsletter received an inspiring message today from its Editor-in-Chief and Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath, which looks at how its investigations have revealed, influenced, and made an impact. THIRTEEN is proud to present Frontline specials (see Schedule). You can stream 300 episodes, including its most recent international investigation, Global Spyware Scandal: Exposing Pegasus, and subscribe to the Frontline newsletter by visiting the official Frontline site. Frontline streams on the THIRTEEN Explore and PBS video apps.

A woman with brown hair smiles for camera on a step and repeat red carpet.

Raney Aronson-Rath at the International Documentary Association’s 35th Annual IDA Documentary Awards on Dec. 07, 2019. Photo by Michael Tran/Getty Images

Dear FRONTLINE community,

Forty years ago tonight, on Jan. 17, 1983, FRONTLINE aired its very first investigation, The Unauthorized History of the NFL.

So much about our country, our world, and our media ecosystem has changed in the four decades since.

But one thing has not: FRONTLINE’s core mission.

We remain dedicated to producing fair, independent journalism that holds powerful people, companies, institutions and systems to account.

That mission’s importance has only grown. We are marking this milestone in an era of tumult and threats to democracy both in the U.S. and worldwide. In these troubled times, the need for thoughtful and trustworthy accountability journalism is immense. And we are rising to this challenge, empowered by FRONTLINE’s 40-year record.

A trip through our archives is literally a journey through the highs and lows of global history. In the 32 years during which our founder, David Fanning, led and executive produced FRONTLINE, the series fearlessly probed everything from the genocide in Rwanda, to the U.S. government’s war on drugs, to our changing climate, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. FRONTLINE’s documentaries freed innocent people from prison, sparked a U.N. resolution on toxic waste dumping, spurred indictments, and prompted legislation to protect female farmworkers from sexual abuse.

Since I succeeded David as FRONTLINE’s executive producer in 2015, our journalism, often produced with carefully selected editorial partners, has shed new light on the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, helped lead to federal charges and prison sentences for members of a violent white supremacist group, revealed the presence of hate groups at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, sparked the creation of a federal task force to look into child sexual abuse in the Indian Health Service, exposed the government’s failure to prevent a fatal disease outbreak among coal miners, and prompted calls for reform of New York’s troubled supported housing system. And much, much more.

Four decades, six U.S. presidencies, and almost 800 documentaries after our series began, our reporting is still guided by a commitment to fairness, toughness and transparency — a commitment that has helped us earn every major broadcast journalism award. In addition to our long history of impact and quality, FRONTLINE has also been an innovator. For example, the series first began making full documentaries available to stream online in 1995. Netflix didn’t start streaming until 2007 and YouTube didn’t even exist until 2005.

Many years later, I am proud to say that we are still breaking new ground and achieving “firsts,” with our journalism being experienced across more platforms and in more places than ever before. Our YouTube channel now has nearly two million subscribers and around 450 million views. Our original podcast, The FRONTLINE Dispatch, has been downloaded seven million times. We earned our first Oscar nomination in 2018 and our second in 2020. Un(re)solved, our multiplatform, interactive investigation of an effort to grapple with America’s history of racist killings, won the “Outstanding Interactive Media: Innovation” Emmy Award in 2022.

We have launched new initiatives to increase diversity and equity in investigative documentary filmmaking and to bolster investigative journalism at the local level. And this week, a new documentary from FRONTLINE and The Associated Press that goes inside the early days of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, 20 Days in Mariupol, will have its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It is the first FRONTLINE original documentary to debut at the world-renowned film festival.

FRONTLINE wouldn’t have been able to thrive and evolve over the past four decades without the enduring support of our dedicated public media community. All of us at FRONTLINE are grateful to PBS, to our home, GBH, and to our funders, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for standing by us and continuing to believe in the vital importance of investigative journalism.

And we are so thankful to you for being part of this community, supporting our work day in and day out, year in and year out — and decade after decade after decade.

That work goes on.

Later this month, we’ll bring you Putin and the Presidents, an investigation of Vladimir Putin’s clashes with five American presidential administrations as he’s tried to rebuild the Russian empire. It will be available to stream starting Tuesday, January 24 — one week ahead of its Tuesday, January 31, premiere on PBS stations, and one month before Russia’s war on Ukraine reaches the one-year mark. And there is much more to share with you this winter and spring, including a two-part series that draws on decades of on-the-ground reporting to examine how America’s 20 years in Afghanistan culminated in a Taliban victory.

No matter what the years ahead may hold, we will continue to investigate stories in the public interest and bring you journalism that is worthy of your trust.

It was our promise to you 40 years ago. It remains our promise to you now.

Thank you.
Editor-in-Chief and Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath

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