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EXPOSÉ: America's Investigative Reports
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GUIDE TO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

Selecting a Story

by Todd Schindler

Whether you're a reporter, an aspiring journalist, or just a concerned citizen, the following guide will provide you with all the basic materials you'll need to conduct your own investigation and get your story out there to the public. Remember, what we don't know can hurt us.

How -- many people wonder after reading an in-depth piece of investigative reporting -- did the journalist ever stumble onto all that? How was he or she smart enough to start looking in that direction? Well, there's really no magic to it. Investigative journalists are simply people who have their eyes and ears constantly open to possible story ideas, and the impetus to start digging into a particular issue can come from just about anywhere.

Investigative pieces rarely begin with a reporter suddenly declaring, "I'm going to start investigating the governor for misuse of public funds and I'm really going to put the screws to him." Most often, reporters will get a tip from a source or they'll notice something a bit out of the ordinary in an area they cover on a regular basis. They might even catch what seems like a discrepancy in an article written by another person.

But you don't need to be a regular newspaper or television reporter to receive a tip or to formulate an investigative inquiry. You just have to have a healthy curiosity and a desire to dig deeper. Perhaps you meet a recently retired public utilities employee at a cocktail party and he tells you casually, "Boy, they're wasting money up there like you wouldn't believe." Or maybe you notice that every weekend night non-permitted cars fill up your permit-parking only block and are never ticketed; a neighbor mentions that a club on the corner seems to be using your block for valet parking. Could there be an off-the-books agreement between the city and the club? Maybe you read an article about a major charity's annual telethon and find, buried toward the end, that they raised a whopping $1,000. Could be a typo, or it could be that lots of cash is somehow disappearing down a rabbit hole.

Wherever your possible story idea comes from, no matter how big or small, you'll need to start with some preliminary investigation to see if it's worth pursuing at all. Talk to people who might be familiar with the topic. Do some snooping around in the records departments of your local government. Set up an informal stakeout. What you thought was a potential blockbuster exposé might just be a chimera. Then again, you might find that you're on to something.

Next, if your tip or hunch pans out, ask yourself this: Who cares? You might be passionate about a certain topic, but you must seriously assess if it has appeal beyond your small group of wonkish acquaintances. There are, of course, certain issues that always warrant attention; these include public safety, children's welfare and education, medical costs, and government malfeasance, as they tend to affect broad segments of the population. So depending on your subject, determine what audience you might be targeting and what type of media outlet you might approach. How do the issues affect potential readers or viewers? Do they have local relevance? National relevance? Does your story belong in THE NEW YORK TIMES or in a small neighborhood paper?

And finally, always keep an eye out for the dramatic possibilities inherent in your topic. Will you be able to tell your story in a compelling way or will it end up as a morass of eye-blurring facts and figures? Will you have access to vivid and compelling characters who can illustrate the issues and conflicts you broach? Basically, are there elements there that will help your story come alive?

Once you've answered these questions satisfactorily -- and perhaps even queried a media organization on the feasibility of your project -- you'll be ready to dive headlong into your investigation. And remember, even if one investigation doesn't work out, there's no shortage of other stories out there. Just keep your eyes open and an ear to the ground.

Next: Conducting an Interview

Guide to Investigative Reporting
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