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EXPOSÉ: America's Investigative Reports
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.

Conducting an Interview

Investigative interviews can be part interrogation, part chess match, and part theater. The best reporters know that to some extent journalism involves a bit of stagecraft, and how you tailor your interview style and approach depends on whom you're talking to. Your overall strategic approach is equally important; you must know when to move your pawns and supporting players, and when to take the king.

Your investigation will likely involve dozens of interviews with a variety of sources and subjects over an extended period of time. Keeping track of them all will be challenging. But no matter what stage you're at in your sleuthing or who you happen to be interviewing, there are several standards you should always follow:
  • Know who you're talking to. Be familiar with the person's role in the organization or agency you're looking into, and know what his or her relationship is to the person or people you're investigating.

  • Have all your documentation prepared and accessible to back your claims up, especially documents that might be incriminating or arouse suspicion.

  • Know precisely what questions you want to ask and the order in which you plan to ask them.

  • Never provide an interview subject with the questions ahead of time. Never!
This might all seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised at how many reporters forget to ask all their questions when the subject takes the interview in a different direction or how many misrepresent a document because they don't have it in front of them. Having to call a subject back after the interview to ask more questions is not only embarrassing for you but also could potentially put them off.

The second thing to keep in mind is the sequence in which you conduct interviews. The progress of your investigation will play a role in this, but whenever possible try to work from the outside in, starting with sources who are more general and peripheral and working your way closer and closer until your final interview, which should be with your main target. This will hopefully help you avoid the "circling the wagons" routine, with high-level subjects consulting each other to get their stories "straight."

In real estate, the catchphrase is location, location, location. Take that to heart. Try to avoid busy places like bars or restaurants when you're ready for a real interview; you don't need the waiter interrupting you for drink orders when you're just about to reel in. A subject's home is best -- it's where they feel the most comfortable and in control. So don't ask them to name a location. Simply tell them you'd like to meet them at their house at a specific time.

The old adage that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar is a good maxim for the investigative reporter to work by. Never, ever come into interviews surly or with a chip on your shoulder. Be polite. When your investigative piece comes out, you don't want anybody claiming you were biased; you want them to accept that they were caught fair and square. A cordial attitude will help you develop a decent rapport with your subjects, and you should try to make small talk before you get down to brass tacks. If, for example, you see a Little League photo of a subject's son on the wall, talk about your own kids. Let them know you have things in common. They're going to give you more goods if they're relaxed than if they feel they're being hounded.

A couple rules of thumb for the actual interview:
  • Start with broad questions and slowly become more specific. This allows your subject to gain a level of comfort with you that will serve you well when you start throwing hardballs.

  • Try to avoid yes-or-no questions, particularly when you interview subjects who might have had some involvement in what you're investigating. Instead of asking, "Were you offered a bribe by Mr. A?" ask, "When Mr. A came to you with the money, what was your first reaction?" If your subject answers the second question, you have confirmation that a bribe was indeed offered.

  • Use silence to your advantage. Instead of following each of your subject's responses with your next question, wait. Then wait some more. Most people feel uncomfortable with silence and will avoid it by continuing to talk, and the more they talk, the better chance they have of hanging themselves.
How you play the interview depends on how you gauge the interviewee. Are they being cagey? Do they suspect that you know everything? Some reporters might adopt a Columbo-like style, playing dense and asking the subject to explain things once, twice, three times, thank you very much, ma'am. Others might insinuate they know more than they actually do in an effort to get the subject to casually reveal things. There's a good chance some people will shade the truth. If you suspect someone is bluffing or telling outright lies, a good method of detection is to ask a couple of questions you do know the answer to and see how they respond. By reading your subject and adapting appropriately, you'll likely get more out of an interview.

Most of all, be persistent. You're going to be hung up on and have doors slammed in your face -- that's a fact. Don't give up. Keep calling. Send a letter. Send a telegram. Wait for your subject after work outside his or her office. Be creative. In their investigation of the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein contacted one subject 26 times before they finally got him to sit down for an interview. You could certainly hack a dozen.

Locating Documents

At the heart of any journalistic investigation are documents: court judgments, corporate reports, property records, tax documents, criminal histories, an incriminating note jotted on the back of an envelope. If you're diligent, and a little bit lucky, this is where you might find your smoking gun. Generally, it's unlikely someone is going to hand you what you're looking for on a silver platter, so you'll have to rely on your own elbow grease and creativity, whether that means wading through stacks of transcripts at the local courthouse, reading your eyes bloodshot on online databases, or rooting through filthy dumpsters. Nobody said investigative legwork was glamorous. But knowing where and how to find important documents can make things a whole lot easier.

Local and State Records

Local governments, as well as most private organizations and non-profits, maintain mountains of records. Some are available to the public, others aren't. Where you start digging depends on what you're looking for. Her are just a few of the things you'll be able to access from government offices in your city, county or state:

  • birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates
  • names and addresses of property owners and business owners
  • records of real-estate transactions, building permits and violations
  • information on corporations, including officers, addresses, licenses and status
  • records from criminal and civil courts, including names of defendants, charges and verdicts
  • records from divorce court, bankruptcy court, U.S. Tax Court and probate court
  • financial information on individuals, including loans, liens and collateral
  • records of campaign contributions to elected officials
  • information on government contracts, including documentation of each bid for services
Let's consider a hypothetical situation. Say you've witnessed some strange activities at Norm's Flower Shop on the corner: lots of seedy-looking folks coming in, disappearing into a back room and then leaving, flowerless. Perhaps you've checked the local police blotter and noticed a spike in drug busts in the area recently. Something just doesn't seem right.

You decide to find out who owns the property. A search of records at the county assessor's office, where property tax documents are kept, tells you that the owner is Acme Industries, Inc. But you need a name. You contact your state's secretary of state's corporations division and they forward you Acme's records, including the names of the corporation's officers and its founders. Turns out the founder, CEO and agent for Acme is a James W. Kingpin. You check the state superior court records and learn that Mr. Kingpin was busted a decade ago for selling cocaine. You also find that he's been arrested several times recently for possession with intent to sell, but each time the case has been dropped. Hmm. You return to the corporate records and see that the vice president of Acme is a Michael Grabb. That last name sounds familiar. You obtain Michael Grabb's birth certificate from the county clerk and find that -- presto! -- he is the son of local district attorney Robert Grabb. Furthermore, in the last two elections, Robert Grabb's biggest individual donor has been a Marsha McKinley. On a whim, you do some searching and find, after obtaining the marriage certificate from the county clerk, that McKinley's husband is none other than Mr. Kingpin.

And there you are. With the help of city, county, and state documents -- all of them public record -- you've gone from a hunch to possibly uncovering a government protection racket for a narcotics operation. Naturally, most investigations aren't going to be as easy as this, but the point is that readily available public documents can give you a gold mine of information on individuals and organizations.

Each state and locality has different laws about precisely what is available. To find out about your particular area, visit the BRB Publications public records Web site which has links to local government sites. You might also try the Investigative Reporters & Editors records resource or Netronline's public records search tool. Many public records are now available online for free or for a nominal fee; they are also accessible through subscription sites like Lexis-Nexis. With a little online searching, you should be able to locate other Web guides to public documents for your state. You'd also be wise to invest in Steve Weinberg's THE INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER'S HANDBOOK: A GUIDE TO DOCUMENTS, DATABASES, AND TECHNIQUES, a great resource on how to find and use public documents.

Federal Records

Just as city, county, and state governments are required to keep records of their activities and proceedings, the three branches of the federal government publish truckloads of material each month -- including information on congressional sessions, federal and Supreme Court hearings, presidential activities, and issues related to most federal departments, agencies, and bureaus -- much of which will be useful to investigative reporters. The sheer volume of published materials can be daunting, however, so knowing how to locate documents is key.

The federal Government Printing Office (GPO) is responsible for publishing most of these materials; the GPO regularly sends copies of these documents to more than 1,250 federal depository libraries throughout the country and issues a monthly catalogue indexing them. Depository librarians are experts at helping you navigate the alphabet soup of government agencies to find what you're looking for. The GPO Web site is also a terrific resource and definitely worth a browse -- it includes listings of local depository libraries, a searchable database of GPO publications dating back to 1994, an online bookstore for government reports, and free access to thousands of other government documents, as well as links to a slew of federal government sites.

The National Archives and the National Technical Information Service, which have millions of reports on federally funded science and technology projects, are also valuable sources for documents. And the federal court system now maintains a database site with detailed records on U.S. district, appellate and bankruptcy cases.

It's a wise idea to have some sort of rudder to help steer you through the high seas of federal documents. Check out Judith Schiek Robinson's TAPPING THE GOVERNMENT GRAPEVINE: A USER-FRIENDLY GUIDE TO U.S. GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SOURCES and Joe Morehead's INTRODUCTION TO UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SOURCES -- both are good tools.

Freedom of Information Laws

Some government records aren't available to the general public. But that doesn't mean an investigative reporter can't get his or her hands on them. The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any individual to request documents from the executive branch of the federal government -- this includes cabinet departments, the military, government corporations, and federal regulatory agencies. Say, for instance, you are investigating the death of an American soldier in Iraq. Military casualty reports are kept closed, but by filing a FOIA request you should be able to get the document. Most documents secured under the FOIA will have "sensitive" or "classified" information redacted by the issuing agency. But remember, the burden in FOIA cases rests with the government agency to explain why certain documents or facts must be kept secret; the individual requesting the document does not have to prove a "need to know."

For more information on the federal Freedom of Information Act and instructions on how to fill out a request, visit the Center for Public Integrity Web site.

Most states have passed their own freedom-of-information legislation and open-records laws. For more information and links to these local statutes, check out the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and NOW's nationwide guide. The RCFP also offers an online guide to Freedom of Information issues, as well as an FOI Letter Generator.

All About Sources

The tip comes from an anonymous caller: "You ought to look into how Company X keeps its workers in the dark about handling toxic chemicals." Click. Sources can be the most difficult and the most productive part of an investigation, and how you handle them will determine how well your story progresses. While government documents and corporate records can do wonders in bringing to light abuses and other shenanigans, they suffer from one major flaw: They can't talk. And in the business of investigative journalism, where reporters work on the assumption that there is always somebody out there who knows, getting people to talk is the No. 1 priority.

But this too has its drawbacks. There are some sources who are going to be honest and altruistic, and there others who are going to bring every Machiavellian technique to bear in order to play you like a violin. A good number fall somewhere between those two ends of that spectrum. Knowing how to "read" your sources can mean the difference between being a discerning journalist and a dupe.

During your investigation, you'll be talking to, at the very least, dozens of sources. We'll begin with the tipsters, those folks like our caller who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to pass along potentially damning information about corporations, government departments and officials, and the like. Some choose to remain anonymous and you'll never hear from them again after the initial contact. But more frequently, tipsters will hang around throughout your investigation feeding you whatever morsels of information they might have at their disposal.

The question is, why would somebody elect to confide in you? Aside from the chance that they just get a thrill out of seeing their ideas in the paper, there are two basic reasons: (1) They have strong feelings about the public good and transparency in democracy, or (2) they've got a bone to pick. It's not unusual that a tipster will be an ex-employee who was fired or laid off and is still smarting. This doesn't mean you should disregard what he tells you. But always make sure you confirm the veracity of his information by consulting public records and contacting other individuals who are privy to the same facts. If he is aiding you in nailing his ex-boss, talk to several other former and current employees of the organization in addition to your tipster source.

And beware. If you fail to fully vet your sources' claims, you could end up like the folks at CBS who in 2004 were publicly taken to task after they aired a piece alleging that President George W. Bush had received "special treatment" that allowed him to shirk military service in Texas. Turns out the documents verifying this -- which were handed to CBS reporters by a source -- were, well, not exactly authentic.

The other sources you consult will depend on what type of investigation you're running. It's always a good idea to get as many general sources on record as you can. If you're looking into government waste by a particular agency, talk to as many people who work there as you can to get an idea of how things run, why things are done in certain ways, and how the chain of command works. Make friends with them; many might have sealed lips, but you never know when one of these new sources might decide to slip you a juicy tidbit that could make your story. Perhaps you'll hook a high-level "Deep Throat" with a beef who can help keep you on the scent.

If your investigation targets a particular individual, interview his co-workers, his employees, his neighbors, his exes, his fellow duffers at the country club. Someone with information might still be fuming over the "gimme" your man took on the 18th hole last time around. You'll be surprised at how little it sometimes takes for a person to turn into an informant.

University professors and researchers at think tanks also make great sources if they deal in your focus area, as do other reporters and law enforcement officials. They can help you understand complicated technical points and keep you up to date on new developments. Consult them frequently, let them know to keep their eyes peeled.

The more sources you cultivate, both those intimately entwined with the investigation and those on the periphery, the better chance you have of making your investigation pay off.

Packaging Your Story

Once your investigation is in the bag -- your documents secured, your sources vetted, your interviews completed -- and even many times during the process, you must determine how to "package" or "wrap" your story for commercial consumption. That is, how will you present the story in a way that is interesting and compelling to your potential readers or viewers? Not many people want to sit and read a 5,000-word article that blandly runs through six months' worth of facts and figures related to your insurance fraud investigation. But they'll gobble up each word if they see in the lead that one of the people busted happens to be the mayor's wife.

No matter how important your findings, unless you have a storyteller's eye for detail and a salesman's feel for the public's taste, chances are good that folks will take one look at your piece and just move along -- and that's true for print, television, radio, and the Web. So how do you hook people? How do you make them want to keep watching, listening or reading? In most cases, the key is characters and a dramatic narrative. A story without characters is just a report. But a well-told tale involving a conflict and resolution, and featuring sympathetic individuals engaged in a struggle people can relate to, is something the public will remember for a while. So rather than simply discussing how federal disaster-relief funds have been misallocated, show us how a grandmother from the neighborhood has been forced to live in a tent and survive on handouts. Instead of giving us the numbers on police brutality, draw us in by highlighting the local teenager who now must get around in a wheelchair and use a catheter.

For an example of how experienced reporters weave great characters into their pieces, take a look at "Mary Ellen's Will: The Battle for 4949 Swiss," a recent DALLAS MORNING NEWS investigative series on financial exploitation of the elderly that uses the poignant story of one older woman to illustrate the journalist's copious research on the issue. A TIME MAGAZINE report by investigative journalists Donald Bartlett and James Steele on how congressional legislation over the years has allowed corporations to deny workers their pensions and retirement savings uses a variety of characters and their financial struggles to keep the story's statistics meaningful.

The more you make a case for your investigative revelations by tying them to stories of those who have been victimized by abuses of power, the better chance you have of grabbing the public's attention and hopefully triggering a process that will lead to meaningful change.

Sometimes, however, the opportunity doesn't exist to get deeply into characters. Shorter-format television news, for instance, allows just a couple of minutes to tell the tale. In such cases, it's important to make the pictures compelling. If you are doing a piece on employees defrauding the workers' compensation system, try to focus on one or two individuals you know to be involved. A shot of workers on the job is a snoozer, but hidden video of a supposedly injured John Doe moonlighting at children's birthday parties as Bozo the Clown shows viewers everything they need to know to support the facts. Perhaps you can also tie this in to the story of a local company that folded because it could no longer afford compensation insurance; there are plenty of possibilities for packaging your story in relation to other current issues and events.

And naturally, not all investigations lend themselves to the dramatic arc. A governor caught in an ongoing sexual relationship with a minor, a mayor nailed for illegally using city funds to purchase a new Cadillac -- these types of breaking investigative pieces, which involve well-known public figures, essentially sell themselves, so there's generally no need to spice them up with narrative techniques. But that doesn't mean they can't also be packaged well. Web technology, more than any other medium, offers the chance to contextualize stories through links to previous articles, links to outside sources, and instant updates. Perhaps there have been a number of reported sex scandals involving government officials in recent months; now you have a tie-in that's easy to set up online.

Take one more glance at "Mary Ellen's Will" from the DALLAS MORNING NEWS. Witness how the Web site has used multimedia technology to package the story in a way that would be impossible in print, using updates, chats, relevant video, and a section for feedback, all of which gives added context and allows the public to participate in discussions on the story's key issues. After all, getting the public involved is ultimately the aim of investigative reporting.

Simply put, the key to successfully packaging a story is to be constantly on the lookout for what's compelling and what's relevant -- and, most of all, to be creative.

Getting It Out There

The primary role of investigative journalism is to inform the public. If people don't know about the corruption and abuses that take place behind closed doors, little can be done to rectify the situation. So there's no sense in conducting an investigation if it's going to be packed away in a file box in storage. Following are some tips that should save you the indignity of having to hock Xerox copies of your article on the street corner.

But first, the difficult truth. Getting investigative pieces published or aired in the mainstream media can be tough. A good number of major media outlets these days are not willing to spend the time and money necessary to support investigations that can take months and sometimes years, regardless of how important the issues might be, if they don't boost their bottom line. Still, others assert that we are witnessing a new flourishing of investigative journalism, even if that includes somewhat frivolous "investigations" into the efficacy of the latest diet fad or the dangers of high-heeled shoes. You be the judge.

Point is, if you're working independently as a freelancer, you'll probably have to figure out how to support your own investigation before it gets published. If it's a shorter-term project, you may be able to swing it; for long-term investigations, you may want to consider applying for some kind of grant (links to grant opportunities are below).

The first thing you'll have to do on the road to getting your piece published is to query your target media outlet. A query is a letter proposing your story idea, and you'll want to send this only after you have conducted your preliminary research. Generally, the query will include an overview of your story, including your research to date, your qualifications to write on the particular topic, your "ins" and contacts with story subjects, the documentation you intend to provide, and the tone and style of your proposed piece. You can see guidelines on how to put together a query letter at the Washington Independent Writers Web site and at Poewar.com.

Know the audience you plan to target. When you first selected your story idea, you considered who would be interested. A local readership? A national audience? A group of people concerned about a particular issue? Now is the time to zero in on the proper publication or other media outlet. If you're writing about a Department of Defense cover-up, aim for the nationals, perhaps an investigation-friendly magazine like MOTHER JONES. If your story concerns corruption at city hall, query your local dailies or weeklies. An exposé on corporate pension plans might play best in AARP MAGAZINE, for instance, while a report on strip-mining might be of interest to SIERRA magazine. It's up to you to do the searching and find the outlet best-suited to your story.

The explosive growth of the Internet means there are also countless opportunities for getting your work published online. Most newspapers and magazines now have Web sites that feature pieces not carried in print editions, and Web-only publications like SLATE and SALON also carry investigative pieces. A number of well-known investigative journalists have their own news and blog sites -- setting up your own site is something you may want to consider if you're finding it difficult to get published. But keep in mind, if you're relatively new to investigative journalism, you will probably want to have a professional editor look over your manuscript before you post it, if possible. Unless you are absolutely sure of every fact and assertion, you could be setting yourself up for a libel suit.

For more information on getting published and for resources on investigative journalism training, education, networking, grants and awards, visit the following sites:
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