The late Bob Greene, founder of Investigative Reporters and Editors once described the craft as this: “It is the reporting, through one’s own work product and initiative, matters of importance which some persons or organizations wish to keep secret.
The three basic elements are that the investigation be the work of the reporter, not a report of an investigation made by someone else; that the subject of the story involves something of reasonable importance to the reader or viewer; and that others are attempting to hide these matters from the public.”
Here are a few tips to help jump start your investigative reporting career:
- Become a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. The conventions provide great seminars and the website has a boatload of tips and documents that can help you build great stories and some great books. Check it out. Lots of great investigative reporting websites out in cyberspace, including, Center for investigative reporting and Global Investigative Journalism.
- Learn how to file Freedom of Information requests both with federal and state agencies. You can go to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to get help with FOIAs. Check out their website.. As a reporter you should have at least one FOIA request out per week. I once requested records from every state prison in the nation on the number of prison deaths and their causes to build a 10,000 word story on drug overdoses in prisons. It took a year to complete the story, and a year to get all the records. I even filed FBI records requests on the places I worked, and every time a famous person died. You never know what you can find out. I even filed an FBI FOIA on myself. Turns out the FBI had a file on stories I had written attached to investigations they did. The FBI didn’t always talk to me during the stories but they did talk a lot in the records I received. Who said this can’t be fun?
- Get familiar with data bases and websites that store wonderful information.
For example Associations on the Net is maintained byte the Internet Public Library. It provides links to various association websites. Check it out IPL and FindLaw . Or can help you link to government agencies and, of course Lexis Nexis where you can search for transcripts of news programs and news articles.
- Find a private investigator. He or she can be a source for life. If you get a good one, you will have stories, and learn tricks of the trade to get all kinds of information – all legal. For example, if you need a phone number or an email of someone, find out if the person has a dog. More than likely they got a license or permit. File a FOIA and you can get the phone number.
- Use social media to help you go through records. Agencies do a document dump – knowing you can’t possibility go through thousands of records. It’s a way of saying here are your records, but good luck finding what you want. Put them on your social media network and ask for help. In 2006, Talking Points Memo Muckraker found success by asking readers to help sort through thousands of documents pertaining to the investigation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s controversial firing of seven United States attorneys in 2006. You can do the same by getting expense records of all your local legislators and asking reading if they see anything that jumps out at them.
- You heard it said to “Follow the Money!” That’s straight from Watergate. But where there is money there is a document trail. Find the paperwork. Ask yourself, where did they write it down? Then FOIA it.
- Court records are great. Get to know the judges, the clerks, the lawyers. Check the records on case prior to trials, during trials and after trials. You can find a goldmine of information. Request copies of jury reports – yes jury reports that are filed quarterly. That’s how I found jurors had requested a state investigation into government pension fraud.
- Interview in person as much as possible and always over something to eat. Why? Because the person is trapped while waiting for food. Some of my best interviews were over apple pie. They never left until they got the pie, which gave me plenty of time to get what I needed. The pie wasn’t bad either. Order it with ice cream and it buys you another 20 minutes.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Lots of journalists out there who have done similar stories and can provide tips. After 25 years, I still ask for help.
- Don’t rush. It’s better to be right than to write a correction tomorrow.