How the Best Investigative Reporters Find and Execute Difficult Stories

By Chris Adams

Sometimes the best stories are the result of careful planning and long-term digging.

Sometimes they emerge more haphazardly.

David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, for example, didn’t go looking for a long-term investigation on Donald Trump and his charitable giving. But that’s what emerged from his initial forays in the early days of the 2016 campaign, when he heard then-candidate Trump say on the stump that he had donated money to a veterans charity. Fahrenthold (bio, Twitter) thought it sounded interesting and set out to find the charity.

“I thought at the time, ‘That’s weird,’ ” Fahrenthold told a group of National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows. “I’d never seen anybody give out a charity check at a political rally.”

After he “sort of stumbled on the Trump story,” Fahrenthold would go on to become one of the nation’s preeminent reporters on Trump’s charitable giving and other aspects of his personal businesses and wealth.

In a series of sessions with Paul Miller fellows, Fahrenthold and five other top investigative reporters talked about their techniques, as well as about the best ways to push out information. Fahrenthold did it piecemeal – a story here, a story there – rather than gathering up all his string for one big takeout.

“I feel like the drip-drip of stories gets more attention,” he said. It allowed him to build a massive audience of people waiting for his next story. He has a Twitter following of about 650,000 – not Trump numbers (61 million), but pretty good for an investigative reporter.

The drip-drip is also how the stories emerged from a team of reporters at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau on the run-up to the Iraq War. The journalists – Joe Galloway, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and their editor John Walcott – were recently the focus of Hollywood in the form of “Shock and Awe,” a 2017 release directed by Rob Reiner. (Reiner plays Walcott in the movie, while Woody Harrelson plays Landay, James Marsden plays Strobel and Tommy Lee Jones plays Galloway).

The movie focuses on the Bush administration’s claims that then-Iraq leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Much of the media establishment uncritically accepted those claims; the Knight Ridder team didn’t. Their work has since been validated over and over and over and over.

Landay, Strobel and Walcott described their reporting, as well as the movie, to Paul Miller fellows. One key tip:

“Our stories were built on mid-level sources, not political appointees,” said Walcott, an editor and reporter on the stories. “Be careful of the access trap – that is, cultivating high-level sources so you can say, ‘I talked with the secretary of state.’ ”

Added Landay: “You’re only as good as your Rolodex. Well, we don’t use Rolodexes anymore. You’re only as good as your contact list.”

Fellows also heard from Mark Greenblatt (bio, Twitter), senior national investigative correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and a Paul Miller alumnus, who talked about taking investigations to television, and Neela Banerjee (bio, Twitter) of Inside Climate News, who discussed the art of building a big project as well as how to dive in on climate-and-energy related stories.

More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.