By Chris Adams
Think big – and ask the obvious questions.
That’s the lesson for Paul Miller fellows from some of the nation’s top investigative reporters who gave tips on picking and executing what is often the trickiest work to do.
The journalists have written or edited stories that won Pulitzers, Polks, Emmys and other top awards. They’ve written for the top news organizations in the nation. And three have had a movie made about their work.
The movie subjects are Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel and John Walcott, soon to be featured on the big screen by Woody Harrelson, James Marsden and Rob Reiner, respectively.
The movie is “Shock and Awe,” scheduled for a 2017 release and directed by Reiner. It focuses on the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush administration was pushing the idea that then-Iraq leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Much of the media establishment uncritically accepted those claims.
The three journalists – then at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and now all at Reuters – called into question those assertions. The work was at times lonely, but has since been validated over and over and over and over.
Strobel said that while they did have high-level sources, they consciously worked the mid-levels of U.S. intelligence agencies, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Especially in Washington, it’s very tempting to say you have some source close to the president,” he said. “In the end, that doesn’t get you closer to the truth.”
Added Walcott, who was editor for the stories and also contributed reporting to them: “It takes time. You can’t do that on the phone, you can’t do that by email – you have to do it face-to-face.”
Every investigative story has its own challenges, and requires its own techniques. While it was inside, unnamed sources for the Knight Ridder work, for David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post it was an often very-public search for information on Twitter.
Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer in 2017 for documenting Donald Trump’s evasions in his charitable contributions, as well as the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about groping women. Fahrenthold’s quest started with a basic question: How much has Trump donated to charities?
Over the course of a year of reporting on Trump and his charitable foundation, Fahrenthold said he set out to first see if Trump had actually given $6 million to veterans groups, as he claimed in a campaign event. In the end, according to the Post, Fahrenthold called some 450 charitable organizations to ask them whether Trump had ever donated money and used Twitter to search out contributions and to crowdsource what the public knew about them.
The first lesson of his endeavor: “Transparency helps,” he said. While reporters are often leery of sharing their reporting-in-progress, in this case it helped. Fahrenthold’s other lessons: give readers a thread to follow throughout an ongoing project, make “maps” of your reporting efforts so you can later find the information you need, and “never, ever buy into the idea that ‘nothing matters.’ ”
Deborah Nelson, a professor at the University of Maryland who won a Pulitzer Prize during a reporting career at the Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Seattle Times, started with a basic definition of what investigative reporting really is and what it is not. One thing it’s not is getting and publishing leaks.
That’s particularly true in the age of Trump, when an early-morning tweet can divert everybody’s attention for the day.
Nelson also shared her story-selection grid that assesses whether a story is easy or hard to do, or high or low in importance. Some stories you just say no to – hard to prove, low in importance – while there is a place for greenlighting other stories.
Good investigative reporting, she said, is “methodical, independent, obsessive pursuit of what’s really going on. … There’s a difference between getting leaks and what Dave Fahrenthold did.”
Ron Nixon, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, has long experience in data journalism at the Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and others. He described the methods he uses to decide when to dive into a data story – and also what to avoid.
Showing a dense screen of digital data, Nixon said, “I see a lot of data stories that look just like this: They have a lot of numbers just jammed in there, and readers are asleep before they get to the nut graf. If there is a nut graf.”
He also detailed specific programs that can be used by journalists. Over his career, he has used statistical software such as SAS and R; spreadsheet programs such as Excel; ArcGIS for mapping; SQLite for simple database work; and Python or Ruby for heavy data analysis.
But before he completes a data story, he makes sure he knows what the data show and what that means in the real world. And he cautioned journalists to be judicious in how they use numbers. “People don’t need to know every single piece of data you have,” Nixon said.
Ted Bridis, an investigations editor at The Associated Press who oversaw a Pulitzer-winning package on civil liberties violations by the New York Police Department, talked about how to corral reporters – often self-assured and bullheaded – into cohesive teams that can work together while still having spirited debates over the substance of a story.
“We encourage reporters to work it out themselves,” he said.
He also detailed the “red team” concept he has formalized. It turns a collaborative process into an adversarial one, as Bridis drills into every fact and assertion in a story before considering it ready for publication.
“We will do a line-by-line of every fact, every assertion of the story,” he said. “It is a slow tedious process. It can sometimes take a day for a 1,000-word story.”
He emphasized the process is identical for every project and every reporter – no matter if they have five years of experience or 25.
Editors may do additional reporting. “I have reported behind reporters. I will interview sources of my own,” Bridis said. “Sometimes, those interviews make it into the story. Sometimes they don’t.”
Finally, Tisha Thompson of ESPN shared the tips she has developed over an award-winning career in local, and now national, television. One of her greatest lessons is to know when to stay quiet – when to let the camera roll through awkward silences while a source might be too caught up in emotion to speak. One such story, done for the NBC affiliate in Washington, captured the moment a father recounted the death of his baby.