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Investigative reporter David Heath on business journalism

April 3, 2012

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David Heath moved to The Center for Public Integrity from The Seattle Times, where he was three times a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

After being assigned to write about the bankruptcy of a life insurance company early on in his career, David Heath found himself far from excited. Thinking it would be the dullest story he’d ever have to do, Heath wasn’t expecting such a relatively straightforward, uninteresting topic to become his first of many investigative stories.

Turned out there was a lot of corruption, and the life insurance company was secretly paying the governor $125,000 yearly to serve as a business consultant.  Thus, Heath learned quickly, that digging deep and attention to detail can lead to the unexpected, transforming a quick turnaround B- story into an A+ investigative project with lasting effects.

So as a senior reporter for The Center for Public Integrity, David Heath is no newcomer to business and investigative journalism. Before landing his most recent position, Heath spent a year at the Huffington Post, 10 years at the Seattle Times, two years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and eight years the Courier-Journal, in addition to his hometown newspaper where he began his career at the Enid News in Oklahoma.

Heath received his Bachelor of Arts in English at Grinnell College and with a Neiman fellowship, spent 2005-2006 at Harvard University.  His topics for investigative projects have ranged from coverage of Congressional earmarks, corporation deception, to medical research and terrorism.

Heath’s years of work paid off, as a three time Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of multiples awards.

One of his many noteworthy series, “Uninformed Consent”, involved a cancer research center at a local Seattle hospital, in which doctors were acting wrongfully while benefiting from financial gains.  Not only was he noted as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but this work also won him the Gerald Loeb award, the Scripps Howard Foundation’s public service award, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ public service award and the Newspaper Guild’s Heywood Broun award.

Here Heath offers some insight into how to write successful business-related investigative stories:

1) Where do you develop story ideas for investigative projects?

The most obvious way to get stories is when you’re working on a story you go very, very deep into it and as you’re doing that, you hit upon things that are very interesting but not particularly related to the story that you have to be working on at that moment.  Then you keep that in the back of your mind and think, I want to come back to that issue later and look at it a little deeper.  I think some of my stories have come from that, where it’s sort of like remnants of an investigation that I was already doing, leading to another investigation.

When I became a full-time investigative reporter at places like the Seattle Times, I had the benefit of just talking to beat reporters in the newsroom and asking them sort of like, what they were working on, what they thought was really interesting.  And there’s been several stories where somebody who’s been covering a beat says, ‘yeah, there’s this really weird situation that I really want to take a look at, I just don’t have the time’, and so I would sort of get the editor to pair us up to work on it together and to devote the time to do the investigation.

2) With an abundance of information, databases, and research throughout an investigation, how do you organize and synthesize what you’ve gathered during the long process?

What I’m actually doing today is I’m taking all these artifacts and I’m trying to organize them into a coherent story. So I’m basically at this point writing an outline of what I think the most relevant facts are and going back to all the research that I’ve done, and especially re-reading everything and going back over all my interviews, and going back to all these documents that I’ve gathered.

I tend to try and keep everything electronically and I try and put them into file folders, as opposed to having paper copies of things.

I’m pretty good at keeping a timeline of events.  As you learn something new you put it in the timeline and essentially that timeline turns about its own narrative that you might not necessarily have seen when you were thinking about this fact or that fact.

At the final stages mostly what you’re doing is you’re deciding what not to use because you have so much information that you want to figure out how to tell the story without overwhelming the reader.  It’s that abundance of research that really gives the story its credibility, and it’s a way you can have an authoritative voice in writing the story.

3) When do you know when to wrap up an investigation?

One is when your editor says “OK, write a story”, and that kind of forces you.

“The other thing that probably gets
overlooked by most reporters
doing this kind of thing is the
scour for any kind of lawsuit.”

Every time you do an investigative piece, especially if it’s one where you’re accusing someone of a serious wrongdoing, you’re putting your career on the line.  The story has to be provable.  You have to get to the point where you’re sure that you’re right, and so even if your editor said write me up something, you have to cross that line first.

You have to get a point also where you just say, OK, let me start writing this and see what I’ve got. The good thing about that as an exercise is that when you start writing it, you’ll see suddenly sometimes a very obvious thing.  There will be holes in your story, things that you kind of took for granted the whole time but you never thought “oh I really need to actually go make sure that this assumption that I’m making here is correct”, or “I need to get an expert authority to explain to the reader that I do know that this is true”.

I think that if you get to a point where you feel like, ‘OK, I think that I can actually put something down on paper and see what I’ve got.’ That is really the beginning of the end of bringing a project to some kind of conclusion.

4) What are some of your suggestions when it comes to covering corporate deception and other business issues? 

I think that one thing that is kind of cool about business reporting is that so few reporters really read those SEC documents.  I know in just a few days I’ll probably be able to pick up some really cool stuff from just reading SEC files.

If you go through the documents you’ll find things that are worth pursuing.  If you look at the litigation that’s listed in the SEC documents, or if you look at related party transactions and documents, there will be a lot of very interesting things.  Taking the time to actually read SEC filings is a big thing that anyone can do when they’re first starting out doing a business investigation.

“Never give a source editing control. “

The other thing that probably gets overlooked by most reporters doing this kind of thing is the scour for any kind of lawsuit.  So if you’re looking at a particular company go out and see what lawsuits have been brought against them, go out and see what lawsuits have been brought against the owners of the companies or the executives of the company, go out and see what the background of the executives are.  Find out where they live, what kind of house they live in, how much property they have, what their background is, how they got into that business, who their connections are.  Take a look at their campaign contributions, their lobbying efforts.

In the initial stages of digging there are so many records to go through that the discovery is kind of endless.

5) How can you be sure your information is accurate?  What is your fact-checking process?

A lot of times I’ll be doing an interview and if I just ended up quoting this person saying these things, it would be great.  But then as I actually try to verify what they’re saying I find out that it’s often not correct what they’re saying or it’s not exactly the way they thought it was, or some key thing that they misunderstood.  You have to get to a point where you’re sure that what you’re saying is true.

Even when I’m going to do a story and I’m going to interview a target, I try to give them every opportunity to say whatever they need to say and to fact check with them.  Fact checking is really an important thing.  I just don’t cross the line of becoming an advocate for them or losing objectivity, or forgetting what the facts are, or trying to fit the facts to the story.  You just can’t do that.

Never give a source editing control.  Send them sections of story before hand, give them things they can fact check for you.  It’s crucial.  Having your target know what you’re going to say often tends to soften any criticism.  If they know it’s coming, they already had the opportunity to respond.


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