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Investigative reporting: Challenges and hurdles

May 1, 2012

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I once helped edit an investigative piece looking at the checkered business career of an important governmental figure.   The reporter had spent months on the piece and had dug up some really solid and damning information about the guy’s practices and dealings with other parties in business deals.

But it also turned out that a couple of this person’s victims also acted less than ethically in some of the deals.  The reporter initially resisted including that information, arguing that these were minor characters and mentioning their failings would simply confuse readers.  We argued for a while, as I recall at least a couple of beers were involved, and he finally agreed that the information should be included.

To me, this was an example of a common danger when doing investigative reporting:  a certain fear of moral complexity and a desire to paint things as much as possible in terms of good versus bad.

It’s an understandable mistake.  Much investigative reporting is powered by the desire to uncover wrongdoing.   And, generally, for an investigative project to work sufficient evidence of misdeeds needs to be found.

However, reality rarely comes in just black and white.  A reporter should always seek out information that could challenge or modify the story’s basic theme.   If the basic premise of a story is solid and has sufficient evidence to back it up, adding a certain amount of nuance and complexity often enhances its credibility—and potential impact.

Generally, the best place to get such information is from the person or entity that’s the subject of the investigation.   The effort to get such information should be genuine and not just a perfunctory 11th hour call.   Even if you get a no comment, it’s generally a good idea to send detailed, written questions.  The questions should cover anything critical that’s going to be included in the story about that person or entity.  Sometimes, such an overture will shake loose relevant information.  Even if it doesn’t, you at least know the subject of your piece has had a chance to respond to everything. Depending on the story, it’s often a good idea to contact the subject of the investigation earlier than later in the reporting.  Of course, that’s not the case where you think the subject could interfere with your reporting, such as a company seeking out threatening employees who talk.

But often, the subject can’t do all that much to slow down your reporting.  Early contact can serve two purposes. One, it sometimes makes the subject more willing to talk if he thinks you are genuinely interesting in getting his side as opposed to coming at the very end of reporting with a story largely done.

Plus, contacting the subject early can help avoid another problem in an investigative project:  spending lots of time reporting a theme that ultimately turns out not to be supported by the facts.  The subject of the investigation is often the best source for such information.   Whatever path you take on reporting the story, it’s vital to keep testing your main premises early and often.


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