Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Raquel Rutledge has spent her career uncovering the painful truths behind some of Wisconsin’s controversial news stories. From exposing fraud in the state’s child-care subsidy system to alerting readers why shoddy fuel was making its way past inspections and into their vehicles, Rutledge understands how to pull together stories that take a little digging.
She has worked with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since 2004 as part of its Watchdog reporting team and was previously a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette for 7 years. Her story, “A Case of Shattered Trust,” about contaminated alcohol wipes earned her a silver award at the 2010 Barlett & Steele Awards.
Rutledge spoke to the 30 fellows at this year’s Reynolds Week about how to scope out and put together investigative stories:
- The best reference book for writers is “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell according to Rutledge. The book was a gift from an editor early on in her career, and she credits it as making a huge difference in her reporting. “It is the bible of writing for anybody who’s interested in the craft of writing. For investigative work. For news breaking news,” she said.
- Find stories from breaking news, beats and obscure publications. She also says tips from reliable sources are a great thing to follow. “That’s where a lot of our bigger stories originate. A lot of them are from tips,” Rutledge said. It’s important that everyone in a newsroom knows what to do with tips, also, so they don’t get lost.
- When you have a story idea, know if you should follow through with it. Rutledge says to consider the scope of the problem: How many people might be affected? Can a local angle be taken from a nationwide story?
- Also, ask yourself if there is an outrage factor. Rutledge said, “For me, it’s something surprising. That’s kind of what motivates me. If I’m curious, if I haven’t heard about it, if I want to know more.”
- Investigative stories sometimes need to be explained through heaps of data, so don’t overwhelm people with obscure numbers. “You want to know the accurate number, but you still might want to round it just to make it simpler for people to digest,” she said.
- It’s a good idea to communicate with your editors regularly, but how often is up to you. Rutledge said she looks forward to telling her editor about any twists in her story. She also adds that good editors will remember small details you share with them throughout the process. They can later help you piece together your story because they will be familiar with your topic. “And I love that because then you don’t feel like you’re all alone. You’re collaborating,” she said.
- Talking to others about your story also could end up helping you write about the topic more clearly. “When you’re sharing it along the way with other people, you’re also learning. You’re hearing what they have to say, how they’re receiving it, what questions they might have about it. It’s actually helping the reporting process…you’re getting feedback from basically talking about it,” she said.
- Fact check your story with your editor. Rutledge said “Go line bye line, every single fact, every name…‘How do you know it, and where do you find it?’”
Rutledge shared her thoughts and these slides during Day 1 of Reynolds Week 2014.