CAMP 2014: Top 11 refreshers on how to keep investigative reporting on track

Story by 2014 Fellow Lindsey Anderson | Photos by 2014 Fellow Shondiin Silversmith

Susy Schultz leads an investigative reporting session at CAMP.

Piles of documents. Endless source lists. Months and months of research. Investigative reporting projects can be overwhelming, but they don’t have to be disorganized.

“Journalism is hard. It’s really hard,” said Rosemary Armao, a professor of journalism at the University at Albany, SUNY during a day-long Journalism and Women Symposium Conference and Mentoring Project panel Oct. 30. “It’s rolling up your sleeves and doing hard work.”

Investigative reporting, perhaps more than any other form of journalism, can be grueling because of all the information authors have to cull. But there’s a streamlined way to do it, according to the panelists. Here are the top 11 tips to make investigative – and even shorter stories – better:

1. Start with a plan. Once there is a potential story topic, decide what a minimum and maximum version of the story will be. If you’re investigating a recently congested bridge, for example, maybe the minimum story you’ll uncover is poor traffic management. The maximum story may be uncovering a concerted effort by top state officials to create traffic jams, said Maud Beelman, investigative editor at Associated Press for three states.

2. Do a lot of pre-reporting. Start with a literature review, looking up what news articles and research have already been done on the topic. Is it a health story? See what research PubMed has on the topic. Put together a list of people who have researched the topic and find out what public documents exist that you could request.

3. Start talking with people in the newsroom and with sources to see if your idea is possible. Maybe the scope of the story needs to be narrowed or altered. In the newsroom, bring in photographers, designers, the web team and others early in the process. Think outside the box, too – why not turn part of the project into a coloring book for kids or include a poet?

The nuts and bolts of investigative reporting.

4. Write a memo based on your preliminary reporting including what you know so far, with a list of things you still need including sources, data and documents, says Susy Schultz, president of the Community Media Workshop.

5. Start your interviews. Record them and make transcripts or write summaries of your interviews to help you keep track of the points a source made. Writing weekly summaries of what you learned each week from sources and documents will also help you remember what information you have when you’re working on a long-term investigation, Beelman said.

6. Keep your documents organized. This could be an index on your computer listing all your documents and interviews. It could be a binder with highlights and sticky notes. Include a to-do list in your binder or index, along with a plan for what you’re working on tomorrow and a chronology of events in the story (i.e. Source A talked with Source B on Day 1, then on Day 2 they both sold their stocks in a company). Also keep a list of what you know and what you don’t know. Write down what patterns you’re finding.

7. Keep a list of “critical findings,” like stellar quotes and key nuggets of information in your documents. These are what you’ll turn into a story, said Maud Beelman, investigative editor at Associated Press for three states.

Jennifer LaFleur works with attendees at an investigative reporting training.

8. Write as you go. Writing in the moment, right after an interview or reading through a stack of documents, will help you remember what information you gained and it will help you identify potential holes later.

9. Write a first draft and ignore how bad it is, Beelman said. The first draft will show any glaring holes in your reporting. Don’t give this draft to your editor. Armao calls her mom and reads her stories to her. “If your mom doesn’t get it, no one else will,” Armao said.

10. Rewrite. Give the next draft to your editor. When you get edits back, read them at the end of the day. That way you can let the suggestions and questions sink in before tackling them.

11. Start writing your next draft in a new document. It’ll help you start fresh rather than just answer whatever questions an editor has.

For more investigative reporting tips from CAMP, check out the hashtag #investigates14 on Twitter.