CAMP 2018: The ABCs of Hard-Hitting Investigations Tip Sheet

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer


Cheryl Thompson, investigative reporter at Washington Post (@cherylwt)

Tisha Thompson, investigative reporter at ESPN (@TishaESPN)

The lead

Opportunities for investigative work are hiding in plain sight: in annual reports, budgets from every level of government and your keen observations about your surroundings, be they physical cues (crumbling infrastructure) or listening to the informed complaints of the local community (what is the one hospital locals don’t want to wind up in? That’s a good place to start.)

The Top Five

  • The best investigative reporting is highly compelling and gut-wrenching. It has to have universal appeal because you’re going to spend a lot of time and money completing your project. So, it better have a payoff and it had better piss people off.
  • Good investigations need at least two facets to ground them in fact and to offer readers real-world context:
    • COMPARE – The Individual, Institution or Issue you want to investigate is something you need to be set against a similar “I”-term to begin to understand the lay of the land and develop the story. Researching a hospital with a bad rep? Compare it to other hospitals. For the Washington Post Cheryl Thompson heard that the Howard University Hospital was doing a poor job of caring for patients after a New York Times reporter died in their care. She compared lawsuits filed against Howard to five other DC hospitals.
    • HUMANIZE – Find the people and faces that make your investigation memorable. Cheryl called doctors who quit out of frustration—who were much more amenable to speaking candidly about hospital problems than the administration (who turned her down for interview). She also reached out to patients who survived and the family members of those who died.
  • Look where no one else is looking – but often the best stories are hiding in plain sight. Some tips: Look for new expensive things. Look for old, falling apart things. Things that seem out of place. Things that never change though people complain for years. Now see if there’s a pattern. Is that pattern bigger than your neighborhood?
    • Don’t just tell an anecdote—quantify it with hard evidence. This is often readily available for stories about schools, health care, crime, transportation, environment, etc.
  • Not everything needs a FOIA. Reporters can hardly keep up with every piece of information that is already available out there. Don’t sleep on: Budgets, annual reports, inspector general reports, required federal data collection. Additionally, there are records you’re not thinking of: Police evidence photos. Cell phone evidence. Surveillance video: building security, ATMs, campus police. Text messages. Social media postings—a very rich source of information. Maps.
  • Everyone is capable of investigating. Investigative reporting is going to primary sources, pulling records and coming to conclusions based on the records and reporting.

The Surprise

The key to investigating is asking better questions and pressing for better answers.

Don’t ask leading questions or yes/no questions. Realize that nowadays everyone is getting media trained, which means they’re all looking to pivot from your insightful and hard-hitting question to give non-answer answers. People you won’t expect to have been trained now know they have to squirm away from tough questions.

sounds like an answer by using one word from your original question to segue into their prepared, polished comment that has nothing to do with what you asked.

Ask one question at a time.

If they don’t answer, call them on it.

Don’t be afraid to keep asking “why?”

The Resources – Cheryl is the first president of color for this valuable organization! A TON OF FELLOWSHIPS AND RESOURCES for those interested in improving investigative skills.

Pro-tip: Sign up for with LinkedIn for Journalists for their training on how to search people—they hold it four times a year for journalists whom they vet. Then they give you enhanced access that allows you to reach into people’s profiles for details searches.

One of Cheryl’s investigations

One of Tisha’s investigations