Investigative reporting is not for the impatient

Investigative reporting requires patience, perseverance, occasional travel and an employer willing to give you the time and resources required to uncover information that someone, somewhere, really doesn't want you to have, according to panelists at a session on investigative journalism at ScienceWriters 2009.

 

Investigative reporting requires patience, perseverance, occasional travel and an employer willing to give you the time and resources required to uncover information that someone, somewhere, really doesn't want you to have, according to panelists at a session on investigative journalism at ScienceWriters 2009.

Rex Dalton, west coast correspondent at Nature, has earned the unofficial title of "Crime Correspondent" because of his ability to dig up dirt. A self-described "street reporter" who drove big rigs before he became a journalist 30 years ago, Dalton dove into what it took to report a four-article series that spanned sex scandals at the Colorado School of Mines and exclusion of Native Americans from a federal physics project sponsored by the school.

Dalton emphasized the importance of paying attention to the little things that might hint at deeper issues in a project. He's also been known to move the conversation out of the subject's office — into a bar or a parking lot to talk about it. Throughout his reporting, he gained the trust of sources by being up-front: he was a journalist reporting a story. And he makes it a policy to talk to everyone, including the accused.

"What people forget is many times when you talk to [the accused] sometimes you get the best information," says Dalton. "You tell them what you know to test the accuracy of what you've heard, but also to see where it will go. Invariably it's amazing what people will say."

Forrest Wilder, staff writer at the progressive, non-profit magazine The Texas Observer, explained the many ways a government agency could stonewall a reporter's open records request. While doing research on a proposed dump for low-level radioactive waste in West Texas, he relied on sources inside the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but the sources worried of losing their jobs and stopped talking. So, Wilder began to file open records requests.

"What they used on me primarily was, I'd ask for all records between two dates on a particular subject," says Wilder. "I'd go down to the agency and they'd unlock this room and there'd be documents floor to ceiling and they'd be like 'It's in here somewhere.'"

Wilder had some success in responding to these tactics with tricks of his own — including calling up the agency's lawyers and "chewing them out."

"Never do this with anyone else [besides lawyers]" said Wilder. The tactic worked for Wilder, in part, because the agency's response to his open records request did not follow the spirit or letter of Texas laws on open records. "Twenty-four hours later I'd have everything I want sitting on my desk," said Wilder.

Michael Pell, a computer-assisted reporting specialist at the Center for Public Integrity, echoed Dalton's and Wilder's comments on the challenges of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In fact, like Dalton, he recommends that reporters avoid them if at all possible.

"I agree with Rex that you don't want to get into the FOIA process," said Pell. "Once you do it is a government process. They will go slowly because they can — it's a pain in the butt for them and they think you're an idiot anyhow."

Computer-assisted reporting, or CAR, is a relatively new branch of journalism. It applies the tools of databases and statistics to the craft of journalism, allowing reporters to ferret out hard-to-get information. For example, after a New York Times story on claims that an Army researcher had falsified a study on a Medtronic bone growth technology, Pell searched a database of Pentagon travel expense disclosures and discovered that the researcher had taken 14 trips paid for by Medtronic. The data led the Times to do a follow-up story on the conflicts of interest that arise when Pentagon officials tasked with buying pharmaceuticals take industry-funded trips.

The contents of CAR databases can be difficult to obtain, but in one case Pell succeeded by 'bugging' communications personnel at the Environmental Protection Agency to the point of exasperation. As a result, Pell was able to get an EPA database on the effects of new, 'safer' pesticides that suggested they were more dangerous than the ones they had replaced, which eventually led to a re-analysis by the EPA of their own data.

All three speakers spent months or even years working on their investigative projects, and were enabled by the commitment of their employers to this kind of journalism.

"That's one of the beauties of Nature," says Dalton. "The small private family that owns it believes in quality."

For more information, check out these Web sites:

Obtaining Government Data Tip Sheet

Sample FOIA Letter From Center for Public Integrity Attorney Peter Smith

Christopher Mims was an NASW Freelance Travel Fellow at ScienceWriters 2009. He lives in Gainesville, Fla., and writes for Scientific American, Technology Review, Popular Science, Wired and a handful of other science and technology publications.

Oct. 22, 2009