Tricks of the trade

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Liza Gross writes about the reporting behind her story on the risks facing workers at California state psychiatric hospitals, including her struggles to collect data and do interviews: "State facilities don’t allow reporters on the wards to interview staff or patients, outside of official tours. One psychiatrist likened the situation to North Korea. And getting access to documents, records and statistics to answer this question proved difficult."

Therese Walsh uses an interview clip with the actor who played the sadistic Captain Hadley in Shawshank Redemption as a starting point to discuss how some characters are symbols rather than fully formed, sympathetic beings: "Interesting thoughts, no? Narrative as memory play, skewed purposefully to one side because the point-of-view character thinks about another character in black-and-white terms, therefore that character can be portrayed as black and white."

David Trilling provides a walkthrough on corporate financial documents available through EDGAR, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission's repository of documentation on publicly traded companies: "They are a reliable source for news stories, and not just on the business beat. Understanding a company’s books helps you know which questions to ask about a company’s operations and business dealings, allowing you to look beyond the press releases."

Sometimes, Jane C. Hu writes, a story just isn't ready to be written yet, despite a lot of reporting: "It can take months for writers to gather story elements and wrangle them into a compelling narrative. On top of that, writers may hit other speed bumps, like waiting for a key research paper to be published, for a main character of a story to agree to an interview, or for a news peg to appear." Hu surveys writers for advice on how to recognize and overcome the gaps.

After three decades at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark Bowden teaches at the University of Delaware and advises students to ask "appropriately ignorant" questions: "I try to pass this lesson along to my students. Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question, I tell them. If you don’t understand it, your readers won’t either. Besides, an early reporting lesson is that experts are not offended by such basic questions. Most people love to explain themselves and their work."

Joe Freeman has gleaned five pieces of advice from writers interviewed on the Longform podcast, even though he admits it took him a while to become a fan: "The more I listened, the more I realized that the show, started in 2012 on the website and produced in collaboration with the Atavist, was a veritable goldmine of information. It’s almost as if the top baseball players in the country sat down every week and casually explained how to hit home runs."

Catherine Sheffo talks to Sean Mussenden of the Capital News Service and collects 10 tips for using data in reporting: "The first few hours of most data projects should involve cleaning up the data to make sure it’s usable, Mussenden said. He recommends running spreadsheets through an Internet-based, open-source tool such as OpenRefine to weed out any small discrepancies within fields (e.g. ATT and AT&T in an employer field)." Also, the dangers of data blinders.

Tara Haelle interviews Ivan Oransky on the value, and lack of value, in using a journal's "impact factor" in weighing whether to cover a scientific paper. Oransky's advice is to be careful: "I think of impact factors, when used in a limited way, as one among many criteria by which to judge a given paper. I’d stress that it should never be used alone, and that a roster of sources to bounce studies off is much better in the long term than an impact factor assessment."

Kristen Hare interviews Jeff Donn, a national writer with the Associated Press, whose story last week revealed there's no evidence that flossing your teeth actually works. Donn tells Hare that his story began with a tip from his son's orthodontist. That led to a deep dig into research archives and a Freedom of Information request: "When I started to look at research, I realized that it was a good tip — and definitely the best one I ever got from an orthodontist."

Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, explains how hundreds of journalists used technology to turn 11.5 million leaked documents into stories about an offshore tax haven empire: "There's a kind of irony in what we've been able to do. The technology — the Internet — that has broken the business model is allowing us to reinvent journalism itself. And this dynamic is producing unprecedented levels of transparency and impact."