Saturday, April 4, 2009

The toolbox of investigative reporting

Investigative journalism not as straightforward of a process as say, writing your run of the mill daily. David Jackson, who exposed food contamination in school lunches for the Chicago Tribune, described investigative journalism as a toolbox rather than rocket science.

First, how do you know where to look? Gather an idea box. Clip out stories you like, do some research, look for patterns. "Start out with these little shards, little fragments of information, things that simply interested you," Jackson advises.

Then make sure you've got your ethics in line.

"You have to hold that line bright and clear in your own mind and in how you conduct your conversations," Jackson said. "They're going to really get sneaky, flatter you, and ask you seemingly innocuous questions. It's always vitally important to act with complete integrity ... Although we're often going into protected subjects, we have to act as if the lights may go on at any minute."

The next step is to profile each person involved, which involves thorough research.

The way you get to know people who don't want to get known:

- Look up every news clip you can get about them. Lexis Nexis is your friend.
- Look at public records. Start with the "blue pages": find every office of agencies at the county, state, and federal levels. For example, agency with water pollution might be linked to a story on food pollution. The trick is being polite and persistent. If they won't tell you, look into state statutes and figure out how these agencies keep records. Look at the index.
- Court records. These are generally public. Start with the blue pages and presume you have access, but be humble.

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