The investigative process: helpful tips for conducting an investigation like a pro

Story by Sarah Costello

February 15, 2009

It is important to distinguish between an average, C-level journalist and a great, above par investigative reporter.

Brant Houston and IRE’s, “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” contains over 500 pages of facts, tips and information that will help budding reporters achieve greatness.

Going above and beyond expectations and exceeding the status quo will distinguish you as a hard-working reporter. This means taking the initiative10steps to conduct research, spending hours if necessary searching databases, visiting court houses, digging through files, interviewing multiple sources and conducting all parts of the investigation with a very open mind.

Chicago Tribune reporter, Maurice Possley, is an example of an investigative reporter who began an investigation with a good story idea, and pursued it further.

Possley found that several cases had been reported of children ingesting magnetic earrings – a product targeted towards young kids. In some instances, magnets became lodged in children’s lungs and noses.

Possley won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his article, “Major Retailers Pull Magnet Toy.” He followed the “rules” laid out in Houston’s handbook. There are several important steps to take when beginning an investigation.

The first three chapters of the handbook discuss the investigative process, secondary sources and primary documents. The chapters are broken up into sections that are easy to read and informative.

Starting an investigation can be uncomfortable and even outside of your “comfort zone”, but “the only way for journalists to discover whether they have the temperament and talent for investigations is to try one,” said Houston.

Taking the First Step

The first step to take before kicking off an official investigation is to decide on a topic. Sometimes ideas are born from tips, or noticing trends (for instance, a series of similar abductions, robberies, etc.). Sometimes an opportunity to conduct an investigation may present itself when out covering your beat.

One important tidbit that Houston shares with his readers is to always begin an investigation with an open mind. It is not a good idea, and may in fact hinder your work, if you start the research process with an already made-up mind about a scenario or individual.

The “best investigative journalists” do not limit research to the information that is in favor of personal opinions, but will look at every side of the story – leaving no rocks unturned.

A secondary source refers to published and broadcast information that can be used as a helpful tool in an investigation. It is a good idea to begin going through secondary sources to become as informed as possible before starting the interview process. Knowing as much as about the subject will help when conducting interviews.

Possley followed this rule of thumb and also did some digging. He read reports of incidents and similar published investigations of the company Magnetix. Along with research, tests were performed through the Tribune to discover the amounts of power the magnets possessed.

The test results “showed that the earring magnets all were at least as powerful as magnets found inside toys that have caused the death of one child and scores of other injuries,” Possley said.

Using Secondary Sources to Lead the Investigator to Human Sources

Possley’s research and follow-ups show the importance of secondary sources. Hopefully, the secondary sources will lead the investigator to primary documents, which “are more readily available than many journalists realize,” said Houston.

The Internet is an available tool that makes researching much easier on the researcher. Primary sources include birth certificates, social security numbers, education information, driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, divorce papers and many other documents that are easily traced on the Internet.

Researching documents, databases and printed sources are helpful in that they often lead to human sources that may not have been pursued otherwise. Houston says that many reporters fail to investigate individuals other than the main sources. In an investigation, anyone even remotely involved should be questioned, regardless of seemingly “unimportant” status.

Possley investigated a number of people in his article, including physicians, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) spokeswoman, and spokesman, the vice president of Hasbro, a pediatric gastroenterologist and many others.

Possley and nine other Tribune reporters received Pulitzer Prizes due to several investigative articles that explored the hazards involved with some factory produced products.

These articles follow the rules of the handbook in order to present clear, concise and hard evidence.

Investigative reporting is not for the lazy-at-heart. It requires lots of work and persistence, but the work can result in a persuasive and good article that may lead to other articles, that may one day, result in a Pulitzer.

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2 comments
  1. Janna said:

    Fabulous info box! Thank you for providing a good example for your classmates to follow. You have one typo you will want to fix in it.

    You have a few copy editing things in the main story you should try to catch and fix, too. It’s best if you go over it yourself and look for grammar and punctuation problems and other editing items (such as not repeating “great” up at the top). You will learn more that way. But you could also ask a good student editor at the Pendulum to breeze through and help you out.

    You are a bit trigger-happy with commas in all of your writing. Scrutinize your work and remove extra commas where you find the sentence can be read well and understood without an extra pause. You have two extras in the last line, for instance.

  2. Janna said:

    You did a solid job of synthesizing the reading with an exemplary piece of reporting and also linking to that reporting.

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