Locating and Contacting Sources as an Investigative Reporter

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Sarah Beth Costello
February 23, 2009

Being an efficient researcher is imperative as an investigative reporter. It’s not enough to solely possess good interviewing skills. If you lack the stamina and willingness to dig for information, interviews will not be enough.

The “Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” provides several chapters and tips for conducting excellent research and understanding the importance of using multiple sources.
One of the first things to do when preparing for your investigation is to evaluate the “currents and formers.”

This will require additional research to discover the people who are currently connected with the main individual, company, business etc. Author, Brant Houston, suggests making a list of the current friends, spouse, neighbors, employees, employer, children, students, lawyers etc.

Then make a list of all the formers (old neighbors, old boss(es), past girlfriends/boyfriends and spouses. Sometimes the formers are easily overlooked, but the formers can be important sources for your investigation.

One type of source that is often used by journalists is the “whistleblower” – a nice name for a rat. Sometimes a whistleblower chooses to become an informant because it may be the only option left. Some do it for personal and monetary gain. Others may become whistleblowers due to physical or mental handicaps.

Due to the possible ultimatums of whistleblowers, everything they say must be questioned and should not be printed as absolute truth. Research the whistleblowers and check out the information they give you.

Another source that will give credibility to your article is an outside expert. This might include a professor, doctor, lawyer, sheriff, mayor etc. Anyone that is researched and knowledgeable in the area you are researching is important for an article to give it a voice of expertise. Houston also recommends consulting think tanks. Some think tanks include the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Contacting sources may not seem that important, but the format or tool you choose will impact your potential sources in different ways. One option that is a little more traditional is to send a letter. Most people read their mail if the time allows. Sometimes the time is not available for letter writing. If that is the case, a phone call is an option. It is important to take note of the time when calling your source. Try to call during the slower time of day and avoid the lunch hour.

If you are unable to reach your source or do not have the time to make a phone call, an E-mail is another good idea. Unfortunately, due to the influx of E-mails in many people’s inboxes, an E-mail might be overlooked. Be sure to include information in your subject heading that will catch the attention of the source and also prevent to E-mail from being identified as spam.

Sometimes locating addresses, phone numbers and E-mail addresses can be tricky. This is an opportunity to put your investigative skills to work. There are a variety of ways to locate some form of contact. Telephone directories may sometimes yield a phone number, although many Americans choose not to be publically listed. This should not dampen your resolve, however.

Workplace directories may provide contact information. Other means for contacting your source may include paying close attention to personal habits. Houston gives the example of a hunting or fishing license. Knowing the little details about your source may be more helpful that you think.

An example of an investigative reporter that used multiple sources is Washington Post reporters, Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Their article, “A Foster Girl Is Sent Away And Dies Alone,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

For the article, they interview a former social worker, the former chief of Child and Family Services, a U.S. District Judge, an orthopedic surgeon and many others currently connected and formerly connected with the foster girl. Experts were contacted and lots of research was required in order to locate a variety of information.

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