Investigative Reporting

Sarah Beth Costello
April 14, 2009

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The collapse of a Minnesota bridge in 2007 was a tragedy that resulted in the loss of lives, however, the event spurred reporters into some serious investigations that led to the discoveries of thousands of unsafe bridges.

Unbeknownst to some, dozens of tools exist for investigating transportation. Journalists took advantage of these sources after the collapse of the Minnesota bridge to probe further at faulty infrastructures countrywide.

Brant Houston spends an entire chapter of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” discussing the investigation of transportation. He states that there are two methods for investigating transportation: in the event of an accident or catastrophe (like the Minnesota bridge), or before the occurrence of the accident or catastrophe. In any case, before is always better. But sometimes, an investigation is not even perceived as necessary until tragedy strikes.

According to Houston, journalists need to answer to big probing questions as well as the normal, day-to-day questions:

• Which streets or highways have the highest accident rates?
• Which local railroad crossing is the most dangerous?
• Which airport has the highest rate of near misses between planes?
• On what lake do most boating accidents occur?
(“The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook”, Chapter 19, page 450)

Investigating Car Safety10tips_april14

Each year, thousands die in automobile accidents. Many reporters choose to investigate this chosen form of transportation for this very reason. Reporters can discover the safety of cars through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This agency possesses a lot of power and is responsibility for issuing standards and making sure that manufacturers are producing safe vehicles. The agency also keeps a database that keeps track of paper documents, including recalls, complaints, inspections etc.

Car inspections and driving records are other documents available to reporters investigating land transportation. These sources enable reporters to read background information about drivers. Driver licenses documents, test results, tickets and accident reports are also available, revealing the entire driving history of an individual.

Many investigations focus on accidents involving drunk drivers. Houston says that an investigation on drunk driving should not only encompass those involved and the incident, but also the measure taken to prevent the incident from happening again. Some questions that should be answered include: was the driver temporarily suspended from driving, was his or her license revoked…?

In February 2009, the Burlington Times-News reported a hit-and-run accident involving a drunk driver and a teenager. The driver claimed to have hit the teenager without realizing it and called 911 after discovering a dent in his car. The driver’s blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit, and he was apparently intoxicated to the extent that he was not coherent when he hit a 16 year-old boy.

This is a tragic example of the hundreds of accidents that occur yearly due to irresponsibility and recklessness. These incidents spur reporters into investigations in attempts to report the truth and attempt to prevent similar accidents from reoccurring.

Investigating Trucks, Buses and Taxis

According to Houston, taxis cannot be investigated enough

According to Houston, taxis cannot be investigated enough

Trucks are also under the scrutiny of reporters investigating land transportation. Many auto accidents involve trucks. Houston said that many truck accidents are the result of tired and weary drivers. Other problems with truckers include the dodging of weigh stations and the lack of tire flaps and other necessities that can prove dangerous to other drivers.

The investigation of buses includes school buses, charter buses and commercial buses. When investigating buses, it is important to check out the safety record of a particular bus, which can be found on the Web sites of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Also look into the local state department of transportation to discover regulations.

Houston says that investigating taxi services can never be repeated enough. Taxis are known for scams, as well as illegal driving. Reporters have discovered rigged meters that jack up charges for taxi riders, “broken” meters used to scam customers into paying more for services, drivers giving the impression of being lost in order to keep the meter running and “racial, ethnic, physical and geographic discrimination by taxi drivers.

Taxi drivers are not known for safe driving either, as many are often in a hurry and have become accustomed to maneuvering in and out of other vehicles. Here is an example of a taxi driver in Cartagena, Colombia – a city with a different set of traffic laws than those of the U.S. It is apparent that this driver will do whatever it takes to make it to his final destination:

Investigating Aviation

9/11 was a wake up call to many Americans of the necessary safety precautions needed for aviation transportation. Before theplanes2 tragedy, airlines were much more lax in regards to airport protocol. Aviation is still an important unit of transportation that undergoes investigation. Reporters look at safety precautions and the manufacturing of aircrafts.

Reporters should also investigate flight crews, specifically looking at the training, experience and background of the pilots. Air controllers and ground crews are equally as important when it comes to the safety of an aircraft. Air controllers are responsible for replacing tires, relaying information to pilots and keeping the computer equipment and radars up-to-date.


Sarah Beth Costello
April 6, 2009

aigThe world may never be free of corruption, but journalists possess an important responsibility to act as watchdogs in order to prevent unconstitutional errors and crimes – especially among power holders.

The American International Group (AIG) has been in the news for months now concerning scandal, corruption, misappropriation of funds etc. AIG had been struggling with financial difficulties for months The largest insurer group in the world was experiencing drastic losses in the stock market. In early 2008, many financial institutions were experiencing “credit crises”, however, AIG refused to acknowledge similar struggles.

Despite AIG’s claim, the company was nearing the brink of bankruptcy, and owed billions of dollars to other banks (Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch for instance). Because of the seemingly inevitable end to AIG, the government provided a bailout for the company to repay their debts and prevent the enormous company from going under.

A great deal of controversy ensued over the course of the past couple of months that have bombarded newspapers with conflicting opinions concerning the AIG and the government’s role. Recently, new issues arose when it was discovered that AIG was using the bailout money from the government to give raises to employees.

Using Available Documents and Agencies in an Investigation

In his book, “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” Brant Houston discusses “Investigating For-Profit Businesses. There aretips007 plenty of resources available to reporters when investigating companies. One important document is a proxy, which is the notice a company extends to shareholders to inform them of annual meetings in order to enable shareholders to participate in important matters.

A proxy documents the salaries “of the chief executive officer and four other highest-paid officers.” It discloses the amount of stocks owned by company leaders, business among chief executives, the salary of the auditor and information concerning “board meetings and attendance.”

Houston writes that a proxy, and other documents, can be used to conduct thorough background research of a company. Journalists are not the only ones on the lookout for corruption and scandal. There are dozens of agencies that exist to ensure ethical practices and good business occurs.

The Federal Trade Commission is an example of an agency created to promote capitalism and competition and “guard against deceptive business practices.” The Consumer Product Safety Commission was established to ensure safety in companies as well as in products.

The Small Business Administration is another agency that provides grants and loans for small businesses that are unable to procure loans elsewhere. There are many other agencies that exist for multiple reasons from preventing pollution to ensuring worker safety.

Following a Paper Trail

Practically every business possesses a paper trail of some sort that can be located at local courthouses or city halls. Documents may include business licenses, property assessment, tax records and tax liens. In addition to these documents, reporters can purchase credit ratings and other information about a business through Dun & Bradstreet. This organization also provides information concerning the promptness and timeliness of paying bills by businesses for a fee.

A reporter should always strive towards human sources. Paper trails are necessary for this reason. “Written records lay the foundation for a business story, but human sources are essential to provide the detail and road maps for stories,” said Houston.

Sarah Beth Costello
March 15, 2009

One of the responsibilities of a journalist is to not only act as a watchdog for authority figures in the executive branch, but also in the judicial system.

As American citizens, it is a natural desire to hope for complete fairness among the courts and law enforcers, but this is not always the case.

Just as corruption can easily percolate among politicians, it can also exist among lawyers, judges, prison wardens and guards, law enforcers and even among the military. No one is exempt from the temptation to achieve power and monetary gain and these desires can easily blind enforcers of the law.

Sometimes conflicts of interest can result in unethical behavior. The Sunday Samoan printed an article March 5, 2009 about a law enforcement officer accused of neglecting to abide completely by the law.

According to the article, an officer was lenient in enforcing the law to a father accused of child abuse because of his relationship with the father. The alleged child-abuser is the first cousin of the officer, which might explain his hesitancy to enforce the full brunt of the law.

“Pennsylvania Rocked by ‘Jailing Kids for Cash Scandal'” is another example of corruption and incompetance in the judicial system. In this example, Pennsylvania judges were confronted and accused of sentences children to detention centers for cash. One particular judge plead guilty for “fraud and tax charges.”

tentips_061Investigating the Local Police

Brant Houston, author of the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, discusses the investigation of the judicial system and the local police. Houston writes that anyone can cover a police beat and report on arrests, drug busts, murders etc. But constantly observing and investigating the officers is just as important and can be crucial in exposing the truth.

Suspicion and constant awareness for corruption is important. While reporters should never jump to conclusions, a good reporter looks at all aspects; concentrating on the suspects and also the conductors of investigations and arrests.

Houston offers ten techniques for “monitoring individual law enforcement officers.” He recommends continual observation, careful study of a situation (incident, arrest, records and rates), keeping track of “prevention efforts,” talking with average people who have ties with an official investigation, knowing the officers involved, meticulous studying of “budgets and expenditures,” reading personality profiles and files, checking with the Internal Affairs Unit, keeping track of law suits in courts and checking for agency accreditation.

Houston advises that journalists research recruitment and training of local law enforcement agencies to discover the skills and requirements of the officers. Favoritism is not rare among most agencies, and may also exist in your local law enforcement agency. As a reporter, this is also a good angle to investigate in order to distinguish between deserved raises and promotions and ones given for the purpose of coercion.

Sarah Beth Costello
March 9, 2009

Some of the most advantage privileges we enjoy as American citizens can be found in the First Amendment. America is truly unique because we are the only nation that not only encourages, but also recommends freedom of expression.

Our founding fathers realized that America would never be free until the confines of censorship and tyranny were finally broken. They knew from personal experience that ultimate power could eventually lead to ultimate corruption. Therefore, a series of checks and balances were installed in the government and Americans were free to print and speak the truth.

Anyone who works in media (especially reporters) has a duty to their audience to print the truth and expose corruption within the executive branch. The media are watchdogs that not only exist to provide readers with information and entertainment, but more importantly, to keep power-holders from becoming too powerful and engaging in unethical behavior.

‘Muckrakers’ – Those Brave Reporters Unafraid of Consequences in the Pursuit of Accuracy and Fairness

President Theodore Roosevelt created the term “muckrakers” in reference to reporters who literally dig through the muck to find the truth. There are dozens of examples of reporters who risked their reputations and very lives for the purpose of reporting the truth.

Ida B. Wells is a perfect example of a woman who risked everything to expose lynching in the south. Wells was an African American woman who worked as a reporter for most of her life, as well as authoring several books including: “On Lynching: Southern Horrors.” Though her views were widely unpopular, especially as an African American, her muckraking and reporting made huge differences in the early civil rights cause.


Ida B. Wells is a famous investigative reporter who risked much to exploit the shameless practice of southern lynching.


Upton Single wrote the book, "The Jungle," after investigating the horrible conditions of meat factories and the poor treatment of immigrants.

Another example of an old fashioned muckraker is Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle.” Sinclair was highly against capitalism and wrote “The Jungle” in an effort to criticize the treatment of immigrant works and the dangerous conditions of the workplace.

Investigating the Head Honchos

Brant Houston, author of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” devotes several chapters to the investigation of the executive branch. As a reporter, there are dozens of resources available to aid you in your search for the truth.

When beginning an investigation it is important to be familiar with government agencies and how they operate. Reporters can discover the mission statements of an agency. Though it can be tedious, gathering “basic information” is important and will not only help you to understand the agency better, but may also provide you with a lead or story idea. Houston recommends using the Federal Register as a tool for “monitoring the executive branch.”

Investigating government actions can prove to be a time consuming endeavor. Much research is often required before the information you are searching for is exposed. Houston says that budgets are great documents for uncovering information about government corruption.

Budgets keep track of government spending and detail the revenue and expenditures. There is always the possibility that the informationtentips_034 on the budget is incorrect. Budgets can be falsified and misleading, and there is always the possibility that spending and revenues have been left out of the budget.

Investing the “top executives” can be difficult but not impossible. One good way to gain access is beginning with people on a lower level like secretaries, custodians and other seemingly unimportant yet relevant individuals. Remember the importance of investigating the currents and formers.

An executive official may have just hired a new secretary but the old one might have more helpful information to yield – she may even provide another angle you never expected. Hopefully contacting the “lower level” sources will enable you to make connections with those higher up the chain. Some other sources may include liaisons to the legislature, staff members and others in close contact with the top executive.

One aspect to look into that might not be as obvious is investigating the hiring and firing processes in an agency to look for potential corruption. Look at the benefits and salaries offered to employees and compare them to other agencies. What incentives does the agency offer to better performance? How does the agency address employee corruption? Do they look the other way or do they immediately take action?

Public affairs personnel are some other recommended contact sources. The National Association of Government Communicators is the headquarters that produce news releases that can prove to be very helpful. Reporters can discover lobbyists among agencies, legislative liaison employees through the public affairs staff.

There are so many sources to contact and available documents to refer to as an investigative reporter. There are plenty of opportunities to investigate people who are in authoritative positions including the governor, state and local employees,

As a journalist living in a democracy, it is your right to not only report the truth but to also act as a watch dog to those in power. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are classic examples of reporters that followed leads that led to a series of articles and eventually exposed President Nixon’s unethical actions.

Sarah Beth Costello
March 1, 2009

Richard Carlson wrote a book several years ago titled: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”

While this advice is helpful to some, it is illogical for journalists. The details, quotes, ledes, conclusions and content (the small stuff) makes a story more than words on a page. The “small stuff” can bring an article to life, give it a personal touch and captivate an audience.

Organizing details, creating outlines, choosing pertinent quotes and story substance is not easy and requires work and practice. The goal of a journalist should be to attract and pull in an audience. Rather than bore readers with a plethora of statistics and detailed information, tell a story and make your article personal.

10tips_compelling TELL THE STORY

Consider the following ledes from two separate articles concerning the toy company, Magnetix:

“Federal regulators recalled about 1 million cribs Friday because the drop rail on some of the nation’s best-selling models can detach from the crib’s frame, creating a dangerous gap that has led to the deaths of at least three children.”


“Sharon Grigsby pleaded with the operator at the federal safety hot line…”

Both articles won Pulitzer Prizes in 2008 yet the reporters chose to tackle the issues with Magnetix using different approaches. The first lede is from the article, “Deaths Spur Huge Crib Recalls,” by Chicago Tribune staff reporter, Maurice Possley. Possley’s lede immediately presents some of the most relevant information in the first sentence. Rather than involving the audience and telling a story, Possley chose to stick to the facts, sources, problems and the data.

The second article, “Not Until a Boy Died,” is immediately presented as a human-interest piece. The first sentence is full of emotion, trauma and struggle. The staff reporter, Patricia Callahan, tells a story, but also presents facts, quotes and information about an important issue.


Brant Houston devoted an entire chapter of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” to writing a “compelling” article. Houston discusses the importance of leads and immediately involving your readers in what they are reading. Callahan succeeded at telling a story while also presenting a well-written and well-researched investigative piece.

Possley’s article was also well written (which is not only evident in his work, but also in the prizes he received). Possley, however, did not engage readers as Callahan did. An anecdotal or descriptive lede might have been more successful.

Writing a good article can be stressful. Houston explained that some reporters are better at reporting, while some are better at writing. It is important to be good at both in order to excel as a reporter.

When writing an investigative article, always “keep the outrage in sight.” It is not rare to discover that you have strayed far from the topic at hand. But do not lose track of the main aspect or point of your article. For instance, if you are writing about a local drug dealer that has been charged with first-degree murder, don’t concentrate your article on his drug-dealing operation. Your focus should be on the key players.

Another important point to remember is that people should always be in the “foreground.” Readers are most interested about the human aspect of a story. You may have stumbled upon a good story that  does not appear directly involve people, but there is usually always an angle. It might require some digging, but a good investigative journalist is willing to get his hands dirty.

When writing your article, remember that your readers are real human beings that do not want to be lectured. Readers do not enjoy being fed sentences, upon sentences of detailed information and jargon.

There is a common misconception that simplification is dummying down. This is not the case. Simplifying information not only makes an article more readable, it can also make it more enjoyable.

Always be courteous as a writer. It is important to remember that your readers are just as busy or busier than you are. The readers have jobs, families and responsibilities and often do not have a lot of time to devote to newspaper reading. Remember to focus on the “small stuff.” Include details and important information. But at the same time, keep it simple, only include the necessary information and avoid fluff.


Concluding an article can be a stressful chore. Sometimes the conclusion leads to another paragraph, which leads to another and before you know it, you’ve written 300 more words that should be condensed to 35.

Houston explains that the conclusion should provoke thought and emotion in your readers. Some reporters choose to conclude with a wrap-up quote. Some prefer an element of surprise (which can backfire).

Don’t settle for the cute or cliché. Remember to keep it simple and conclude your article in a way to make the ending more than a jumble of words in a half-hearted attempt at an end to a good story.


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.

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.