“The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” Chapters 1-3 Summary

February 16, 2009 at 7:07 am 1 comment

Patrick McCabe

“The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” provides students and professionals with a guide to investigative journalism. It serves as both a text “book and a practical guide for working journalists” (Houston VII). The first part of the handbook examines investigative reporting skills. In the first three chapters we learn about the investigative process, utilizing secondary sources and primary sources. top10tips2

 The investigative process looks at choosing an investigation, researching a hypothesis, secondary sources, understanding documents and human sources, research techniques, organizing acquired information, and questioning the conventional.

Choosing what to investigate can be tricky, everyday stories often steer journalists into an investigation. Daily stories provide ideas for major investigative pieces and often give journalists the leads needed for a major investigation.

All investigative stories must begin with a hypothesis. By compiling both supporting and contradictory evidence for a piece so they will have a strong direction to take the story in. A wide variety of sources are also helpful to journalists. Using both secondary and primary sources in you research will help make a stronger story.

Any good journalist must be aware of how to conduct research using documents, human sources and the Internet. After the journalist has collected all of the needed research they must organize it. By reviewing information on a weekly basis the journalist will have a better idea of what information is most valuable.

It is important for all journalists to double check all of their sources and should not be limited by these resources. A true investigative journalist will question the conventional wisdom in order to get the best story available.

The first chapter of the handbook also explained journalist Paul Williams’ theory on investigative journalism, known as “the Paul Williams Way.” This theory is described in 11 major steps with additional subsets. The steps are conception, feasibility study, go/no-go decision, base building, planning, original research, re-evaluation, filling the gaps, final evaluation, writing and rewriting and publications or airing of the story and follow-up stories. Following these 11 steps should help any investigative reporter produce a good, well-structured piece.

The second chapter of the handbook gives us a deeper look into utilizing secondary sources. The chapter explains the multiple forms of secondary sources, how to use them and approaches to using the Internet. The three major areas for secondary source finding are newspapers, non-newspaper sources, like television and magazines and the Internet.

Newspapers offer a diverse range of secondary sources. It is important to find the right publication for geographical regions and to look at all sections of the newspaper. Stories and announcements are the best place to begin the search for a secondary source. Local papers are some of the best because they are what will cover the wrongdoings of local businesses.

Non-newspaper also provides a large medium for secondary sources. Broadcast and cable sources are easily accessible and cover local information. Magazines and newsletters are also important because they a specific in what they cover. Due to their target audience magazines come in many forms and give journalists a lot of specific resources.

Reference books are also good tools but you must be careful that they are not out of date. Biographies are great tools because they contain thousands of citations and resources. Dissertations, theses and other books are also great sources in investigative reporting. A good researcher must know how to use a library and what sources in that library are most useful to them.

The Internet is such an important tool for researching. Almost everything can be found on the Internet but it is important to determine what information is valuable and what isn’t. Key word searches can help narrow down your pool of research but you have to be careful of what you find.

No search engine will ever provide everything that relates to the topic but it will lead you to other sites that guide you in the right direction. It is important to know how to navigate through these sites while reporting. It is also highly important to maintain a bibliography with all of your sources so you cannot be accused of plagiarism.

The third chapter of the handbook takes an in-depth look at primary sources or documents. The best sources to use are government documents and public records. Using a person’s social security number to gain information about the individual is important because it can open many doors for journalists. Public records and vital records also provide a lot of information to an investigator that will often produce leads. These documents can include birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce certificates, death certificates and even tax information.

Due to the fact that primary documents are so helpful a journalist must know how to use primary document databases. Commercial and government databases will produce a lot of the information needed to find these documents.

Once all the sources have been collected it is important to put them all together. If a journalist has done his or her job correctly they should have a surplus of information to write their piece on. While this may take a long time, organizing all the information into one piece will determine the direction you want to take the piece. This is the key to be a successful investigative journalist.



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Janna  |  February 17, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Patrick, you put a lot of effort into summarizing the reading in your report – good work on that. You pulled out good items for your Top Ten list. This assignment will always ask you to do three things each week: prove you have read and understood and even synthesized the meaning of the reading by not just summarizing the assigned reading but merging aspects together and reflecting on them; make a top-ten tips list; mention in your writing an exemplary piece of news reporting that fits into what you are reading about. You didn’t do that third part. You should be sure to find an award-winning piece of writing and not only mention it but also provide links to that piece. Don’t forget to do that from now on and you’ll learn more from the assignment. 😉


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