“The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” Chapters 4, 5 and 7 Summary

February 23, 2009 at 2:48 pm 1 comment

By Patrick McCabe

Computer-Assisted Reporting

Computer-assisted reporting, CAR, is an integral part of investigative reporting, improving accuracy, credibility and breadth of journalism.

The three basic tools of CAR are online databases, spreadsheet software programming and database manager software. Online databases can provide health, environmental or demographic data. Spreadsheet software programs are calculators best used for databases with numbers and statistics. Database manager software allows a journalist to sort, filter, summarize and compare thousands of records quickly.232

The three advanced CAR tools are mapping software, statistical software and social network analysis software. Mapping software allows journalists to visualize extensive columns and rows of data through maps. Statistical software helps journalists search for patterns in major data sets. Social network analysis software helps journalists visualize connections and influence between people or entities.

Finding and Using Databases

To find a relevant government database that relates to your story you must do the following:

·      Check the IRE Resource Center

·      Check with the NICAR database library

·      Check local, state and federal audit reports

·      Check the government agency’s website

·      Check for recent inventories that a government agency maintains

·      Check indexes of useful government agencies

·      Use the advanced search tool in Google

To acquire these databases one must ask the agency for the record layout, the code sheet and hard-copy form that is filled out for each record. One must also ask to see the actual data on a computer screen or printout. Finally, one should determine what format the data are in and the size of the database. Then compare electronic records and hard-copy reports to weed out any flaws in the material.

It is important for news organizations to have their own databases. Reporters may also create their own databases but must be careful to not miss a portion of their story while compiling information.

Local Data Sources

Local data’s availability depends on the state laws regarding security or privacy. Newsrooms break basic databases into the following categories: politics, business/ economy, property and tax records, crime and guns, education, courts and jails, city and county government, infrastructure, accidents and the environment. These categories help a reporter narrow their search within the newsrooms database before examining other resources.

State Data Sources

Before looking to local databases, reporters should check out state databases. State agencies can provide information that can be brought in-house for further research. State data availability is dependant on state law.

Federal Data Sources

Census data is the key element for a community database library. A census shows the change found in a community and can serve as a template for investigative stories.

Demographic data can be used to gain understanding of information in databases on other topics. The Census Bureau Web site contains downloadable material for reporters.

People Trails – “Currents” and “Formers”

Potential sources should be divided into “currents” and “formers.” “Currents” are those people currently dealing a organization while “formers” are those who used to belong to that organization. A “former” is much more likely to talk freely about an organization so it is good to keep track of them. Keep a good list of potential interviewees and divided it between these two categories.


Whistleblowers are “currents” or “formers” who seek attention or are exposed to the spotlight because they know of wrongdoing. They often contact journalists directly but if not a journalist can find these individuals through other people or documents.

Locating Sources

Once a reporter has identified a source, they must locate it. There are many resources available for tracking sources that include, online tools, such as E-mail and social networks, telephone directories, city directories, workplace directories, personal habits, useful documents and records and mapping power structures. Mapping power structures is important because titles organization charts can become confusing and unclear. Using all of these means of locating a source should help a reporter be successful in the investigation.

Interviewing Sources

Once a journalist has located a potential source they must learn about this source. This can be done by conducting interviews in a logical order, eliciting information without burning bridges for future investigation. The more time put into building relationships with potential sources the easier reporting can become.

Researching the Interview

Before conducting any interview it is important to know as much about the source as possible. Search for published and unpublished material about the source It is also important to understand the language of the source, whether it is the slang they use or foreign tongue. It is important to look for positive, neutral and negative information on the source and use this information in the interview. Check the subject’s resume line by line to determine if there are any flaws in the work.

Understanding the Source’s Motivations

A journalist must figure out why the interviewee has agreed to be interviewed. What is the sources logic behind exposing themselves to the media? Determining motivation will help the reporter know what direction to take the interview in.

The Interview

It is important to have a number of questions prepared for the interview. The order in which these questions are asked is crucial and a lot of time should be spent on determining the order of the questions. Questions usually progress from neutral to more specific and worrisome questions. Leading questions can be risky but will often yield results. It is important for a journalist to figure out what is not being said as well as what is. This way you know what you still need to probe the interviewee for and what information you already have.

The beginning of the interview should be dedicated to breaking the ice. The impressions made in this time are important to the developing relationship. Good interviewers maintain eye contact, use reassuring phrases and when appropriate probe with the how and the why questions.

It is important to take notes while interviewing and should record an interview if possible. It is good to offer the interviewee a copy of the tape if they are uneasy about being recorded. If taping is not practical don’t be afraid to ask the interviewee to repeat something.

If a story is likely to continue for months the reporter should conduct follow up interviews and keep the source updated on the progress of the source. A journalist should never hesitate to contact sources after a critical story. This shows that the journalist is not worried or embarrassed about the story and sometimes can lead to more information being given. Interviewing is about building bridges, maintaining them and sometimes repairing them.

Ethics of Investigative Reporting

While a journalist practice may be legal it can still be considered unethical. It is important that a journalist know the laws applying to libel, privacy and the infliction of emotional distress. While being ethical is important it should not limit an investigative reporters investigation.

The Golden Rule

When making judgements based on the ethics of investigative practices, journalists should consider applying the golden rule by asking the following three questions:

·      How would they feel if a media critic obtained a newsroom reporting job with the express deceptive purpose of collecting information about the decision-making process- information that would up in a report critical of the news organization?

·      How would they react if the infiltrator made and used copies of internal memos between reporters and editors working on a sensitive investigation?

·      How would they feel about being criticized by unnamed sources in, say the Columbia Journalism Review for their inaccuracies?

In addition to the golden rule journalists should consider the harm they could inflict before starting an investigation.

Obtaining Information Covertly

It is important to be careful of how information is obtained. While covertly obtaining information can be good it can also be dangerous to the investigation’s subjects. Going undercover as a reporter can lead to great stories but it is important to know where to draw the line.

Conducting “ambush interviews” can lead to ethical problems. In order to avoid these problems the reporter should have documented attempts of trying to contact the person.

When exposing private behaviors of public figures a reporter must make sure there is a need for the public to know this information. If there is not than a reporter should not report on it. If the behavior does not affect the figures public performance than there is no need to report on it.

Before using unidentified and paid sources a journalist should make every effort to find alternative sources. If that is unsuccessful they should try to persuade the source to go public and if that does not work the journalist should explain, in full detail, why the source has requested and been granted anonymity.

Writing Ethical and Accurately

A practice that is continually debated is prepublication review. Many journalists read quotations or passages back to sources or show them excerpts from the piece. Rarely will a journalist show the subject the entirety of the story because they do not want the source to do anything that will pre-empt the impact that the story will have on the public. Journalists should know their organization’s stance on prepublication review and consult an attorney if they have any concerns. 


Entry filed under: Educational. Tags: , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Janna  |  February 25, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Holy cow, this is just SO AWESOME!

    (And how did you find out my favorite colors and then use them in the breakout info box!)

    Again a few typos or other writing mechanics problems. Be sure to fix the final subhed – should be ethically, not ethical.

    How did you do this during that crazy week last week. Amazin’.


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