‘The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook’ Summary: Chapters Eight and Nine

March 9, 2009 at 1:19 pm 1 comment

By Patrick McCabe

Written March 8, 2009

Investigating the Executive Branch

Understanding Government Agencies

The first step in investigating the executive branch of the government is by understanding the various government agencies. These agencies act like the government themselves, and have the potential to commit large abuses of power. An investigative must begin investigating an agency by collecting the basic information that will provide context. This can be found in employee lists, finance reports, required statements of potential conflict and reviewing budgets.Top 10

Making Sense of Agency Budgets

A budget is a key document for looking into waste, fraud and abuse in the government.Budgets show revenue and expenditures as well as reveal what and who are important to the government.
In local agencies, revenue can come from taxes (income, property and retail sales), service fees, licensing fees, utility fees, penalties and fines and interest on investments.

There are three kinds of government budgets:

  • General operating budget, which covers day-to-day commitments
  • Capital improvements budget, which covers long-term, tangible items like building and streets
  • Debt service budget, which covers payments to investors and lenders on financial obligations incurred in previous years

The Contacting Process- Where a journalist should look for reporting leads.
Informal Cost Estimates: Government officials write informal cost estimates that can often be for unnecessary purchases.
Notice of Bid: Government officials must give notice to potential bidders through the media.
Examination of Bids:The official review of any company that places or receives a bid.
Product Preferences: Are local products being used to award contracts to friends or supporters?
Minority Contracting Requirements: Agencies must make effort to contract minority-owned businesses.
Audit Requirements: How often does the government contract need to be reviewed before job completion and how well is the agency following procedure?
Change Orders: The easiest way for the contractor that made the lowest bid to receive more money. 

Investigating Federal Affairs

When investigating federal affairs a journalist should look at every area of the executive branch. This includes the top executive and the cabinet of appointees. By paying attention to what is happening in the executive office a journalist has the ability to scrutinize that agency. There are many different ways to investigate the branch, whether through internal or external sources.

The Permanent Bureaucracy

Many government officials remain a part of the bureaucracy their entire working lives. The best tips that a reporter can snag from the bureaucracy is by talking to low-level employees who see and hear everything but have little to loose.

Public Affairs Personnel

An investigative journalist should use public affairs personnel for basic information gathering. News releases, while biased, will provide valuable information. These agencies have intensive libraries that can be a huge resource, if you have the in to gain access. These personnel can sometimes influence legislators when it comes to advisory committee appointments.

Investigating State and Local Affairs

When investigating state and local affairs a journalist should look at the governor and other state and local employees for information. In the past journalists have exposed governors for corrupt spending and gift giving. These officials have been exposed because of strict journalistic scrutiny. By examining these state and local leaders as well as their employees a journalist may find a lead into campaign corruption or a sex scandal within the agency.

 Investigating the Legislative Branch

Following the Dollar

The best way to investigate the legislative branch is by following the money from outside interests to legislators. Campaign contributions and expenditure records have become much more readily accessible. These documents have the potential to lead to a major investigation. Campaign finance records are a huge place to look for investigation because this is usually where corruption takes place. 

Investigate Everyone 

Be sure to look at everyone involved in the legislative branch. Whether it’s a mayor or an intern, a reporter may find a great story by looking at all parts of the branch. The lower level employees have far less loyalty and far less to loose.

Personal Character 

When scrutinizing a legislator a journalist must go beyond campaign finances and conflict of interest and look at the legislators personal character too. Extramarital affairs may be worthy of publication because if the candidate is willing to lie about that what else are they lying about.

The government is an investigative journalists heaven. Politicians are often very selfish people, who are always looking to better themselves. They often will do whatever it takes to better themselves and in turn often risk damaging their reputation. 


Portland Mayor Sam Adams

Portland Mayor Sam Adams

In Portland, Ore., Mayor Sam Adams became a part of a sex scandal in 2007. The mayor became romantically involved with a legislative intern, who at the time was 17 years old. The mayor lied to the press and asked intern, Beau Breedlove to also lie in hopes of protecting his chances during the mayoral race in 2007.

Sam Adams (left) and Beau Breedlove at a party for The Nines Hotel in October 2008. Photo by Byron Beck.

Sam Adams (left) and Beau Breedlove at a party for The Nines Hotel in October 2008. Photo by Byron Beck.

On January 19, 2009 Adams came clean to the press that he had lied to in 2007. He told them about his relationship with Breedlove, claiming that the two did not become sexually involved until after Breedlove’s 18th birthday and that all romantic encounters were entirely mutual.

Immediately following his statement Adams received requests for his resignation from the editorial boards of The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune, The Portland Business Journal and Just Out, the city’s oldest gay publication.

This story had to be published because the community had the right to know that Adams may have been involved with a minor. It was not a matter of the mayors sexual orientation but a matter of illegal sexual involvement with a student intern. This is a prime example of the importance of investigating the legislative branch and the officials within it.



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. andersj  |  March 10, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Nice work on this synthesis! This reading had a lot of good advice: Follow the money. Listen for the silences and seek the blank spots and find out what they mean. Pull on a little thread and you sometimes unravel a massive blanket that had been covering the truth.


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