Posts filed under ‘Educational’

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

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.



March 9, 2009 at 1:19 pm 1 comment

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

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. 

February 23, 2009 at 2:48 pm 1 comment

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

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.


February 16, 2009 at 7:07 am 1 comment

A journalists beginning

By Patrick McCabe

Spring semester is just about to begin here at Elon, a semester focused on who I am as a journalist and learning how to compile all of my work in one place and make it available for your viewing pleasure. This site will allow you to review my work as a journalist, including written works, photos and videos. 

Patrick McCabe, journalism student.

Patrick McCabe, journalism student.

I started my journey in the field of communications as a Broadcast and New Media major. I focused my freshman and sophomore year on broadcast and just this year decided to add a journalism major to my degree.  

I am still learning how to be a good journalist and this is my first official course in this major but I am very excited to dive right in. I think that this course will really help me develop my own journalistic style and allow me to discover if journalism is truly something I would like to continue to pursue.  

As a student pursuing a career in communications I have attempted to familiarize myself with all different areas of communication. The various courses I have taken at Elon have taught me a lot about radio, television, the Internet, magazine and newspaper. All of these forms of communications are things we use today but are things that have gone through a lot of changes and continue to change as technology continues to develop.

The future of journalism is something everyone should be focused on, especially students studying in this field. Through my courses I have learned a lot about how journalism no longer focuses solely on newspaper or magazine. Journalism has begun to develop online mediums and major newspapers often include sound clips and video on their websites.

Emily Nussbaum’s article “The New Journalism: Goosing the Gray Lady,” looks at something The New York Times developed for the inauguration and how it was received by the public. The Times created a way for the American people to post their emotions about President Obama’s inauguration anonymously on the Times website. This was a creative and interactive way for readers to express their emotions and it was a way for the New York Times to gain a lot of attention.

This once dominate newspaper has recently seen a heavy decline but through creative efforts like “Word Train” they may have a chance surviving and regaining their popularity and power. With our societies reliance on television and the Internet some believe that newspaper is no longer a useful resource. In order for newspaper to outshine other forms of media it will take a lot of creative development. New ideas like the “Word Train” are exactly what will help newspaper regain it’s once dominate power.  

While the future of journalism is unclear  we can be certain that in order for journalism to survive it will have to conform to societies technological dependency. Through creative efforts to create  online content that is new and different, journalism should be able to thrive. These creative efforts will help make journalism’s uncertain future a little more clear and guide the field of  journalism to success.

While the uncertain future of journalism may make some students fearful, it actual excites me. A uncertain feature gives me the opportunity to create my own path in the journalism field. I am excited to have the opportunity to learn from journalism’s past and to be a part of journalism’s future. A career in this field is definitely one that will force me to accept change but will also allow me to create change and be a part of an amazing field.

And so it begins! The beginning to my journalism career starts now and I can’t wait to see what it holds for me.

February 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm 1 comment


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