‘Twelve Step Program’ for Becoming an Investigative Reporter

Across the arc of my 30-plus years as a journalist — most of that spent as an investigative reporter — I’ve learned (often the hard way) a few things about what it takes to thrive in such an endeavor.

Here then is a “12 Step Program” of sorts, ripped from real life, that can help you along the way to becoming an investigative reporter if this happens to be your chosen career path.

1. Report Hard, Write it Hard

Any good investigative story begins with hard-nosed reporting. Digging out fact from fiction, dogging a “paper trail” (more often than not in this era that would be an electronic trail…), chasing down corroborating interviews and finally, nailing down that inevitable confrontation with the target of your investigation. It’s hard, sometimes mind-numbing work. But once you’ve collected all that information you need to write it hard as well. Pull no punches; strike weasel words such as “could” “might” “maybe” “perhaps” and others of their ilk from your copy. Go for the throat and don’t look back.

That said, take care to not overwrite the piece. Investigative stories often write themselves, so let them. Trust your reporting to be your guide. Tell the story straight up, no need for sensationalism or hyperbole. Sure, you can weave a good tale — lots of color and detail helps — but put your inner Faulkner in a safe place and keep it there while you write.

2. Kill All Your Children…

… or your editor will. Once you’ve written the piece and begin to edit it, highlight the passages you love and then without hesitation, “kill all your children”: hit the delete key. Most likely these are passages or phrases that in your heart-of-hearts you believe are finely crafted examples of literary journalism. They won’t be. They’re likely just clutter. Save your editor the time and exasperation of having to wield the knife on your behalf.

3. Don’t Fight the Editor

If you’ve reported the story hard and written it hard then let your editor do the hard work of reining in your copy and be happy for it. I pray you find an editor with the heart of a lion and a cold-blooded approach to prose. There’s not a writer alive that isn’t the better for having had a sharp-eyed editor rake through his or her copy with something just short of vengeance and malice aforethought. Look at the edit with an objective, distanced mindset. More often than not, the editor is right and your piece will shine because of it.

4. Cultivate the Crazies, Kooks and Conspiracy Theorists

As an investigative reporter you’re going to hear from all corners of society, none more so that the “fringe element,” those that believe the CIA has implanted listening devices in fillings of their teeth or are secretly working on an anti-gravity machine. And you’ll hear from them in droves: Pay.Attention.To.Them

Once in a great while, among the flotsam and jetsam of cornball theories and suspicions, you’ll find an absolute pearl, an honest-to-god scoop of a story that no one else took the time to uncover. Trust me, it won’t be easy. You’ll likely have to wade through someone’s personal life history of sketchy experiences and hordes of nonsensical documentation. But at the bottom of it you’ll find what you’re looking for: a grain of truth worth all the dead-end invested time.

5. Get Up Off Your Ass

While 98.7 percent of your journalistic tribe members are sitting on their ass hitting the “next” button on their latest Google search or firing off a dozen emails requesting comments from sources, get off your ass and actually track someone down in person. Face.to.Face. Oh, I know that sounds outlandish and so “yesterday,” but if you want to get the best stories, if you truly want to turn over rocks and make people sweat, there’s no better way than showing up unannounced on their door step or at their office or at their kid’s Little League baseball game on a Saturday afternoon.

6. Spreadsheets Are Your Friend

Learn how to use spreadsheets. Don’t hand me that “I’m mathematically challenged” line, there’s no excuse for that in today’s era of computer-assisted reporting. Learn how to create a kick ass, data-filled spreadsheet from whole cloth and then learn how to exploit that data in a dozen different ways. And while you’re at it, learn the fundamentals of databases, too. Check out the Investigative Reporters and Editors National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) and immerse yourself in all its goodness.

And while your noodling through relational databases, go and learn how to use a charting program, such as Chartbuilder from Quartz, which will allow you to put some homegrown graphics behind your story. Nothing adds a vital punch to your piece than an expertly done chart or graph.

7. Never Give Up A Source

Never, ever, give up a source. Go to jail first. Give up a source and you’re reputation is toast. No one will ever talk to you again. And when I say “never give up a source” I mean even to your editor… Unless you’re bringing down the President of the United States, keep your mouth shut. For every editor I ever had I made this deal: feel free to not use the information I gleaned from “Mr. X” if you don’t trust me or the source, but I’m not giving you a name. Ever. I once had an editor kill a story because I wouldn’t give up a source’s name… only have to my editor change his tune when that same story ran in the Washington Post a month later. Did it hurt that another reporter got the scoop? Sure, but I knew I had the story first and my editor knew I had the story first and I never had that problem again. End of story.

8. Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

When you’re chasing a grain of a story and suddenly you realize that you’re hearing the same thing from three or more people, stop chasing and start reporting: you have a live one on the line.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that when three people, all disconnected from each other, are telling me the same general story, I’m on to something worth investigating.

9. Get “Paper”

Many times someone will bend your ear with a great sounding tale. The story will pique your interest, your spidey sense will start tingling, but before you start imaging a Pulitzer in your future stop and ask a simple question: “Can you get me paper on that?” And by that you’ll mean any kind of solid, documentary evidence to back up the story. That could be a spreadsheet, a database, an email trail or a manila folder full of actual paper documents (remember those?).

Before you waste any of your time, get some proof of the story from somewhere. Too many people in this world have an axe to grind; don’t let them grind their axe on the relic your career will quickly become if you start chasing imaginary dragons.

10. Grow a Thick Skin

No matter how bulletproof your story ends up being; no matter how spectacular the scoop or nefarious the deed you uncover, your story is going to piss off a good number of people. And each of those people will waste no time telling you what a shitty reporter you are and what a despicable human being you are for bringing this story to light. Learn to ignore them. No story will ever please everyone, deal with it.

11. Few Stories Are Totally “Clean”

Every great investigative story has a grey area. Perhaps it’s a crucial source with a sketchy past that makes him or her appear less than reliable; perhaps it’s a key document that happens to be classified or a vital source that refuses to go on the record. Something always seems to get in the way of a totally “clean,” dead-bang story. You’ll have to learn how to work around such obstacles or come up with a good explanation for your editor as to why you’re hanging a crucial aspect of your story on a seemingly less-than trustworthy source.

12. Sometimes It’s Good if a Story Just Raises Good Questions

Not every investigative story has to uncover a secret or bring down a public official or divulge a scandal. Sometimes a good investigative story just has to raise enough questions to lay the foundation for a bigger piece. It can sketch the outlines of a subsequent investigative piece that answers those questions. What such as piece is great at doing is Shaking.the.Trees.

People will read your piece and recognize they either know something you don’t and will then try and get in contact with you to “fill you in” or they will realize you’re a credible reporter and will want to contact you with more information on the subject. Your initial piece will also give them “cover” to talk to you. People will realize that someone, somewhere, has “been talking” and it will give them the confidence to speak with you, as well.

Of course this “12 Step Program” is no guarantee you’ll become a great investigative reporter. And I’m sure with little effort other veteran investigative reporters could come up with a dozen different suggestions of their own. But these are the ones that have seen me through 30 years “on the beat” and never let me down. All they take are time, effort and perseverance.