How to find the Trump story everyone else is missing
And other investigative tips from Reveal reporter Aaron Glantz.
Aaron Glantz doesn’t shy away from mammoth subjects. An Emmy award-nominated author and investigative reporter for Reveal, Glantz is perhaps best known for his coverage of the war in Iraq and the high overdose rates among US veterans who returned from it. So the first question that springs to mind ahead of his appearance at Storyology this year is, How does he start?
Glantz doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “I start by asking myself, ‘What do people care about?’,” he says. “What do they want to know but don’t know? And if they’re facing some kind of problem, how can journalism play a role in solving that problem? That kind of focus is really helpful.”
When it came to the overdose investigation, veterans were telling Glantz they wanted quality treatment. Instead they were “just given a pile of pills and sent on their way”. Then Glantz discovered that the overdose rate among veterans was twice the national average. So Glantz looked into the pills and discovered that highly addictive opiates were being handed out with little concern for the possibility of addiction — one clinic was known among patients as ‘Candy Land’ — and at rapidly increasing rates.
It’s been six years since the series started running on Reveal, a podcast and website from the Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Since then, half a million veterans receive their disability compensation faster and 100,000 fewer are taking highly addictive government-prescribed narcotics. Glantz and the rest of the Reveal team’s stories are shaped for this kind of impact, or as he described it above, how journalism can solve problems. One of the ways Glantz approaches this is by making stories as targeted as possible. In the case of the veterans, he wrote several local versions in addition to his national reporting, and made data and other information readily available to local news networks. “The war seems really far away, it’s one of these remote stories. But if you can tell people that there are 30,000 people in their town who are suffering because of this policy, then they start to think about their neighbours, who might be affected by this.”
Recently, Glantz has set his sights on Donald Trump. His investigative approach to the US president is to avoid trying to compete with the questions the New York Times or Washington Post is asking — whether the election was fixed, for example.
A week before we spoke, Tom Barrack, one of Trump’s “closest friends and allies”, sold his stocks, cashing out of his property empire. The move came a day after the publication of Glantz’s expose of how Barrack profited from the recent recession. But the story had started before Trump was even elected. Glantz had been curious about why, though the US economy has been improving steadily since 2008, a lot of people thought the opposite was true.
“I happened upon this fact that the homeownership rate in America has continued to go down over this time. So I started asking this question, well, where did the houses go? They didn’t just disappear, right? Someone bought them.” When Trump won the election, Glantz looked at the heads of companies who had been buying up houses and realised that one of them was incredibly close to the new president. The huge numbers of houses bought by moguls like Barrack meant that there were fewer on the market that individuals could afford. Hence, though the economy was improving, the feeling among Americans that they were poorer. Barrack helped Trump enormously when it came to raising money for his campaign. If Trump’s policies are influenced by the favours he owes Barrack, it spells trouble.
Glantz says that the gap between investigative reporting and reporting is smaller than it’s often perceived to be. “I just think you just have to be a really good reporter. Don’t write your stories from press releases. Ask the questions people care about, dig a little bit deeper. If you are a reporter who is on a regular beat and is filing stories all the time about news developments, you have a great opportunity to roll investigative journalism into your regular coverage. If there is a question that the politicians you cover are not answering, maybe take a few hours to put in a public records request, or take some people out to dinner and see if you can get a good tip about what’s really going on here.”
At Storyology, in addition to talks in Sydney and Brisbaneabout tackling large investigative pieces, Glantz will be explaining how he finds his bearings in a new country when working as a foreign correspondent. His advice to aspiring reporters, investigative or otherwise, at home or further afield is simply to show up. It’s how Glantz ended up covering Iraq. As he tells it, he was worried that it wasn’t being covered properly, so he boarded a plane and looked for stories on the ground. “Once I was there, I started to see all of these stories that other journalists weren’t seeing because they weren’t there. And that is true in many situations that are much less exciting because they are much less dangerous or much less prosaic.” Showing up paid off — Glantz has since published three books on the war in Iraq.
In addition to writing articles and books, Glantz has worked in TV — earning him two Emmy nominations — on radio and podcasts. He says that the many different formats journalists get to work in today is the thing he finds most exciting about the future of reporting. “There are parts of our story that are most meaningful in in different modes of storytelling,” he said. A podcast allows for intimate interviews, whereas longform pieces — Glantz often divides his pieces into detailed sections peppered with infographics — allow readers to explore facts, policy and other resources.
A story doesn’t have to disappear today because it ran in yesterday’s newspaper; it can be approached from many directions, all of which stay accessible online. And an added bonus, says Glantz: “It gives you the opportunity to kind of gang up on your investigative target.”