Investigative Resources

Putting It All Together

  • Build a team.
  • Database or tech support
  • Graphics and design
  • Photo
  • Internet
  • Upper editors
  • Give your team a copy of the proposal and update members regularly.

Managing the information

  • Create a chronology, either in text or spreadsheet format.
  • Track records requests. Which ones are outstanding? What are the obstacles? What date did they promise to give you the records?
  • Create a spreadsheet of sources, contacts for the project.
  • Make your own database or spreadsheet for your data.
  • Create a common area in the system for sharing files.
  • Collect your data and analyze it.
  • Spend some time pre-reporting.
  • Bounce your theory off of the experts.
  • Look for real-world examples to back up your data. If you can’t easily find anecdotal evidence to back up your story, it might not be a story.
  • Build internal support for your project. Make sure your top editors are on board. Talk with your editor about how much time you will need, what resources you need etc.
  • Provide a written project proposal and update your editors regularly about your findings.

Now comes the hard part: writing 

  • What kind of presentation works best for your story?
  • Narratives with a beginning, middle and end that build suspense.
  • Serial narratives.
  • Traditional multi-part series with different themes on each day.
  • Focus on one example to tell the whole story. Follow a single case from beginning to end to show how the system works.
  • The rolling investigation
  • Go with your strongest angle. Keep working on the follow-ups.
  • Write what you don’t know as well as what you know. People are often motivated to help you fill in the blanks.
  • Make sure potential sources know how to reach you.
  • Go back and publish a recap story that connects all of the dots for readers.
  • Write with authority.
  • Cite your sources but don’t over-attribute.
  • If it’s something you dug up, give yourself credit.
  • Don’t overdo the numbers. Pick your strongest numbers. Put the rest in a graphic.
  • Post PDFs of key documents, data, links to websites online.

Checking facts

  • Before you publish, check every verifiable fact.
  • Retrace your steps. How did you get each piece of key information? Can you document it?
  • Make sure everyone in the story has had a chance to comment or take issue with your reporting. Can’t reach someone? Send a letter.
  • Don’t be rushed into a story. Hold it if you aren’t sure.
  • A small mistake (wrong age, date) can lead to a correction and allow people to question the integrity of the whole story.
  • Ask people to read your story who aren’t familiar with it. What questions do they have?

Avoiding lawsuits

  • Understand libel and the elements required, including false statement that identifies someone and harms them.
  • Plaintiffs must prove you were negligent (for private individuals) or acted with actual malice (for public officials).
  • Don’t hide from corrections.
  • Privileged documents and statements: Court testimony, police reports, government documents – must give fair and accurate report
  • False light: when a person a represented in such a way that there is a negative and inaccurate impression about said person.

Extras you can add to your story online

  • Videos
  • Audio
  • PDFs of documents
  • Maps
  • Sidebars you don’t have room for in print

Web tips

  • Online extras
  • Searchable data
  • Links to related past stories
  • Slideshows
  • If you reference a key document, people want to see it. Add a .pdf on your website.
  • Don’t mark up or highlight documents until you scan them.
  • Consider redacting social security numbers, home addresses.

Social media 

  • Use Twitter to get story ideas, Facebook to find people to talk about them
  • People say things that make news on social media.
  • Tread cautiously with juveniles.
  • Photos may be subject to copyright if they are professionally done. Otherwise, profiles set to public are fair game.
  • Build a list of local, state and national officials and organizations to follow in Twitter.