Learning how to be an investigative reporter from the best

Fred Childers and I were able to attend the IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU.

Fred Childers and I were able to attend the IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU.

My main motivation to become a journalist back in highschool/college was to make a difference, to be able to be a part of the fourth estate, be a government watchdog, and hold those in power accountable.

I remember watching a Law and Order episode back in college where one of the characters said, “Without journalism, there is no democracy” and I fist pumped in the air, “exactly!” I thought. The first time I ever read All the President’s men, about Woodward and Bernstein exposing corruption in the White House, I felt so inspired, it confirmed exactly why I wanted to become a journalist. Even as a senior in college as the Editor in Chief of my university newspaper, I along with the other editors constantly pushed our staff to look beneath the surface, report investigative stories, and avoid making the newspaper, at all costs, a “PR magazine” because that’s not what journalism is about. The news philosophy we had that year, did not make the school administration happy, but we wanted to uncover truth and practice journalism.

It’s easy as a naive college student to believe in the ideals of journalism, but it is different when you are actually a working professional. I’m sad to say somewhere along the way since college and up until very recently, I became jaded. Mostly I lost my ambition to be a watchdog journalist when I realized daily turns meant no time for investigative work. However, since I got into the business, I have made it a habit to scan through city council agendas/meeting minutes and even read through audit reports every Monday. But even doing that, I felt that still led to doing surface level stories. My dream of being a watchdog reporter was colliding pretty hard with reality, with staffing shortages and the constant need to feed “the beast” with daily turns.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop inspired me again to do investigative work.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop inspired me again to do investigative work.

But something happened at the beginning of January that inspired me again to want to be that watchdog reporter, I was in my news director’s office when she said, “I’m sending you to the IRE workshop in Baton Rouge at the end of the month.” I’m sure my reaction isn’t what she expected because I looked at her with a dead look on my face, I was confused, “IRE? What is IRE?” I asked her. “It’s an investigative journalism watchdog workshop,” she replied. My eyes must have nearly popped right out of my face, I was so excited! I immediately started geeking out, I think my secondary reaction is what she had initially expected, she didn’t look as disappointed after that.

The workshop was at LSU and every workshop was incredible. I soaked up all of the information like a sponge, furiously writing notes, while also trying to tweet out inspirational nuggets of information. I learned that just because you may not be given the time to fully dedicate your career to investigative journalism, there are tools out there to help you dig a little deeper on daily turns. I also learned you can constantly be working on several stories at one time, or even just have several public records requests out to constantly be keeping up with local government. Even though, those FOIA requests may not turn into anything, at least as journalists, we are doing our due diligence to makes sure those in power are not going unchecked.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU had five excellent sessions.

The IRE Watchdog Workshop at LSU had five excellent sessions.

Each session was incredibly impressive and informational, but I think I was most impressed by the very first session of the day, “The art of the interview” by Lee Zurik, a WVUE (New Orleans station) investigative reporter. He gave us tips on how to conduct different interviews with subjects of investigative pieces and what times are best to do those interviews. He gave us solid tips like know the topic more than the person you are interviewing, even rehearse the interview, do the interview at the right time, and don’t do the interview too early on in the process because then you’ll have to ask follow up questions later.

He showed us a few examples of his stories and other investigative journalist stories across the country and I was impressed by how confident they were confronting mayors, sheriffs, and other public officials about alleged wrong doing. If there is anything I need to work on, it’s my demeanor. I come off too nice, I feel, and need to toughen my skin a little bit. I hope that will come with experience.

Zurik explained that there are 3 types of interviews:

  • The Friendly Interview: a source willing to help out on a story.
  • The Unfriendly Interview: when you are confronting someone (usually a public official) about alleged wrongdoing and they have agreed to an interview. Zurik says he usually tells the politician, “This is going to air no matter what, if it’s not me, it’s going to be someone else, at least I will be fair.”
  • The Unscheduled Interview: If you can’t schedule an interview with a public official, find them! But you have to be transparent with viewers and talk about how you did try, so the viewer knows you have given the public official every chance to talk. One thing Zurik said he tells public officials, “I’ll schedule an interview with you, but if not, we’ll have an unscheduled interview.” He said the people that are fair game for the unscheduled interviews are certainly public officials, because public money pays for their salaries. They are obligated to answer to the people and if they don’t, we as journalists have an obligation to confront them. He emphasized, you can’t worry about burning bridges, as long as you are being fair, then you are doing your job.

Zurik shared very specific directions for how to handle each interview, but I have chosen not to share those, because after all, this blog is public, and I don’t want to reveal all of my new secrets.

If you are a journalist and curious about it, I encourage you to join IRE, so you can have access to the notes from the workshop I attended and also other tip sheets.

It was fun to network with other Raycom employees at our sister stations across the region.

It was fun to network with other Raycom employees at our sister stations across the region.

One interesting tid-bit I did learn is that Zurik says at any given time he is working on 15-20 stories at a time, all stories at different stages. He said to be able to handle that, “organization is key,” and he turns 8-10 stories during sweeps. He says the longest story he has turned was 10 minutes, because, “sometimes you can’t be fair in three minutes,” and what I have to say to that is, God bless his producers, they must be amazing.

Zurik and all of the other speakers that day, encouraged me to look deeper into each story I do and constantly be watching the public officials. It can be hard when I am a daily turn reporter, but I am inspired again to be a watchdog reporter, which is why I got into this business in the first place.

Shoutout to Raycom Media for allowing me to attend the conference, it was great not only education-wise, but I also got to network with other co-workers from all of our sister stations. It was an experience I won’t forget and I hope I can attend more conferences to further my education in this field!

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