What is ‘investigative reporting’?

Four amazing reporters and editors help me answer that question.

One of my favorite films about investigative reporting has to be “Spotlight.” It’s not just the subject matter, though as a journalist who went to divinity school that’s certainly in the mix. It’s also the realism. The reporters in “Spotlight” wear cheap khakis and eat boiled hotdogs for dinner. They work long, weird hours, and they spend as much time entering data in spreadsheets as they do interviewing secret sources. They argue with their editors and wonder whether they even have a story until they’re right on top of it.

“Having spent 46 years toiling in and around newspapers, I kept identifying with what I was seeing,” one reviewer wrote, “with the partitioned newsroom, the rat-infested file room, the scruffiness and frumpiness and nosiness and single-mindedness of the personnel.”

There’s a lot of bullshit around investigative reporting. It’s a genre of journalism and a set of techniques, but it can also be a lot of marketing, swagger and machismo. I’m as guilty of trading on that currency as anyone. But I hope On Background will help puncture some of it.

In other words, we’re going to stay frumpy and nosy and single-minded.

Let’s start at the beginning. What the hell is “investigative reporting”? The main professional organization for investigative reporters in the U.S., Investigative Reporters and Editors, defines it as “reporting, through one’s own initiative and work product, of matters of importance to readers, viewers or listeners. In many cases, the subjects of the reporting wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed.”

I talked to four amazing reporters and editors back in May — sorry, busy news year! — to help unpack that.

David Fritze is the outgoing executive editor at Oklahoma Watch, which recently published the most recent installment in a series by Jennifer Palmer on problems at the state’s Epic Charter Schools. Before Oklahoma Watch, Fritze spent twenty years at The Arizona Republic.

Jenna McLaughlin is the national security and investigations reporter at Yahoo News, where she and three others reported last month that President Donald Trump gave the Central Intelligence Agency new authority to launch cyberattacks against foreign adversaries. McLaughlin previously worked at CNN, Foreign Policy and The Intercept.

Mark J. Rochester is editor-in-chief at Type Investigations, which published an investigation by Rebecca Rivas last month on how minority-owned businesses lost out on contracts to build COVID-19 facilities. Rochester has also been senior news director for investigations at the Detroit Free Press and a board member at Investigative Reporters and Editors, among other positions.

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer at Grist, where she reported in June on how the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has relaxed its environmental enforcement during the pandemic. Sadasivam previously worked at Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica.

A few common themes came out of those conversations. I want to explore some of them more in later issues, but here’s a rundown.

Investigative reporting reveals something new.

There is a lot of terrific reporting that either explains a problem in depth or tells an engaging narrative about the problem and the people affected by it. But the four reporters I spoke with agreed an “investigative” story has to uncover new, and newsworthy, information. 

“Our goal has always been, with every story, if it's possible, to come up with a big reveal,” Fritze told me. “We don't just want to do the soft explanatory piece — the story that pulls at your heartstrings but doesn't reveal any new facts."

Rochester agreed. As a judge for journalism contests, he said that he often sees articles that chronicle an important news story in depth but don’t contain new revelations.

“The reporters haven’t uncovered anything on their own,” Rochester said in an email.

Sadasivam also pointed to stories that get snow-falled — my phrase, not hers. These articles have an elaborate multimedia presentation full of stunning photos, video and other digital elements, but they don’t necessarily uncover new facts about a matter of public interest. 

"There sometimes are stories where the reporting doesn't feel as strong, but the multimedia elements are beautiful and exceptionally well-done and very well thought out,” Sadasivam told me.

A similar criticism came up in 2012, when The New York Times published the original “Snow Fall” story about an avalanche in Washington state that killed three skiers. The story, which clocked in at well over 10,000 words, won the 2013 Pulitzer for feature writing. To be sure, it was deeply reported. But it also came under criticism for spending so many resources on a topic with what some saw as limited news value. 

Responding to those criticisms, The Times’ then-managing editor, Dean Baquet, said that “sports is very visual” while “document-driven” investigations are not. Sure.

Investigative reporting focuses on the public interest.

Investigative reporters aren’t crusaders or advocates. But unlike many other traditional news genres, investigations are not a view from nowhere. The whole point is to uncover wrongdoing. Inherent in that is the belief that some things are right and others are wrong.

“It's a commitment to wanting to cause change, without having a political agenda,” Fritze said. “It's looking for what's going wrong and trying to expose at least why it's going wrong. You may not know what the solution is. Let the chips fall where they may. But you're out to expose [it].”

McLaughlin hinted at the same thing when she said that an investigation “digs at something that the spokesperson isn't going to tell you willingly.” Her comment recalls a saying that Robert W. Sawyer, publisher of the Bulletin, in Bend, Ore., quoted during an August 1922 speech on the horrors of press releases.

“If the paper wants it worse than the person handing it in, it’s news,” Sawyer said. “If the person handing it in wants it published worse than the newspaper, it’s advertising.” (This may be one source for that apocryphal George Orwell quote.)

There’s another, related issue here. I asked Rochester if it’s gotten harder to do investigative stories that don’t plug neatly into the news cycle. Thankfully, he had the wisdom to answer a question better than the one I asked.

“It isn’t always easy to conduct investigations concerning certain segments of the community or groups of people that don’t generate sympathy from some readers – prison inmates, undocumented immigrants, etc. – and some newsrooms choose not to explore such topics,” Rochester said. “But those are the stories that most need to be told.”

Data and documents are important. But they’re not all.

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know how much I love the Freedom of Information Act. Right now, I have over 60 open records requests. So when Rochester and Fritze highlighted the importance of data and documents to investigative reporting, my ears perked up.

It doesn’t require a special set of skills to do an investigation,” Rochester said. “[Y]ou need to be curious, doggedly pursue documents and data, not be afraid to ask tough questions – and any journalist can execute a particular investigative story.”

Fritze laid out a few red flags that might indicate that a newsroom isn’t really pursuing investigations. They included not pursuing and fighting for public records, not getting confidential information from sources and not working with data.

“You have to pour over documents and data and campaign finance records, as well as meet with sources and make phone calls. You just have to have an unstoppable persistence,” he said.

But I’ll let you in on a secret: I have never felt like a real investigative reporter. I’ve always imagined that other reporters, especially in D.C., have a Rolodex full of agency officials who will give them a scoop on background. And I’ve always felt like relying on documents and data was cheating.

So I was relieved when McLaughlin — who is both a friend and a colleague I look up to — shared a similar concern from the opposite side.

“I also think there might be a lot of people out there who feel like it's necessary to use data or public records to be an investigator, but I don't necessarily think that's a requirement either,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin, who covers the U.S. Intelligence Community, went on to say that there will never be a lot of data on her beat “unless there’s another Snowden,” but she can still break investigative stories by relying on “a network of sources.” 

“I think both are investigative, and lots of things in-between,” McLaughlin concluded.

It’s about mindset, not job title or story length.

This is where we get to the swagger and machismo. There’s something to be said for investigative reporting as its own beat with its own teams, but that model can also leave people out. Too often, who gets promoted to an investigative team or which beat reporter gets time to do an 8,000-word deep dive has as much to do with politics as with seniority or reporting chops. And it’s contributed to an industry that is disproportionately upper middle class, male and white.

(More to come on that: This newsletter is going to talk about race, gender and class in investigative reporting a lot.)

The four reporters I spoke to all emphasized investigative reporting as a type of reporting rather than a job title or a particular length of story.

“Every beat reporter should approach their coverage area from an investigative mindset,” Rochester said. “Some of our best investigative stories in Detroit came from beat reporters who resisted mundane, routine stories in favor of pursuing enterprise reporting that set the news agenda in town. You dig up enough accountability stories on the beat and soon the tips that lead to the ‘holy cow’ or huge impact stories will begin to flow into your inbox.”

As a relatively small, nonprofit newsroom, Fritze said that Oklahoma Watch can’t afford to do stories where the reporter disappears for six months then publishes all of their findings at once. Instead, they publish a series of iterative stories as they report them. That approach allows the site to keep its content fresh while still focusing on deep investigations.

“Otherwise, no one would come to our website,” Fritze said.

Sadasivam said that she doesn't identify as an investigative reporter. Her title at Grist is "staff writer,” and she doesn't even use the word "journalist" that much. In part, she said, the reason is practical — seeing “investigative reporter” in an email signature or on a business card can put sources on the defensive.

But the division between investigative reporters and beat reporters can also create an “elitist structure” in the industry, she said.

"I don't think investigative reporters should be siloed in this special department,” Sadasivam told me. “I think we can all kind of learn from each other, and I think a much more distributed network of investigative reporters within a news organization can be beneficial."

So that’s investigative reporting: It reveals something new. It focuses on the public interest. It works with data and documents, but it’s not limited to them. And it’s about mindset — not job title, newsroom hierarchy or story length.

That’s what this newsletter is all about.

What next?

Some issues, like this one, will explore a topic in depth — I’m already thinking about issues on race in the industry and doing investigations as a freelancer, for example. 

Others will be flotsam from my own life as a reporter, like the months I spent just trying to figure out if a government working group ever met (it did, once) or the time I got scooped by a press release I failed to read.

I’m also excited to talk to other reporters about how they do their work, from public records requests to cultivating sources to keeping themselves organized.

And, of course, I’ll do some how-did-they-do-that-story interviews, in case the wonderful IRE Radio Podcast just isn’t enough. 

Finally, I would like to experiment with using this newsletter to publish some investigations, maybe in a here’s-the-story / here’s-how-it-was-done format.

I also want to hear from you. What did I miss in this issue? What do you want from future ones? Did I screw something up? Let me know at joshua.eaton2@gmail.com or @joshua_eaton.

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Just one more thing …

I promised that this newsletter wouldn’t be another list of things for you to feel guilty about not reading. But I would be remiss not to plug my own work. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Thanks, y’all!