Telling a story someone doesn’t want told

Jody Barr has worked as an investigative reporter for nearly a decade and is currently working for the FOX affiliate in Cincinnati. In 2006, he started out at the CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC before moving to the NBC affiliate in Columbia in 2009. Jody has been working in Cincinnati since June 2014. His investigative reporting beat focuses on government spending and accountability, with a concentration in corruption, fraud, waste and abuse of tax dollars and the public trust.

Do you ever see an investigative report and wonder: where the hell did they find that? How do you find the news that someone doesn’t want told?

Consultants label this “investigative journalism” and want it branded in newscasts as something extraordinary. It is. Only because—generally—folks have gotten away from the basics of journalism: holding the powerful accountable. It’s 101.

So, how do you find those reports? The really good ones come along after you’ve established a reputation as someone capable of handling these types of reports. Viewers and the people with the information hold onto the goods until they see they can trust a journalist with the information—and won’t get burned by blowing the whistle.

You have to remember: a source is likely hinging his/her livelihood on your promise to keep them confidential. Do not ever break that or you’re dead in this business. If you aren’t willing to spend a little time in jail in order to protect one, then you might want to stick to general assignment.

It’s that important.

START SMALL

The key is—like with anything else in life—take baby steps. It’s unlikely you’ll end up with a multiple-part investigative series off the bat. Plus, you’d likely not know how to handle it without some experience in dealing with this type of journalism.

Look for angles that deal with tax dollars, how they’re spent and who’s spending them. Those investigations are always easy sells to management and often don’t take much time to produce.

Governmental budgets are investigative reporting mine fields. Just ask yourself when you’re looking over a budget: does this expenditure make sense? Is this something taxpayers would be okay with?

One of the best places to look these days are community Facebook pages. There are tons of locals who interact on there and who provide avenues to be investigated. If something’s amiss in a community, Facebook is usually the first to know. Join those groups and just watch what’s posted. Always read the comments—they’re goldmines for tips, leads and potential sources and interviews.

When you’re first starting out, don’t be afraid to pursue a story you’ve seen in the paper. You just have to do that report differently. Track down the angles the paper didn’t pursue. Look for ways to hold someone accountable. Odds are, the paper didn’t do that. That’s a wide open opportunity to make your version stand out and be memorable. You never know what else you could dig up simply by pursuing the same report.

Look over government meeting agendas. Look for executive session items and who that session is dealing with. It’s often an employee discipline matter. If so, file a FOIA for that person’s employee file.The answers are likely in there.

Executive sessions might deal with the government body’s legal consultation on plans to spend millions on a piece of property that holds an actual value of far less. Look for who owns that property, then look for who that person might have given campaign cash to. You never know where sniffing out a deal like that might lead you.

Whatever you do, do not ignore tips that are called and/or emailed into the newsroom. For every 10 crazy calls, there is likely one golden nugget somewhere in there. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s a wasted call, but you have to take the chance.

Whatever you do, hold a strong social media presence. Provide your cell number and email upfront in your bio. Be responsive to private messages containing tips. State clearly in your bio what your reporting preferences are. As you get going, people will send you tips and leads.

I’d also suggest checking your station’s Facebook and Twitter messages and comment postings. As with the community pages I mentioned earlier, there could be the next big break lying one click away.

Learn your state’s Freedom of Information Act. You’ll need it to find the official documentation to answer most of the leads you’ll investigate. Be nosey, then file FOIAs.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE

The most frustrating part of this is finding your way as you enter your brand new market. You’re new. You don’t know anyone. You’re essentially sourceless. Don’t panic.

Investigations beget investigations. You have to be patient. It’s a long, tough road because not only are you battling the pressures of finding reportable, substantive news, you’re also battling management over time to do what you have to do.Do it on your own time if you have to.

INSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE

I moved to a new market in an entirely different state a little more than a year ago. I came with nothing by way of sources or contacts. I had no institutional knowledge of Cincinnati or the two other states we cover. I was extremely nervous about taking the leap from the comfort of South Carolina—a place I knew well with contacts in just about all 46 counties.

From a decade of reporting in SC, I knew exactly what happened from the time a warrant is sworn out; who would be serving it and where it would be held after the person’s arrest. I learned exactly where all three copies of a state traffic ticket went. I learned where the State Law Enforcement Division parked the SWAT truck—and made a friend with someone who worked in an office within eyeshot of it so I knew when it left the garage.

I say all that to say, learn the institutional processes in your market. It’ll help you uncover things your competitors will have no idea how to find until you report it. That’s also investigative journalism. It’s taking a topical news item and going a level or two deeper—places no one’s thinking to look. You’ll know where to find search warrants after they’ve been executed. You’ll know where to get copies of affidavits in murder cases before anyone gets their hands on it.

By beating the other guys consistently, viewers and potential whistleblowers will view you as someone to be relied upon. That goes toward building your reputation.

When I get a tip these days, the first thing I ask myself is: “Who’s responsible?” Answering that question will lead you to whom to hold accountable. There’s always someone whose job it was to make sure whatever got screwed up, didn’t.

Go after that.

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